Palace of Zisa

Castello della Zisa di Palermo
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The Palazzo della Zisa or Castello della Zisa, is the most well-preserved Islamic building in Sicily. It was the summer residence of Palermo’s Norman kings. Here, they devoted themselves to rest and entertainment. The Palace is also linked to a very special legend: that of the devils of Zisa. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2015 as part of the ‘Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalù and Monreale’ itinerary.

History of the Zisa

The Zisa in Palermo was a summer residence for the Norman kings. The name comes from the Arabic Al-Azīz, meaning ‘the glorious’ or ‘the splendid’. Construction of this sumptuous palace began in 1165 on the orders of William I and was completed by his son William II between 1165 and 1180. The Zisa was located within the Genoardo (from the Arabic Jannat al-ar, ‘garden’ or ‘paradise of the earth’), a park inspired by Islamic gardens and extending outside the city walls. During the Middle Ages, the palace became a centre of fortified agricultural activity and maintained its appearance until 1635–36, when it was purchased by Giovanni de Sandoval and Platamone. The new owner decided to modify the building substantially. Another floor was created by enclosing the terrace and balconies were added, as well as a large ceremonial staircase inside. In the 19th century, the property passed to the Notarbartolo family, who installed partitions and further floors. In 1955, the Region of Sicily bought the Zisa and restored it. 

Architecture of the Palazzo della Zisa

The Castello della Zisa has a rectangular layout and is spread over three different floors. The graceful geometric designs that are characteristic of Fatimite art are also evident in the structure of the palace. The central part houses two state rooms, the Fountain Room and the Belvedere Room, while the two side wings contain the king’s private chambers. The Zisa’s main façade faces north-east, in order to take advantage of the sea breeze to cool the palace halls. The Sandoval family coat of arms can be seen above the main entrance door. The battlements on the upper part, which make the building look like a castle, were added between the 14th and 15th centuries. On the right of the palace, however, the remains of a Roman or Arab bathhouse can be seen, which was adapted in the 12th century.

The Sala della Fontana (Fountain Room)

La Sala della Fontana nel Castello della Zisa
La Sala della Fontana nel Castello della Zisa

The Sala della Fontana is certainly the most fascinating room in Castello della Zisa. Several typically Islamic architectural elements are identifiable here. The room is a symbolic representation of a salsabil, i.e., a noble setting in which the presence of a spring is reminiscent of one of the waterways of Islamic paradise. The walls are covered with marble and feature niches and small columns. The water flowed out of the wall onto a slanting zigzag slab called a sardiwan, running from there into a gutter that divides the room into two parts and then into the fishpond outside. On the fountain wall, there are also mosaics with archers and animals that resemble some of the scenes also depicted in the Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel). The ceiling, on the other hand, has wonderful stalactite vaults, a common feature of Arab art called ‘muqarnas’.

The legend of the Zisa Devils

L'affresco con i Diavoli della Zisa
L’affresco con i “Diavoli della Zisa”

The entrance to the Sala della Fontana is preceded by a Baroque arch with frescoes depicting creatures and deities from Roman mythology. These particular paintings, dating from when the palace was owned by the Sandoval family, are linked to a popular legend. The figures depicted are actually devils protecting a treasure of gold coins inside the palace. Two young lovers, Azel Comel, son of a Sultan and El-Aziz, daughter of an Emir, are said to have hidden it inside the Zisa. The two ran away from home because her father objected to their relationship, but before escaping, they stole a great fortune from the Sultan. When they arrived in Palermo, they had the Palazzo della Zisa built so that they could finally enjoy being together. However, when El-Aziz learned that her mother had committed suicide following their escape, she took her own life. Azel Comel, driven mad by the loss of his beloved, decided to throw himself into the sea, but not before hiding the treasure inside the palace. Legend also has it that anyone who tries to count the exact number of Zisa Devils will fail. This is because they will start to move and intermingle. Moreover, if you stare at the Devils for too long on the day of the Annunciation (25 March), they will start to wag their tails or twist their mouths.

Museum of Islamic Art

The Castello della Zisa is also home to the Palermo Museum of Islamic Art. It brings together art from the 9th and 12th centuries originating from Sicily and various Mediterranean countries. Highlights include various utensils and ornaments made of brass, gold and silver and wooden mashrabiyya. These are natural forced ventilation devices typical of Arab architecture, which were used for cooling rooms. Also of interest is a tombstone from 1149 with inscriptions in four languages: Hebrew, Latin, Byzantine Greek and Arabic, demonstrating the multi-ethnicity of medieval Palermo.

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