17 17 2014 Back
Ambitious builders, the Normans converted mosques and palaces, giving rise to the Arab-Norman style that is unique to Sicily. Chief among these is the cathedral (tel 091 33 43 76; www.cattedrale.palermo.it. in Italian; Corso Vittorio Emanuele; admission free; 7am-7pm Mon-Sat, 8am-1.30pm & 4-7pm Sun & public holidays), an extraordinary feast of ziggurat crenellations, majolica cupolas, geometric patterns and blind arches. Set back from the street, the foreground planted with palms, the Oriental impact is enough to skew one's compasso.
Construction began in 1184 at the behest of Palermo's archbishop, Walter of the Mill (Gualtiero Offamiglia), who was eager to challenge the supremacy of Monreale. Since then the Cathedral has been much altered, sometimes with great success - as in the three-arched portico (which took 200 years to complete), a masterpiece of Catalan-inspired architecture - and sometimes with less fortunate results, as in Ferdinando Fuga's clumsy do me. Thankfully Fuga's handiwork did not extend to the eastern exterior, which still sports the exotic interlacing designs of Walter's original cathedral.
Although impressive in scale, the interior is a marble shell, a sadly unexotic resting place for the royal Norman tombs, which contain the remains of two of Sicily's greatest rulers, Roger Il (rear left) and Frederick Il of Hohenstaufen (front left). Halfway down the right aisle is a magnificent treasury (8am-6pm Mon-Sat), whose most extraordinary exhibit is a .tooth extracted from Santa Rosalia, one of the patron saints of Palermo. Her ashes are also kept here in a silver reliquary. For information about the Festino di Santa Rosalia.