The Arab and Norman civilizations in Sicily

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The term “Arab-Norman” is often used to identify the long period of Sicilian civilization included between the IX and the late XII century. This term could appear quite inaccurate, because of the big differences between the Arab and the Norman culture. However, after the Norman conquest, the same Arab population that used to live and work in Sicily, continued his normal activity, and the expert Arab craftsmen started to built churches and castles using their style in the architecture and in the decorations. The coexistence of these two civilizations created a unique new mixed art that is impossible to find in any other place.

Arab art flourished in Sicily for over two centuries, achieving its highest pitch of refinement under the Emirate when Palermo became the luxurious capital in which, as the Arabian poets of the day narrate, life was notoriously lax among pavilions, gardens and mansions sheltered from the searing scirocco. Hundreds of mosques sprang up amidst the orange groves of the Conca d’Oro, but very little is left of these monuments and what does remain is in a serious state of disintegration. Today just a few Arab buildings are still existing in Sicily, all the others have disappeared over the years.

The Normans, on the other side, used to site their mansions, villas, castles and churches on pre-existent buildings. This habit, combined with the use of Arab craftsmen and stonemasons, created a new kind of architecture that is blended so closely with the older Arab style, that it’s impossible to distinguish between them. This applies to the Norman castles and palaces in Palermo, including what is still known as the Palazzo dei Normanni (that previously was the Palace of the Emirs) and to the Palace of the Favara or Maredolce (built by the Emir Giafar).

Samuele Schirò

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