The UNESCO world heritage sites in Sicily are crowned by a unique series of iconic mosaics associated with the Normans. They ruled the Mediterranean island from conquest in 1091 following the siege of Palermo for a little more than a century. Roger II, son of the conqueror of Sicily, established a Kingdom and he was responsible for starting much of the unique building of Norman mosaics in Sicily, creating a tolerant society that blended attributes from Byzantine, Romanesque, Arabic and Norman-French influences.
Mosaics in the Church of the Martorana
In 1184 Ibn Jubair wrote about the Norman King William II of Sicily:
“The attitude of the king is really extraordinary. His attitude towards the Muslims is perfect: he gives them employment, he choses his officers among them, and all, or almost all, keep their faith secret and can remain faithful to the faith of Islam. The king has full confidence in the Muslims and relies on them to handle many of his affairs, including the most important ones, to the point that the Great Intendant for cooking is a Muslim.”
The key sites around the city of Palermo are Monreale (at 6000 sq metres the largest mosaic in the world), Capella Palatino, the Martorana and outside the capital city the cathedral of Cefalu. In these buildings there is a blend of styles (Arab, African and European) with innovative techniques exploring the way mosaic portrays biblical stories, for a largely illiterate audience. You can imagine a farmer coming into a cathedral and being dazzled by visual fragrance, their belief in God confirmed by the evidence of beauty and wealth, the soft approach to explaining power: who could ever have made such brilliance without divine blessing?
If the Normans in Sicily achieved magnificent harmony, their successors whether German, French or Spanish were often characterised by corruption and exploitation of indigenous working people. Local self-defence militias formed to protect residents from arbitrary harm. Absentee landlords often gave control over their affairs to hired help. Local militias hit back against corruption by challenging the nobility in their fiefdoms.
The lesson for us all, perhaps, is that acceptance and cooperation, the seeing of talents in others, (rather than stoking fears about their differences), the welcoming of migrants from abroad with their fresh ideas and skills, enriches culture. Where they bring their ideas into an atmosphere of toleration then unique fusions and blends occur which adorn a culture for generations to come.