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“To appreciate fully the spectacle of Constantinople during the 12th century, don’t go to Istanbul,” writes Robert Ousterhout in Cornucopia 58. “Go instead to Palermo and prepare to be amazed.”

Eight pages of photographs by Monica Fritz that accompany Ousterhout's article show the glory of the chapel of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, known as the Mortarana, which has blazingly beautiful mozaics made by Byzantine masters. They include a Dormitian and Christ Pantokrator similar to the ones in the Chora Church in Istanbul. The chapel was begun by George of Antioch, who, in tune with the times in which Christianity imingled with Islam on this Mediterranean crossroad, was made an admiral, Emir of Emirs and Archon of Antioch under the Norman King Roger II.

Sicily was the first part of Italy to come under Byzantine rule, in the reign of Justinian. Syracuse had been the main Roman city on the island that was the bread basket of Rome. It was adopted as the principal Byzantine city in the west, and Constans II (r.654-668) moved his court here from Constantinople. Parts of a polychrome mosaic of a birds and flowers from a basilica dating from this time have been excavated at the cathedral in Cefalù.

The subsequent Muslim conquest took some 70 years until the fall of Taormina in 902. The Normans arrived in the 11th century and put Byzantine craftsmen to work, not just in Palermo, but also in Monreale, overlooking the city, where the cathedral, built by the pleasure-loving William II, is perhaps the most beautiful of Sicily’s Norman churches. Here mosaics were made with an estimated 2200 kg of pure gold. King Roger II also brought mozaic artists from Constantinople to decorate the cathedral that he built at Cefalù.

Connoisseur’s Sicily

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