In Focus: Palermo, cosmopolitanism at the crossroads

The blog series ‘In Focus‘ is conceived as a way to show the scope and diversity of the RELICS research group. Each month one of us will reflect on a current or recently finished project, and how it connects to the aims and vision of RELICS. Through this, by drawing from our own personal experience, we want to show in which ways Latin cosmopolitanism came to the fore from antiquity until modern times.

by Ivo Wolsing (Radboud University, Nijmegen)

“Hitherto blessed city, its people richly endowed with three tongues”

With this characterization of Palermo Pietro of Eboli opens his Liber ad honorem Augusti (1196). Palermo has historically been at the crossroads of different cultural spheres of influence. Over the centuries, it has been ruled by Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Germans, Spanish, French, until it became part of the unified Kingdom of Italy in 1861. The city still bears the vestiges of its rich cultural history with the former Royal Palace (now serving as the seat of the Sicilian parliament) and the main cathedral both containing Norman, Greek and Arab architectural elements. Not coincidentally, these two buildings both were built in the mid-twelfth century, when the Norman Hautevilles ruled the city, the island, and the southern part of the Italic peninsula. The reigns of Roger II (r. 1105-1154), William I (r. 1154-1166) and William II (r. 1166-1189) were characterized by various degrees of appropriation of the island’s Arab and Greek past. It lies at hand to characterize Norman Sicily as ‘multicultural’ or even ‘cosmopolitan’. But was that really the case?

Norman Sicily is one of the three focus areas in my PhD project, which in general examines twelfth-century Latin literary representations of ‘East’ and ‘West’. Although I argue that East and West are mostly cultural and literary constructs, we can discern a West-East axis going from Northwestern Europe to the Middle East. Sicily, at the center of this axis, is therefore a space that is neither ‘West’ nor ‘East’, but something in between. It is precisely its central position in the Mediterranean that makes Norman Sicily such an interesting case for researching the dynamics of East and West. The cultural language of the island – by which I mean the whole of its cultural capital, including language, art and architecture – is shaped by the three cosmopolitan cultures that dominated the island: Arab, Greek and Latin. Because of this, Norman Sicily is ideally suited to question the centrality of Latin as a cosmopolitan language, or the centrality of language as marker of cosmopolitanism – two questions which, I think, lie at the heart of the RELICS research group. The multicultural environment of Norman Sicily did not come without its problems: various uprisings increased ethnic tensions and kings were sometimes subject to critique of being ‘too Eastern’. (You can read all about this in Joshua Birk’s book under ‘further reading’ or in my own article, published OA here.) Nevertheless, Sicily’s Norman kings actively cultivated the island’s heritage in their cultural language, making it one of the most exiting subjects to research.

The Cappella Palatina, Palermo. Photo taken by the author.

Arab and Greek influences on the cultural language of Sicily’s Norman kings are plentiful. A strong representation of Norman-Arab-Greek culture can be found in Palermo’s Palatine Chapel, where a roof adorned with muqarnas (honeycomb vaults) overlooks walls clad in Byzantine-style mosaics. On Piazza Bellini, the red cupolas of the proto-gothic S. Cataldo church adjoin the S. Maria dell’Ammiraglio, which hides Palermo’s most beautiful Byzantine mosaics behind its baroque façade. If you walk through the city’s Kalsa disctrict (the oldest part of the city, its name stemming from the Arabic Al-Khalesa, the Chosen), you’ll notice the trilingual street signs that have been put up a few years ago as part of a project celebrating Palermo’s multicultural past. Norman court life similarly was composed of different cultural elements. Though many of the kings’ chief advisors were Latinate (that is, Norman, French or Lombard), the king himself was surrounded by eunuchs, who served as powerful liminal figures, regulating who had access to the king and who had not. Not only did this practice presumably have its origin in Fatimid Egypt, the eunuchs themselves were mostly (nominally) converted Muslims, who often held close ties to the Muslim communities in the city and on the island at large. Greek influence at court was rather limited, but personified in George of Antioch, a Greek who became the first ammiratus ammiratorum (chief commander of the fleet), a title in itself derived from the Arabic emir al-umara (emir of emirs) and the etymological origin of the English ‘admiral’.

A similar mixture of Arab, Greek and Latin cultural elements is found in twelfth-century literary production at the royal court. It is in this area that the claim to cosmopolitanism gains the most weight. During the Norman period, each of the island’s three languages operated in a specific domain. Poetry was mostly written in Arabic; pastoral works were written in Greek; historical and moralistic prose was usually written in Latin. Unfortunately, not much Siculo-Arabic poetry has survived, but what we can gather from the parts that have, is that the king was celebrated with references to Qur’anic passages. The importance that Sicily’s kings attributed to each of the three cosmopolitan languages on the island shows that they wished to uphold the image of trilingual cosmopolitanism as one of the markers for their reign, dovetailing with the tricultural architectural program discussed above. It is unclear if and to what extent the kings themselves spoke all three languages. If they did, one may wonder how they reacted to them being praised in Qur’anic terms. The popularity of Arabic as a literary language was short-lived, however, due to the growing influence of Latins both at court and on the island at large, and eventually died out around the time of the Hohenstaufen accession in 1196. Vernacular Sicilian took its place as poetic language, the first Italianate literary language, more than half a century before Petrarch.

The Norman kings’ cultural language can thus be characterized as cosmopolitan. But how did this relate to daily reality? The difficulty in giving an answer to this question paradoxically lies in Palermo’s multicultural background. With three cultural spheres of influence, each with its own cosmopolitan language, the city’s famous trilingualism seems to contain a strong impediment for reaching a true cosmopolitan status. The royal chancery depicted in the Liber ad honorem Augusti shows notaries of Latin, Greek and Arabic background each working in their own language, producing mono- bi- or even trilingual documents. It is still open for debate whether a trilingual chancery was needed to address all subjects of the crown in their own language, that it mainly contributed to the status and authority of the Norman kings, or both. Several public inscriptions in multiple languages remain as well, such as two commissioned by Grisandus, a cleric at Roger II’s court, for his parents Anna and Drogo, who died in 1148 and 1153 respectively. The former inscription is in four scripts (Latin, Hebrew, Arabic and Greek) and three languages (Latin, Greek and Arabic, which is rendered both in Arabic and Hebrew script). The presence of the Hebrew alphabet shows the importance of Palermo’s Jewish community (who spoke Arabic) to the commissioner. (You can read more about this beautiful tombstone here.) The very existence of these documents, however, seems to preclude a truly cosmopolitan society. Their trilingualism in fact points towards three or four separate communities who did not speak or read each other’s language.

Tombstone for Anna, mother of Grisandus. Soprintendenza Beni Culturali e Ambientali di Palermo. © Regione Siciliana.

The cosmopolitan language that the Norman kings advocated both reflected and stood in stark contrast with the island’s trifold cultural background. It shows how a ruling elite attempted to create a universal language that appealed to its citizens and visitors from all backgrounds. Palermitans nowadays see the architecture of the Norman age as a sign of their welcoming culture and cosmopolitan heritage. It sparks the question whether cosmopolitanism is inherently bound to one or more (literary) languages. Despite heavy outbursts of religious violence during the second half of the twelfth century, a writer as Pietro of Eboli could still speak of a blessed city, endowed with three languages. The implication of this statement is that twelfth-century Palermo was a city of one, cosmopolitan culture transgressing the linguistic and religious boundaries that at first sight seem to preclude it. Reality may have been somewhat less pastoral than Pietro imagined it, but it is clear that the Norman kings succeeded in creating a unique cultural language that attracts inhabitants and visitors alike, from the time of its conception until now.

Further reading

  • Birk, J. Norman Kings of Sicily and the Rise of the Anti-Islamic Critique. Baptized Sultans (London, 2017)
  • Houben, H. Roger II of Sicily. Ruler between East and West (Cambridge, 2002)
  • Mallette, K. The Kingdom of Sicily, 1130-1250. A Literary History. (Philadelphia, 2005)
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