Sicilia - Places to Visit - Monreale
This picturesque town immediately inland from Palermo spreads over the lower slopes of the hills that rise into the ring of calcareous mountains surrounding the Conca d'Oro.
Although the Conca d'Oro itself has become in recent decades nothing more than a configuration of the terrain, because of the inexorable advance of concrete paving and buildings which have reduced to a few gardens and isolated green patches the huge spread of citrus farms that gave it its name, Monreale is still exceptional for its pleasant natural setting, the beauty of its panorama and the splendour of its art treasures.
It grew up in Norman times around a Benedictine monastery and became the favourite abode of the Norman Kings, who often went hunting there. It is known today for its Cathedral and Cloister, one of the main attractions for visitors to the island, its beautiful surroundings and the distinctive character of its buildings, basically medieval with the addition of houses and other buildings of the Baroque period.
The Duomo (Cathedral), counted among the purest expressions of Norman art in Sicily, was built under the auspices of William II in the second half of the twelfth century. Its most distinctive features are the extremely beautiful mosaics which cover the inside walls, creating a fairy-tale atmosphere, and its graceful architectural forms, which show the Fatimite and Moorish influence common at the time.
The upper part of the faade is an example of the recurrent Arabic ornamental motif, the interlaced arches, while the porch on the lower part, added in the second half of the eighteenth century, creates a link between two powerful turreted structures.
These structures, although the left one remained unfinished, completed the picture of the front of the church, defining it spatially and giving a sense of balance to the whole, in spite of the eighteenth century addition. The very beautiful portal is enhanced by a splendid bronze door, the work of Bonanno Pisano, of the second half of the twelfth century.
A Gagini portico runs down the left side of the building, where we find the entrance to the church. The door is by Barisano da Trani (second half of the twelfth century). The exterior of the apse is finely decorated with lava stone inlays and interlaced arches.
The interior of the basilica is majestic and solemn. It is divided into a nave and two aisles by ancient columns with marvellously carved capitals which support ogival arches.
The upper part of the sanctuary is outstanding for its colours and its decorative and architectural qualities; from the ceiling of the main apse the sever gaze of Christ the Pantocrator reaches into every hidden corner of the building, and gives the impression by a curious optical illusion of looking into the visitor's eyes wherever he is standing.
The impressive expanse of mosaics on a gold ground is the fruit of the patient work of Byzantine and Arab craftsmen during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Besides the already mentioned figure of Christ the Pantocrator, below which is the Virgin Enthroned with Saints, Apostles and Angels, we find, in the nave, Biblical episodes from the Old and New Testament and stories of the Norman kings: above the royal throne is the Crowning of William II, and above the archbishop's throne William II Offering the Church to the Virgin.
The wooden trusses of the ceiling are from the first half of nineteenth century and replace the original ones, ruined by a fire. The marble floor, with mosaic decorations, dates in part from the sixteenth century.
From the right aisle we enter the Chapel of San Castrense (sixteenth century), adorned with a ciborium of the same period and seventeenth century painting of Saint Castrense, by P.A. Novelli. From the end of the right transept we enter the Chapel of the Benedictines, which contains admirable marble as-reliefs by Giovanni Marino and Ignazio Marabitti (sarcophagus of F. Testa, sarcophagus of I. Bonanno, apotheosis of San Benedetto).
In the right aisle of the transept are the tombs of William I and William II, the altar in the right apse has Baroque forms. In the centre of the apse we find the high altar, designed by Valadier (second half of the eighteenth century).
The altar in the left apse is Baroque and has a wooden Crucifix above it; there is also a marble reliquiary from the workshop of Gagini, representing the Pieta, the Annunciation and Sts. Peter and Paul. There follow the altar of Louis IX and the sarcophagi of Margaret, Roger and Henry f Navarre. From the Chapel of the Crucifix, on the left side of the apse, we enter the Treasury, where precious objects of the Norman and Baroque periods are displayed.
At the beginning of the right aisle we find the entrance to the stairs to the terraces and the top of the Cathedral, from which we enjoy splendid view of the Cloister, Monreale and the Conca d'Oro.
The nearby Benedictine Abbey was built at the same time as Cathedral and underwent various additions up to at least the end of the fourteenth century. (from the front). The elegant rows of twin columns support ogival arches of exquisite Arab workmanship; the whole is enhanced by mosaics and lively capitals cared by Byzantine and Islamic artists. At the end of the cloister, inside a court, is a very fine fountain with Moorish and Hispanic characteristics.
The Chiesa del Monte is Baroque in style and its interior is enlivened by stucco decorations by P. Serpota.