The Norman Palace

The palace is claimed to be the oldest royal residence in Europe and has Phoenician remains in the basement.  Of the current remains the main building is said to date back to the time of the Emirs of Palermo between 831 and 1072.  This supposition is based upon 'the typically Arabian vaults' in the basements.  The Norman rulers then used it as their main residence and expanded it to include both residential and administrative quarters.  In 1132 King Roger added the palace chapel (Cappella Palatina).

The fortress cum palace must have been well known to the geographer Idrisi.  In 1154 he described it as being:

In the highest part of the Cassaro [district of the city] King Roger has a new citadel built of large well laid cut stones covered with mosaic tiles.  It is equipped with high towers and well strengthened with garrets and battlements, containing comfortable buildings and halls remarkable for their decorations and admirably adorned with calligraphy and every manner of elegant carvings that are collected there.

It is likely that he was staying in the palace when the momentous events of the barons' revolts of 1160-61 took place.  On 9 March 1161, the palace was stormed by prisoners released from the dungeons under the Greek Tower during the abortive uprising of Matthew Bonellus of Caccamo against King William I (d.1166).  During this William's young son and heir, Roger, was killed on 11 March and the palace sacked before order was restored.  During the disturbances the king's library containing the state archives was burned and many works of art melted down and destroyed, while the eunuchs and Muslims were hunted down and killed and the harem raped.  Idrisi escaped the slaughter by fleeing to Africa, where he remained until his death six years later.  By the clemency of the king, the rebel defenders of the castle were allowed to flee to Caccamo at the end of the siege.

Sometime shortly before 1166 another uprising by the prisoners in the palace resulted in them nearly taking the castellen, but he managed to escape and all the escapees were killed after they failed to achieve a quick escape or capture anyone of importance.  Their bodies were then given to the dogs, with none being allowed proper burial.  After this King William I (d.1166) forbade the housing of prisoners in the palace and decreed that they should be held in the Castello di Mare.  The palace castellan in 1167 under William II (d.1189) was called Ansaldus and it was presumably this man who had escaped the uprising of the previous year.  The damage in these revolts might have been quiet severe for in 1172 Beniamino di Tudela commented upon the ‘regal palace sumptuously built by King William'.  This leaves the impression that the latter kings had had to massively repair and re-beautify the interior of the palace after the disasters of the 1160s.

In April 1168 Messina rebelled and sent forces to seize the castles of Rometta and Toarmina.  Simultaneously the notary Matthew, with the aid of the vice-castellan, Constantine, planned to raise a revolt in the palace while the castellan, Ansaldus, was ill.  Their intended targets were the chancellor, Stephen Perche, and his associates, John Lavardin of Caccamo and Count Roger of Avellino, the lord of Adrano castle.  Count Roger was taken in the plot and incarcerated in Mare castle for his own safety, while the count of Meulan and other Frenchmen were taken to Partinico and Carini

In 1184 Ibn Gyubair visited the great palace and recorded that:

We passed by squares, doors, royal courtyards and saw palatial palaces, well-arranged circuses, gardens and halls for public officials, things to dazzle the eyes and amaze the minds ... among other things we noticed a classroom in a large courtyard surrounded by a garden and flanked by arcades. The classroom occupies the entire width of this courtyard, so that we were amazed to see its extension, the height of its viewpoints. We knew that this is the place where the king usually eats with his followers... [There are also] offices where magistrates, public officials and finance agents sit ...

In 1190 the ‘new palace' was described as being at the opposite side of Palermo to Mare castle and that it was built of squared stones with effort and skill and had outer walls which wound wide and far, while the inner side was splendidly decorated in gems and gold.  Three towers were mentioned in the inner castle, the Pisan Tower which contained the treasury, the Greek Tower opposite this which overlooked the part of Palermo called Kemonia, while the middle section of the palace was glorified by the tower called Joharia, which was particularly beautiful.  This was where King William II spent his time when he wanted peace and quiet.  Throughout the site accommodation for married ladies was found as well as for the girls of the harem and eunuchs to serve the king and queen.  Other chambers shined with great beauty and were used for affairs of state.  There were also workshops belonging to the palace where the threads of silkworms were spun.  When entered from the city side the visitor would first come to the Royal Chapel with its costly floor and whose walls were decorated on the lower levels with plates of precious marble, and upper ones with mosaics, some of gold and others of different colours, telling Old and New Testament stories.  The uppermost level was adorned with carvings and an amazing variety of sculpture, all shining with gold.

After the overthrow of King William III in 1194 the palace seems to have lost its residential status, no doubt partially due to the building of Zisa and the Cuba, although it is stated that Henry VI needed 100 mules to carry all the gold and treasure he took from the palace to serve his many needs.  After the death of King Manfred in 1266, the palace seems to have been allowed to decline, although the palatine chapel was maintained.  In 1269 King Charles had all the war machines removed, but on 3 May 1272, it was recorded that the castle garrison should consist of 1 squire and 8 sergeants. 

During the Vespers uprising of 30 March 1282, John St Remy found himself unable to defend the palace and so fled to Vicari castle where he was killed by the rebels.  The palace was meantime sacked yet again, but was sufficiently restored in 1283 for the queen to hold court there on a throne, while her attendants sat on tapestries on the ground.

As the fourteenth century drew on the palace moved more to ruin.  On 2 October 1340, King Peter (d.1342) was informed that 2 beams in the great hall had failed and that this threatened other apartments.  In 1348 the palace was set alight by the Catalan faction
favoured by the Dowager Queen Elizabeth (d.1349) in the Civil War against the Latin/Angevin party favoured by her brother in law, Duke John of Randazzo (d.1348).  This resulted in heavy damage to the Green Room and Palatine chapel which King Louis (d.1355) had repaired by means of fines levied on those guilty of the act.  This was the last medieval repair works to the site and by the fifteenth century the palace was all but abandoned with concessions being granted to quarry the ruins.  The main seat of government then moved to Mare castle.

Between 1513 and 1553 the Court of the Holy Inquisition sat here, while the building continued to disintegrate.  By 1549 it was possible to see the palatine chapel through the holes in the outer walls.  In 1554 it was recorded that  reconstruction had begun under the viceroy, who moved out of the Steri palace.  He had 3 of the 4 Norman rectangular towers, including the red tower, demolished, raising the facade and making 2 large courtyards.  In the late sixteenth and seventeenth century artillery bastions and bulwarks were added to city using the ruins as a quarry.

The palace, known as the Norman Palace or Palazzo Reale, is currently the seat of the Sicilian Regional Assembly, has been extensively modernised and expanded since Norman times.  However, the Sala Normanna is claimed to be the work of King Roger (d.1154) as well as the Cappella Palatina.  Both contain mosaics of many animals, typical of Byzantine iconography.  In Medieval times the palace was commonly called either the new palace or the higher castle (castrum superius).  This was differentiate it from the lower castle or Castillo di Mare (castrum inferius).

In the basement of the hall of the duke of Montalto, excavation has uncovered remains of Phoenician buildings dating back to the eighth century BC and the city wall, perhaps dating to the fifth century BC.  These consist of an access door flanked by 2 towers.  Again they are built of the same monumental stones as Segesta, Cefalu, Erice, Eurialus and the Phoenician town walls of Palermo.  

Excavations in the Maqueda courtyard got to a depth of 25' and found a supposed Arab palace.  Further Arab work is supposed to join the crypt to the north tower.  This is overlain by the Norman castle which  once had 4 rectangular towers, perhaps making it in the same mould as Piazza Armerina.  

Of the old castle, the main surviving tower is to the north, the Torre Pisana.  This has been called the keep since the sixteenth century and has been much altered, but it does have some similarities to the Cuba. It is roughly 60' square and has 2 rectangular turrets to the west, with the south one housing a stairway.  The staircase was reassembled in the 1920s when the ‘Norman' sections of the palace were restored and exposed to the public.  The tower itself was built of tufa ashlar, while its cross vaulted central room is surrounded by an ambulatory with an ogival vault.  There are also double splayed loops to north, south and west.  The first floor is similar, except the central chamber is an impressive 50' high and decorated with marble and mosaic.  The exterior decoration, with its ogival arches and blind arcades appears typically Arabic and is similar to Cuba and Zisa, which would tend to confirm the Norman date given to all these structures.  Traditionally the tower was built for William II.  Found within it in the nineteenth century was a Treasure Room, protected by a double door and filled with huge jars, overflowing with gold coins.  By 1790 the upper floor on west side of the tower housed the first astronomical observatory in Palermo, copying the much smaller Pollina keep.

On the other side of the castle is the other surviving tower, the Torre Joharia, or Treasury Tower.  This was supposedly built by King Roger (d.1154) and is joined to the Sala Normanna or Sala di Ruggero.  Possibly this Sala was the great hall mentioned by the chronicler Falcando and just possibly it incorporates the remnants of an ancient forum.  Certainly its alignment and that of the tower do not fit with the more east to west alignment of the chapel or the keep.  This would indicate either different provenances or underlying differences in geography or earlier buildings.  The Sala commands Palermo and its gulf and preserves its original ‘Norman' decoration, namely a marble plinth, corner columns and mosaics covering the walls and vaults.  These are profane and appear more Persian than Christian.  However, much was refreshed in the mid nineteenth century.

The 2 demolished towers were Torre Chirimbi, supposedly built by King William I (d.1166) and finished by his son, William II (d.1189).  The other was the Greek or Red Tower, which was brick built, supposedly for Count Roger

Why not join me here and at other Sicilian castles?  Information on this and other tours can be found at Scholarly Sojourns.


Copyright©2019 Paul Martin Remfry