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The pavings of the Norman churches of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (la Martorana) and San Cataldo

  • Name : The pavings of the Norman churches of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (la Martorana) and San Cataldo
  • Place : Palermo, Sicily
  • Construction date/period : For Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, the 1140s; for San Cataldo, the 1160s
  • Construction materials : Marble; opus sectile and opus tessellatum
  • Recipient/Mandatory : For Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, George of Antioch; for San Cataldo, Maion de Bari (?)
  • Restoration :

    Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio: If it is impossible to put together a detailed map of the paving restorations, we can observe significant interventions on the level of the four panels aligned under the apses either side of the small central quincunx. The radical transformations of the church in the seventeenth – eighteenth centuries (demolition of the Norman apse and iconostasis) and the stylistic restorations led at the end of the nineteenth – beginning of the tenth century by Giuseppe Patricolo and Francesco Valenti had a considerable impact on this zone. The obvious adaptations, the variety of marble used, the techniques of implementation, and the format of the tesserae indicate that these panels are the fruit of a late interpretation which had little respect for Norman models.

    San Cataldo: Restoration of the paving carried out by Giuseppe Patricolo (end nineteenth – beginning twentienth century) are documented. A simple autopsy enables us to discern them: quality, size and colours of the marbles, but also greater uniformity of the tesserae placement bed which underlines them. In the panel of the right hand nave closest to the presbytery, the white marble which frames the designs has been replaced by grey cement mortar. However, comparison with the original parts shows that the integrations have not betrayed the primitive design of the mosaic panels.

Symbolic of the status of their prestigious patrons, the Norman pavings of Palermo — Palatine Chapel, Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, San Cataldo — are characterised by the quadrichromy of the marbles used (white, porphyry, serpentine, Giallo Antico[1]). Their varied design includes bands which are alternately white and made up of mosaics, linked to sectile elements (above all circles and otctagons) and tesselatum elements. If this technique shares a Byzantine origin with the so-called “cosmatesque” production of central southern Italy, it differs from it in the specific characteristic of the geometric schemes of its composition and by the mosaic designs.

The paving of la Martorana is made up of eleven panels where eight distinct geometric motifs arranged around the central quincunx under the cupola take up a traditional Byzantine scheme. We find the same matrix in the panels ornamented with rotae linked to each other and a lozenge, with adjoined designs which have become characteristic of Islamic figurative culture, such as eight-point stars and an original reinterpretation of the quincunx. In Sicily we do not encounter figured designs in mosaics, but the lozenge panel depicts two dog heads while the central panel displays chalice-shaped vases with trees of life, lions and peacocks facing each other, and even, in both cases, an acrobat, the most unusual and emblematic figure on the paving. The latter decorative element, to be amply found in France, in particular in Provence, has an island precedent, on a capital of the Cefalù cloister.

The same mix of motifs can be found in San Cataldo, where the link between architecture and organisation of the panels is greater. The varied marble carpet, made up of fourteen panels which use seven distinct motifs reinterprets the design of the edifice as a whole. In the central quincunx central, pivotal to the entire composition, the designs range from circle to octagon, echoing the three cupolas on the octagonal tambour. Rectangles linked by circles, quincunxes linked to each other and a star motif surrounded by hexagons with triangular projections cover the floor of the nave, while the space between the rows is filled with an interlacing of alternating circles and lozenges. In all the panels, the recurrence of identical designs in the mosaics and similar measurements for the bands both sectile and tesselatum created a unified project, put in place by a workshop capable of covering themes  borrowed from Islamic and Byzantine traditions in an original and equal manner.

The multiplicity of themes and elements which figure on these pavings suggests that the workshops who took part in the large Palermo constructions in the reign of Roger II directly incorporated the experience of a Sicilian workshop, either directly or from drawings used as models. This original interpretation of motifs means we may not attribute a unique origin to these creations, whether it be Rome, Constantinople or the Islamic world or even continental Europe. The synthesis of these different inspirations must have occurred locally via masters who, if they are unoriginal from the point of view of the elements employed, blended themes and shapes in an altogether singular manner.

NOTE

[1] Precious marble which offers a range of tones and colour nuances from golden to ivory.

BIBLIOGRAPHY RELATED TO THE MONUMENT

Di Liberto, R., « Il pavimento a tarsie marmoree della chiesa normanna di S. Cataldo in Palermo », in Carra Bonacasa, R.M., Guidobaldi, F. (éds), Atti del IV Colloquio dell'Associazione Italiana per lo Studio e la Conservazione del Mosaico (Palerme, 6-13 décembre 1996), Ravenne, 1997, p. 343-364.

Di Liberto, R., « Il pavimento a tarsie marmoree e motivi figurati della chiesa normanna di Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio in Palermo », in Atti del Convegno Internazionale Giorgio d’Antiochia. L’arte della politica in Sicilia nel XII secolo tra Bisanzio e Islam (Palerme 19-20 avril 2007), sous presse.

Lo Faso di Pietrasanta, D., Duca di Serradifalco, Del Duomo di Monreale e di altre chiese siculo-normanne, Palerme, 1838.

Tronzo, W., The cultures of his kingdom. Roger II and the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, Princeton, 1997, p. 29-37.

Patricolo, G., « La chiesa di Santa Maria dell’Amiraglio in Palermo e le sue antiche adiacenze », in Archivio Storico Siciliano, n.s., II, fasc. I, 1877.

REFERENCE BIBLIOGRAPHY

Di Liberto, R., « La chiesa normanna di S. Cataldo a Palermo », in Palladio, n.s. IX, 17, 1996, p. 17-32.

Kitzinger, E., I mosaici di Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio a Palermo, Palerme, 1990, (Istituto siciliano di studi bizantini e neoellenici, Monumenti 3), p. 27-67.

Scerrato, U., « Arte islamica in Italia », in Gabrieli, F., Scerrato, U. (éds), Gli arabi in Italia, Milan, 1979, p. 339-340.

Bagnera, B., « Pavimento » (Islam), in Enciclopedia dell’Arte Medievale, Rome : 1998.

Tomaselli, F., Il ritorno dei Normanni. Protagonisti ed interpreti del restauro dei monumenti a Palermo nella seconda metà dell’Ottocento, Palerme, 1994.

Grube, E.J., Johns, J., The painted ceilings of the Cappella Palatina, (Supplement I to Islamic Art), Gênes, New York, 2005.



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Hauteville
Hauteville
Western Europe
Western Europe
Mosaic
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Stone
Stone
Craftsmen, artists and workshops
Craftsmen, artists and workshops
Transmission of knowledge
Transmission of knowledge
Figurative icons
Figurative icons
Animal patterns / bestiary
Animal patterns / bestiary
Geometric patterns
Geometric patterns
Shapes and patterns
Shapes and patterns
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