Showing posts with label Monreale. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Monreale. Show all posts

10 May 2024

William II - Sicily’s last Norman king

Young monarch who enjoyed prosperous reign

Images of William II of Sicily, such as the above, can be found in the mosaics at Monreale cathedral
Images of William II of Sicily, such as the above,
can be found in the mosaics at Monreale cathedral 
William II, the last Norman king of Sicily, succeeded his father, William I, as the island’s monarch on this day in 1166.

The succession was brought about by the death of his father. William II was only 12 years old at the time and was placed under the regency of his mother before ruling in person from his 18th birthday in 1171.

History does not remember him as a particularly effective ruler, certainly not able to arrest the decline of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, but he became known posthumously as William the Good on account of the peace and prosperity that the kingdom enjoyed during his 23-year reign.

This was largely a result of his policy of clemency and justice toward the towns and the barons, in contrast with his father’s time, when the rebellious barons across Sicily grew more powerful and demanded greater autonomy from the crown.

The new king spent much of his time in seclusion, enjoying the pleasures of  palace life at Palermo, where his court became a centre of culture and learning, attracting scholars, poets, and artists from across Europe and the Arab world.  

His own contributions to the cultural and architectural heritage of the island include commissioning the magnificent cathedral at Monreale, just outside Palermo, which is considered one of the greatest examples of Norman architecture in the world. One of the chapels contains a statute of William II dedicating the church to the Virgin Mary.

In contrast with his domestic policies, which seemed mainly to be focussed on keeping the barons happy, William II's foreign policy was ambitious. 

He maintained his father’s friendship with Pope Alexander III and with the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenus. However, in 1172, when the proposed marriage of William to Manuel’s daughter, Maria, was vetoed by the emperor, William immediately turned against the Byzantines.

William II's dedication statue in
a chapel in Monreale cathedral
In 1177 he concluded a truce with his father’s old enemy, the German king Frederick I Barbarossa, who had been defeated by the Lombard League at Legnano in 1176 and no longer seemed dangerous to Sicily.

In June 1185, William commenced a military campaign against the Byzantines. His forces crossed Macedonia and captured Thessalonica (modern Salonika), but when his fleet was in sight of Constantinople (now Istanbul), his army was ambushed and defeated. 

William attempted to strengthen ties with other states through marriage and alliances, notably his own marriage in February 1177 to Joan, daughter of King Henry II of England and Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine. This underpinned his status as a major player in European politics.

He also showed his diplomatic skills by negotiating treaties with Genoa and Venice in 1174 and 1175, strengthening Sicily’s importance in the Mediterranean political landscape.

William II died in November 1189 at the age of 36. He had no heir, which led to a succession crisis. He had previously appointed his aunt Constance as his heir, but this decision paved the way for the eventual rise of the Hohenstaufen dynasty through her marriage to Henry VI, son of Frederick Barbarossa.

After William’s death, Norman officials supported his cousin Tancred to succeed him, instead of Constance.

Under the Normans, the Kingdom of Sicily, which included the bottom third of the Italian peninsula as well as the island of Sicily itself, had reached its cultural, economic, and military zenith under the rule of Roger II, William II’s grandfather, but by the time Tancred came to power its decline had set in.

The kingdom's administration suffered economic challenges, not least because of the costs of William’s foreign escapades, while discontent among the powerful barons continued to fester, leading to internal strife and weakening the central authority of the kingdom.

In 1191, Henry VI, King of Germany and newly anointed Holy Roman Emperor,invaded on behalf of his wife. He had to retreat after his attack failed with the siege of Naples, but Tancred died in 1194 and the kingdom fell in 1194 to the House of Hohenstaufen. 

William III of Sicily, the young son of Tancred, was deposed, and Henry and Constance were crowned as king and queen. 

Monreale's Cattedrale di Santa Maria Nuova is considered a masterpiece of Norman architecture
Monreale's Cattedrale di Santa Maria Nuova is
considered a masterpiece of Norman architecture
Travel tip:

The town of Monreale is located on the slope of Monte Caputo, overlooking a valley known as La Conca d'oro (the Golden Shell), which produces and exports orange, olive and almond trees. It can be found approximately 10km (six miles) inland from Palermo, to the southwest. The town is famous for its cathedral, which is regarded as one of the finest examples of Norman architecture anywhere in the world and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The cathedral combines Norman, Byzantine, Italian, and Saracen architectural styles, making it one of the most beautiful churches in Italy.  It is particularly famous for its stunning mosaics. Monreale became an important ecclesiastical center after the Norman conquest in 1072.  William II chose the area as a hunting resort. Today, the town itself serves as a market centre for the agricultural produce of the surrounding valley.

One face of the Palazzo dei Normanni in Palermo
One face of the Palazzo dei
Normanni in Palermo
Travel tip:

Palermo’s Palazzo dei Normanni (Norman Palace) is also called the Royal Palace of Palermo. It was the seat of the Kings of Sicily and served afterwards as the main seat of power for the subsequent rulers of Sicily. Today, the Sicilian Regional Assembly has its home there.  The building, originally built as a castle, is the oldest royal residence in Europe; it was the private residence of the rulers of the Kingdom of Sicily and the imperial seat of Frederick II and Conrad IV.  After the Normans invaded Sicily in 1072 (just six years after they conquered England) and established Palermo as the capital of the new County of Sicily, the palace was chosen as the main residence of the kings. In 1132 King Roger II added the famous Cappella Palatina to the complex.

Also on this day:

1548: The birth of Doge of Venice Antonio Priuli

1784: The birth of military general Carlo Filangieri

1922: The birth of journalist Antonio Ghirelli

1931: The birth of screenwriter and director Ettore Scola

1949: The birth of fashion designer Miuccia Prada


22 July 2018

Palermo falls to the Allies

Capture of Sicilian capital triggered ousting of Mussolini

The American forces were welcomed as liberators by many ordinary Sicilian citizens
The American forces were welcomed as liberators by
many ordinary Sicilian citizens
One of the most significant developments of the Second World War in Italy occurred on this day in 1943 when Allied forces captured the Sicilian capital, Palermo.

A battle took place between General George S Patton’s Seventh Army and some German and Italian divisions but it was not a prolonged affair.  The Sicilians themselves by then had little appetite to fight in a losing cause on behalf of the Germans and the invading soldiers were greeted by many citizens as liberators.

It was not a decisive victory for the Allies but it had a symbolic value, signifying the fall of Sicily only 12 days after Allied forces had crossed the Mediterranean from bases in North Africa and landed at Pachina and Gela on the south coast of the island.

In fact, the Americans and the British were still meeting German resistance around Catania and Messina in the northeastern corner of the island, it would be only a matter of time before their resistance ceased.

An American officer celebrates the capture of Palermo
An American officer celebrates the capture of Palermo
When news reached Rome that Palermo had fallen, the Fascist Grand Council, who had for some time given only uneasy support to Mussolini, knew that something had to be done to limit the damage of what now looked like an inevitable defeat for the Axis powers in Italy.

After a series of disasters sustained by the Axis in Africa, many of the Italian leaders were desperately anxious to make peace with the Allies and the invasion of Sicily, representing an immediate threat to the Italian mainland, was the development that prompted them to action.

Two days after the fall of Palermo, after Mussolini had told the Grand Council that Hitler was thinking of withdrawing German forces from the south of Italy, a motion calling for Mussolini’s removal from power was passed.

How the New York Times reported the fall of Palermo
How the New York Times reported the fall of Palermo
On July 25, the king, Victor Emmanuel III, told Mussolini that he was to be replaced as prime minister by General Pietro Badoglio, the former chief of staff of the Italian army. After he left their meeting, Mussolini was arrested.

Although there was still a large presence of German army personnel in Italy and undoubtedly many undercover agents, secret meetings between Italian officials and the Allied commanders were already taking place with a view to agreeing an armistice, which would be signed as early as September 3.

A few days after Mussolini was ousted, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the German commander in chief in Italy, decided that the Axis troops in Sicily must be evacuated. Under the cover of rearguard actions in the area of Mount Etna, 40,000 Germans and 60,000 Italian troops were safely withdrawn across the Strait of Messina to the mainland.

The Allies entered Messina on August 16, at which point the conquest of Sicily was complete. Of approximately 190,000 Italian casualties during the invasion, 4,678 killed were confirmed as killed with 36,072 missing, 32,500 wounded and 116,681 captured.

The spectacular interior of Monreale Cathedral
The spectacular interior of Monreale Cathedral
Travel tip:

One of the places from which the Allies chose to launch their assault on Palermo was Monreale, an historic hill town famous for the fine mosaics in the town's great Norman cathedral. Dedicated to the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, the cathedral is often spoken of as the island's greatest Norman building. It dates back to the 12th century, when the Norman ruler, William II, founded a Benedictine monastery. The church became something of a national monument for Sicily.

The waterfront at Messina in northeast Sicily
The waterfront at Messina in northeast Sicily
Travel tip:

Messina, which was the last part of Sicily to come under Allied control, is a city in the northeast of the island, separated from mainland Italy by the Strait of Messina. It is the third largest city on the island and is home to a large Greek-speaking community. The 12th century cathedral in Messina has a bell tower which houses one of the largest astronomical clocks in the world, built in 1933.

More reading:

Germans free captive Mussolini in daring mountain raid

How the Italian Social Republic was Mussolini's last stand

The day Mussolini took Italy into the Second World War

Also on this day:

1559: The birth of St Lawrence of Brindisi

2001: The death of Indro Montanelli, hailed as one of the greatest Italian journalists of the 20th century


2 March 2018

Pietro Novelli – painter and architect

Sicilian great who was killed in Palermo riot

Novelli's Annunciation, which he painted in the church of Santissima Annunziata
Novelli's Annunciation, which he painted
in the church of Santissima Annunziata
Pietro Novelli, recognised as the most important artist in 17th century Sicily, was born on this day in 1603 in Monreale, a town about 10km (6 miles) from Palermo.

A prolific painter, his works can be seen in many churches and galleries in Sicily, in particular in Palermo.

There are good examples of his work outside the city, too, for example at Piana degli Albanesi, about 30km (19 miles) from Palermo, where he painted a fresco cycle in the cathedral of San Demetrio Megalomartire and another fresco, entitled Annunciation, in the church of Santissima Annunziata.

At his peak, wealthy and aristocratic members of Sicilian society, as well as monasteries and churches, competed to be in possession of a Novelli work.

His father, also called Pietro, was a respected artist who also worked with mosaics and Pietro initially worked in his father’s workshop in Monreale.

A great student of art who travelled extensively, among his major influences were Caravaggio, whose work in Sicily he studied, particularly his Adoration of the Shepherds, which was commissioned for the Capuchin Franciscans and was painted in Messina for the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli.

He was also influenced by Anthony Van Dyck, who had been present in Sicily in 1624, and whose altarpiece, the Madonna of the Rosary in the Oratory of the Rosario di San Domenico in Palermo, persuaded him to lighten his palate, which gave his subsequent works elegance and sweetness.

Novelli's Immaculate Conception is at the Civic Museum in Termini Imerese
Novelli's Immaculate Conception is at
the Civic Museum in Termini Imerese
Novelli’s travels took him to Rome, where he was particularly receptive to Bolognese classicism and neo-Venetian Roman painting, and to Naples, where he was introduced to the work of Caracciolo, Stanzione and Ribera, and studied the classicising naturalism of Andrea Vaccaro.

He incorporated the chiaroscuro of Ribera into his own style, as can be seen from his two canvases about St Benedict in the abbey of San Martino alle Scale in Mondovi.

In addition to his paintings, he drew up plans for fortifications, designed jewellery and stage scenery for the theatre and turned his architectural hand to a number of buildings, notably the presbytery and apse in the cathedral at Piana degli Albanesi.

He also served as the engineer and architect of the Senate of Palermo and was made engineer of the Kingdom on the appointment of the Viceroy Count of Cabrera, for whose entry to Palermo he realized the triumphal arch in 1641.

Novelli was killed during the riots against the viceroys in Palermo in 1647 and was buried in the cemetery of the Friars in San Domenico.

Around the world, there are works by Novelli on display, among other places, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and the Prado in Madrid.

The Norman cathedral in Monreale
The Norman cathedral in Monreale
Travel tip:

The town of Monreale is located on the slope of Monte Caputo, overlooking a valley known as La Conca d'oro (the Golden Shell), which produces and exports orange, olive and almond trees. The town is famous for its cathedral, which is regarded as one of the finest examples of Norman architecture anywhere in the world, built there by William II following the Norman conquest of 1072, and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Oratory of the Rosaria del San Domenico in Palermo
The Oratory of the Rosario del San
Domenico in Palermo
Travel tip:

The Oratory of the Rosaria del San Domenico, where there are a number of works by Novelli in addition to the Van Dyck altarpiece, is situated in Via dei Bambinai in the La Loggia district of Palermo, near the historic Vucciria marketplace.

More reading:

How Giovanni Battista Vaccarini turned Catania into a city of Sicilian Baroque

The Sicilian painter whose work represented the victims of Italian Fascism

Guido Reni - the 17th century Bolognese painter who idealised Raphael

Also on this day:

1886: The birth of double World Cup-winning coach Vittorio Pozzo

1939: Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli elected Pope Pius XII

(Picture credits: Monreale cathedral by Jerome Bon; Oratory by Bjs; via Wikimedia Commons)