On a plateau above the incessant traffic and hubbub of the modern city, the Norman Palace, Palermo's stronghold, rises skyward. This piece of architecture offers a taste of the rich variety of art, the simplicity and the poised style of the Norman Sicilian kings' court.
The fortress was rebuilt by the Arabs in the Ninth Century and was known by the Arabic name, Càssaro (which now refers to an area of Palermo). An ancient Punic-Roman stronghold on the site became foundations for the new castle.
The Normans, under Roger II embellished it, rendering the then four towered castle the royal mansion. At the heart of this splendid residence, is the Aula Regia, or Royal Hall, reserved for hearings and banquets.
Roger II, who reinvented the Castle as his palace in the Eleven Hundreds, was known for his multicultural style of government, and made sure his court soundly reflected his philosophy.
To this end, he had a beautiful chapel dedicated to St. Peter built in the castle, and summoned Arab and Byzantine artists to decorate it. The effect is stunning: the Cappella Palatina, (the Palace Chapel) is on the first floor and is worth seeing, notwithstanding tired feet, the sun, and possible queues. Made in the form of a Basilica, divided into three naves by granite columns with Corinthian capitals.
The mosaics of Christ the Pantocrator (classically Byzantine) the Evangelists, and images of stories from the New and Old Testaments, on a gold background, are masterly pieces of craftsmanship. With incredible skill, byzantine images and decorations are blended with Arabic designs (such as the classically Arab eight pointed stars placed in the shape of a cross) into the art and design of the building.
The roof, a unique structure with upside-down wooden "stalactites-like" pyramidal structures, suspended from the ceiling, resonates with Islamic images, creating an ecumenical fusion of Catholic, Islamic and Byzantine cultures quite literally in and under one roof.
During the reign of Frederick II, the Palace, continuing in the vein Roger had begun, became a melting pot and meeting place of cultures, races and traditions. This idyllic Swabian epoch, however, was not to last. New invaders and ages superseded the Norman Kings. After Frederick II's death the Palace was abandoned and fell into decay; only the Palace Chapel was preserved for posterity.
In 1555, the whole building was renovated during the reign of the Fish Aragon dynasty. The viceroys altered much of the original building, raising the façade, demolishing three of the four towers and creating two large courtyards.
During an archeological survey in Nineteen Hundreds, rooms of fictional dimensions were discovered in the castle: a Room of Treasures was found in a tower: protected by a double door and surrounded by patrol walkways; inside, huge jars, stashed from floor to ceiling, walled in and filled to overflowing with gold coins were discovered. In another room, invaluable decorations in stucco, and mosaic were uncovered.
This castle was also equipped for battles: secret stairways, tiny hidden doors, in the base of the castle walls, to facilitate escape; pitfalls (covered traps in the floor) and mechanical defense devices for the accurate dispensing of boiling oil over the castle walls were found. Finally, dank dungeons lit only by a chink of light creeping through the narrow castle wall windows all testify to a medieval castle equipped for action.
Nowadays, the Palace, with its last façade dating from the Fifteen Hundreds, is the seat of the Sicilian Regional Assembly.