Paolo Delogu, Professor of Medieval History at “La Sapienza” University in Roma, deals with the reconstruction of historical events that led to the constitution of the Regno di Sicilia (Kingdom of Sicily) by Ruggero II and to the birth of the culture that followed called “arabo-normanna” (Arab-Norman). Not only did Ruggero fluently speak Arabic, but his court in Palermo was a tolerant meeting place where most knowledgeable people without distinction to religion or language would meet; one of them was the Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi, author of Tabula Rogeriana, the most faithful cartographic representation of Europe and Asia produced in the Middle Ages. The real edicts were written in Latin, Greek, Arabic and Jewish, so that they could be understood by whoever received them.
The Arab-Norman culture prospered until the second decade of XIII century, when Federico II ordered the exile of Muslims from the island, which gradually led to his disappearance within the end of the century. The Kingdom of Sicily however outlived Ruggero for nearly seven centuries, up to the unification with the Kingdom of Naples in 1816 after the Congress in Vienna.
The Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel), built inside the so-called Palazzo dei Normanni, already head of a Carthaginian fortress and afterward, in XI century, during the Arab domination, fortress and administrative center of Emirato di Palermo (Emir of Palermo ), has for centuries divided scholars about its use: a purely religious building or also the sala of the throne? It is the curator of the volume Beat Brenk, historian and archeologist that reconstructs the meaning of the Palatine Chapel, the intentions of Ruggero and in its use over the centuries.
The interlacing cultures of which the Palatine Chapel is the result of, is explicit in its architecture, which provides a basilica plan, Latin, with three naves, separated on each side by a lateral colonnade of five Corinthian columns that support pointed arches in Moresco style. However, the heart of the building is the hemispherical dome which rises above the presbytery, a joining of the Byzantine tradition. The dome was once visible from the outside of the Palatine Chapel, but this is no longer possible since the construction of the Palace. The Art Historian William Tronzo deals in the volume with the structural and historical analysis of the architectural plant of the church, including the decorated marble floor and geometric motifs.
The columns and the heads of the Chapel are subject to the study carried out by Patrizio Pensabene, teacher of archeology at “La Sapienza” University in Rome, while it is the Art Historian Francesco Gandolfo, who studies the sculptors. Of these stands out the paschal candlestick from XII century with its symbolic representations of great value.
The wooden ceiling (muquarnas) of the Palatine Chapel is the most evident testimony of Islamic presence at the court of Ruggero. Along the high strip on the walls, above the mosaic of the central nave, there is a succession of muquarnas, multifaceted niches painted in typical Islamic architecture, while the actual wooden ceiling is a structure made up of geometric coffering. Nearly all the available surface of the ceiling is painted by Arab artists, with scenes of court life, animals, plants, geometric and floral motifs. It is impossible for the visitor to admire in detail, yet the ceiling of the Palatine Chapel is entirely reproduced in the pages of the book, therefore allowing to observe in detail what is the largest survived cycle of Islamic paintings of Medieval era in the basin of the Mediterranean sea. A nearly unknown masterpiece, analyzed and explained by Jeremy Johns, Director of Khalili Research Centre, Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University, who deals with the ceilings of the two lateral naves, carried out by the same artists.
The mosaics of the Palatine Chapel are among the most important of those found in Sicily and are the work of both local and Greek artists that have left some rare examples in representing animals and plants, byzantine mosaics and secular arguments. The walls, the arches, the intrados, the dome, the presbytery are covered by mosaics that show the Genesis, the life of Christ and of the apostles Peter and Paul, saints, angels and prophets in a triumph of light from millions of gold tesserae. Herbert Kessler, Beat Brenk and Gerhard Wolf, study these cycles, their meaning and relationship with other contemporary mosaics as those seen in the cathedral in Cefalù. With the splendor of their gold tesserae, the mosaics make the Palatine Chapel a triumph of light and covers nearly every surface of the wall, the intrados, the arches and the dome. Although the theme is mainly religious, it also has secular scenes, floral and fauna representations, maybe the only extensive testimony of secular mosaic from the byzantine school that has reached us today. One particularity of the mosaics of the Palatine Chapel is in the cycles that show episodes of the life of Christ and of the Saints Peter and Paul that, contrary to custom, does not end with the martyrdom but with a scene of triumph: the entrance of Jesus in Jerusalem, the fall of Simon Mago for the apostles. Echoed by the presence of Christ in glory above the royal throne and the Pantokrator (the Almighty) in the apse and in the nave vault, these triumphs refer to the earth triumph of the king.