Palace of the Normans

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The Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace) in Palermo, also known as the Palazzo dei Normanni (Palace of the Normans), is one of the most extraordinary buildings in Sicily. It chronicles the history of Palermo from the first Punic settlements to the present day. One of the many halls and rooms that can be visited is the Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel). Its sumptuous decoration is a veritable manifesto of Arab-Norman art and it has been a World Heritage Site since 2015. The ancient Torre Pisana houses the Palermo Astronomical Observatory and the Specola Museum, while temporary exhibitions are often held in the Sale del Duca di Montalto (Duke of Montalto Halls).

Palazzo dei Normanni: Opening times and useful information

Tickets also give access to the Cappella Palatina, the current exhibition in the Sale del Duca di Montalto and other areas, with the exception of the Sala Pio La Torre and Sala Piersanti Mattarella. The Palazzo dei Normanni is also home to the Sicilian Parliament. For this reason, access to the Royal Apartments (Sala d’Ercole, Sala dei Viceré, etc.) is not possible on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, however, the Cappella Palatina can still be visited, unless religious services are taking place there.

History of the Palazzo dei Normanni from the Phoenicians to the Angevins

Palermo’s Palazzo dei Normanni stands on a site where the Arabs had already built an early fortification that was later remodelled during the reign of the Normans. In 1130, the first Norman king of Sicily, Roger II, decided to use the building as his residence. Work, therefore, began to adapt the defensive fortress for its new purpose and this would be continued by successors, William I and William II. During this period, the Cappella Palatina was built and the architectural layout of the palace was modified. The structure was divided into a series of towers (Pisana, Ioaria, Chirimbi, Greca) connected by walkways. After the death of Frederick II in 1250, the palace entered a period of decline. This continued in later years when the Angevins and then the Aragonese ruled Sicily. The rulers of these dynasties preferred other locations, such as Castello a Mare and Palazzo Chiaramonte Steri, the latter becoming the new headquarters for the Inquisition.

History of the Palazzo dei Normanni from the Aragonese to the present day

From 1415, Sicily was governed by Viceroys, appointed directly by the King of Aragon. They re-established the importance of the Palazzo Reale and decided to use it as their headquarters from the middle of the 16th century onwards. New work began on the building, leading to the demolition of several towers and the construction of new ramparts. Between 1569 and 1571, many of the Norman structures were demolished in order to build a new three-storey wing of the palace. The first floor was initially used as an ammunition depot and then subsequently upgraded into the present-day Sale del Duca di Montalto. On the second level, a five-room floor used for bureaucratic functions would be created. The third floor featured a large hall, what is today the Sala d’Ercole (Hercules Hall), and would become the home of Sicily’s Parliament. Further changes to the layout of the palace continued throughout the 19th century. In 1790, Ferdinand IV had an Astronomical Observatory built on top of the Torre Pisana, which is still there today, and some of the decoration in the Sala d’Ercole dates from 1811.

Rooms in the Palazzo dei Normanni

Cappella Palatina

I mosaici dell'abside della Capella Palatina del Palazzo dei Normanni
The Palatine Chapel of the Palace of the Normans

On the first floor of the Palazzo Reale is the building’s most fascinating room: the Cappella Palatina(i.e., the Palace Chapel). This masterpiece is a perfect blend of Byzantine, Latin and Islamic traditions. Built by Roger II in 1132 and consecrated in 1140, it became the royal family’s private chapel. The church is divided into three naves, separated by marble and granite Corinthian columns. In the nave, there is a wooden ceiling with fine Arabic-style inlays depicting animals and dancers. The walls and the dome are entirely covered with golden mosaics in the Arab-Norman style. The dome depicts Christ Pantocrator blessing with three fingers of his right hand, of clear Byzantine inspiration. The walls of the Chapel depict biblical episodes from the Old and New Testaments. 

The Sala d’Ercole

La Sala d'Ercole del Palazzo dei Normanni sede del Parlamento Siciliano
The Hall of Hercules, seat of the Sicilian Parliament

This room, which was the former hall for the Kingdom’s General Parliaments, owes its name to the paintings on the ceiling and walls. They are the work of the Sicilian painter, Giuseppe Velasco, who painted them between 1811 and 1812, depicting various scenes related to the Greek hero, Hercules, including the Apotheosis and some of the Labours. The latter were painted in monochrome and placed within special ornamental bands called ‘a grottesca’, made by the painter Benedetto Cotardi. Since 1947, the Sala d’Ercole has been the home of the Sicilian Regional Parliament.

Interesting fact: The Sicilian Parliament was the first Italian Parliament and is one of the oldest in Europe.

The Sala del Duca di Montalto

This wing of the palace was built between 1565 and 1575 as part of a project to transform the Palazzo dei Normanni and was initially used as an ammunition depot. In 1637, these rooms were converted into summer receiving rooms. For this reason, the President of the Kingdom, Don Luigi Moncada, Duke of Montalto, asked the best artists of the time to paint the frescoes. They included: Pietro Novelli, who painted The Viceroy Moncada victorious over the Moors; Gerardo Astorino (The Sicilian Parliament); Vincenzo La Barbera and Giuseppe Costantino. In 1788, based on a design by Giuseppe Venanzio Marvuglia for King Ferdinand of Bourbon, the Sale del Duca di Montalto became the stables. Today, they are used for temporary exhibitions.

The Sala dei Vicerè

The Hall of the Viceroys inside the Norman Palace in Palermo

This wing of the Palazzo dei Normanni is called the Hall of the Viceroys because there are 21 portraits on the walls depicting viceroys, lieutenants and presidents of the Bourbon Kingdom of Sicily in office from 1747 to 1840. They include: Domenico Caracciolo of Villamaina, who abolished the Court of Inquisition in 1782; and Francesco D’Aquino, Prince of Caramanico, who installed the Astronomical Observatory in 1790, which is still located on top of the Torre Pisana in the Palazzo Reale. Around the vault is a frieze with symbols and allegories relating to Sicily, including the Trinacria, by Salvatore Gregorietti (1901). 

The Sala Pompeiana

Uno degli affreschi nella Sala Pompeiana del Palazzo dei Normanni
Fresco in the Pompeian Gallery

Inside a room known as the Galleria Pompeiana (Pompeian Gallery), we find the so-called Sala Pompeiana that was commissioned by Leopold of Bourbon. The name comes from its neoclassical decoration, done by Giuseppe Patania around 1835. The painter, inspired by the archaeological discoveries in Herculaneum and Pompeii, depicted mythological scenes such as Eros and Aphrodite on a chariot. It is also called the ‘Queen’s Room’ because it was the personal bedroom of Queen Maria Carolina of Habsburg. 

The Sala Cinese

La Sala Cinese del Palazzo dei Normanni
Chinese Room

A very special room in the Palazzo Reale in Palermo is the Sala Cinese (Chinese Room). It reflects a fashion that was widespread throughout the European courts in the 18th and 19th centuries. The paintings are by the brothers Salvatore and Giovanni Patricolo and represent men and women dressed in the ‘Chinese’ style. In their choice of subjects, the painters were inspired by scenes painted by Giuseppe Velasco a few decades earlier for the interior of the Palazzina Cinese (Little Chinese Palace).

The Sala dei Venti

All that remains of the ancient medieval tower Ioaria or Jaaria is the Sala delle Quattro Colonne (Hall of Four Columns) or Sala dei Venti (Hall of Winds). This was a sumptuous space where the king indulged in idleness and quiet. The name Ioaria comes from the Arabic Gawhariyya and means ‘precious’. The hall has a painted wooden roof, made between 1713 and 1720, and has a compass rose (also known as a Rose of the Winds) in the centre. There is a Negation of Peter on one of the walls, an oil-on-canvas painted by Filippo Paladini in 1613.

The Sala di Ruggero

Mosaico con due leopardi nella Sala di Ruggero del Palazzo dei Normanni di Palermo
Mosaic in Hall of Ruggero

This room is so called because it was created for Roger II (whose name in Italian is ‘Ruggero’). The mosaics covering the walls, however, were commissioned by his son William I. The uniqueness of these designs lies in the type of subjects depicted, which are pagan and not religious. They depict a hunting scene, a fight between centaurs and various animals, such as leopards, peacocks, deer and swans surrounded by rich vegetation. The decoration of the vault, on the other hand, dates back to the time of Frederick II and, in fact, depicts the Swabian eagle, the symbol of the Swabians.

Other areas of the Palazzo Reale: the Punic-Roman Walls, the Maqueda Courtyard and the Royal Gardens

Il Cortile Maqueda del Palazzo dei Normanni
The Maqueda Courtyard

Other very interesting areas in the Palazzo Reale in Palermo are: the remains of the Punic-Roman Walls, the Maqueda Courtyard (Cortile Maqueda) and the Royal Gardens (Giardini Reali). On the lower floor of the Sale Duca di Montalto, you can see the remains of the city of Palermo’s ancient Punic walls. These architectural elements date back to the 5th century BC and were discovered in 1984 during an archaeological dig. The Maqueda Courtyard was built in the 1600s and named after the Spanish Viceroy, Maqueda Bernardino de Cardenas y Portugal. It has a structure consisting of three Renaissance-style loggias, the middle level being the highest. Inside the Bastione di San Pietro (St Peter’s Ramparts) are the gardens of the Palazzo Reale. There are flowerbeds with curved edges and various subtropical tree species. Inside, there are three prominent Ficus macrophylla (Moreton Bay Fig trees), one of which adjoins a large Pinus pinea (Stone pine).

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