1902 Encyclopedia > Palermo


PALERMO (Greek, ______; Latin, Panhormus, Panormus), the capital of the Sicilian kingdom as long as it kept its separate being, now capital of a province of the same name in the kingdom of Italy, and the see of an arch-bishop. The population numbered 205,712 in 1881. The city stands in the north-west part of the island, on a small bay looking eastwards, the coast forming the chord of a semicircle of mountains which hem in the campagna of Palermo, called the Golden Shell (Conca d'Oro). The most striking point is the mountain of Heirkte, now called Pellegrino (from the grotto of Santa Rosalia, a favourite place of pilgrimage), which rises immediately above both the sea and the city. Palermo has been commonly thought to be an original Phoenician settlement of unknown date,

1. Church of S. Giuseppe. I 3. Church of S. Salvatore.
2. Palazzo del Municipio. | 4. Church of S. Giovanni degli Eremiti.

but lately Prof. Holm, the historian of ancient Sicily, has suggested that the settlement was originally Greek. There is no record of any Greek colonies in that part of Sicily, and Panhormus certainly was Phoenician as far back as history can carry us. According to Thucydides (vi. 2), as the Greeks colonized the eastern part of the island, the Phoenicians withdrew to the north-west, and concentrated themselves at Panhormus, Motye, and Soloeis (Soluntum, Solunto). Like the other Phoenician colonies in the west, Panhormus came under the power of Carthage, and became the head of the Carthaginian dominion in Sicily. As such it became the centre of that strife between Europe and Africa, between Aryan and Semitic man, in its later stages between Christendom and Islam, which forms the great interest of Sicilian history. As the Semitic head of Sicily, it stands opposed to Syracuse the Greek head. Under the Carthaginian it was the head of the Semitic part of Sicily; when, under the Saracen, all Sicily came under Semitic rule, it was the chief seat of that rule. It has been thrice won for Europe by Greek, Roman, and Norman conquerors—in 276 B.C. by the Epirot king Pyrrhus, in 254 B.C. by the Roman consuls Aulus Atilius and Gnasus Cornelius Scipio, and in 1071 A.D. by Robert Guiscard and his brother Roger, the first count of Sicily. After the conquest by Pyrrhus, the city was soon recovered by Carthage, but this first Greek occupation was the beginning of a connexion with western Greece and its islands which was revived under various forms in later times. After the Roman conquest an attempt to recover the city for Carthage was made in 250 B.C., which led only to the great victory of Metellus just under the southern wall of the city. Later in the First Punic War, Hamilcar Barca was encamped for three years on Heirkte or Pellegrino, but the Roman possession of the city was not disturbed. Panhormus remained a Roman possession, and one of the privileged cities of Sicily, till it was taken by the Vandal Genseric in 440 A.D. It afterwards became a part of the East-Gothic dominion, and was recovered for the empire by Belisarius in 535. It again remained a Roman possession for exactly three hundred years, till it was taken by the Saracens in 835. As Syracuse remained to the empire for a much longer time, Panhormus now became the Mussulman capital. In 1063 the Pisan fleet broke through the chain of the harbour and carried off much spoil, which was spent on the building of the great church of Pisa. After the Norman conquest the city remained for a short time in the hands of the dukes of Apulia. But in 1093 half the city was ceded to Count Roger, and in 1122 the rest was ceded to the second Roger. When he took the kingly title in 1130, it became and re-mained the capital and crowning-place of the kingdom, " Prima sedes, corona regis, et regni caput." During the Norman reigns Palermo was the main centre of Sicilian history, especially during the disturbances in the reign of William the Bad (1154-66). The emperor Henry VI. entered Palermo in 1194, and it was the chief scene of his cruelties. In 1198 his son Frederick, afterwards emperor, was crowned there. His reign was the most brilliant time in the history of the city. After his death Palermo was for a moment a commonwealth. It passed under the dominion of Charles of Anjou in 1266, but he was never crowned there. In the next year, when the greater part of Sicily revolted on behalf of Conradin, Palermo was one of the few towns which was held for Charles; but the famous Vespers of 1282 put an end to the Angevin dominion. From that time Palermo shared in the many changes of the Sicilian kingdom. In 1535 Charles V. landed there on his return from Tunis. The last kings crowned at Palermo were Victor Amadeus of Savoy in 1713, and Charles III. of Bourbon in 1735. The loss of Naples by the Bourbons in 1798, and again in 1806, made Palermo once more the seat of a separate Sicilian kingdom. The city rose against Bourbon rule in 1820 and in 1848. In 1860 came the final deliverance at the hands of Garibaldi, but with it came also the yet fuller loss of the position of Palermo as the capital of a kingdom of Sicily.

The original city was built on a tongue of land between two inlets of the sea. There is some question as to their extent inland, and as to the extent of salt and fresh water. But there is no doubt that the present main street, the Cassaro, Via Marmorea, or Via Toledo (in official language Via Vittorio Emmanuele), represents the line of the ancient town with water on each side of it. Another peninsula with one side to the open sea, meeting as it were the main city at right angles, formed in Polybius's time the Neapolis or new town, in Saracen times Khalesa, a name which still survives in that of Calsa. It was on this side that both the Romans and the Norman conquerors entered the city. But the old relations of land and water have long been changed. The two ancient harbours have been dried up; the two peninsulas have met; the long street has been extended to the present coast-line; a small inlet called the Cala alone represents the old haven. The city kept its ancient shape till after the time of the Norman kings. It is still easy to mark the site of the two inlets, which now form valleys on each side of the long street. The old state of things fully explains the name _______.

There are not many early remains in Palermo. The Phoenician and Greek antiquities in the museum do not belong to the city itself. The earliest existing buildings date from the time of the Norman kings, whose palaces and churches were built in the Saracenic and Byzantine styles prevalent in the island (see NORMANS). Of Saracen works actually belonging to the time of Saracen occupa-tion there are no whole buildings remaining, but many inscriptions and a good many columns, often inscribed with passages from the Koran, which have been used up again in later buildings, specially in the porch of the metropolitan church. This last was built by Archbishop Walter, a native of England, and consecrated in 1185, on the site of an ancient basilica, which on the Saracen conquest became a mosque, and on the Norman conquest became a church again, first of the Greek and then of the Latin rite. What remains of Walter's building is a rich example of the Christian-Saracen style. This church contains the tombs of the emperor Frederick the Second and his. parents, as also the royal throne, higher than that of the archbishop ; for the king of Sicily, as hereditary legate of the see of Rome, was the higher ecclesiastical officer of the two. But the metropolitan church has been so greatly altered in modern times that by far the best example of the style in Palermo, or indeed anywhere, is the chapel of the king's palace at the west end of the city. This is earlier than Walter's church, being the work of King Roger in 1143. Besides the wonderful display of mosaics, it is, simply as an architectural whole, beyond all praise. Of the palace itself the greater part has been rebuilt and added in Spanish times, but there are some other parts of Roger's work left, specially the hall called Sala. Normanna.

Alongside of the churches of this Christian-Saracen type, there is another class which follow the Byzantine type. Of these the most perfect is the very small church of San Cataldo, embodied in public buildings. But the best, though much altered, is the church commonly called Martorana, the work of George of Antioch, King Roger's admiral. This is rich with mosaics, among them the portraits of the king and the founder. Both these and the royal chapel have cupolas, and there is a still greater display in that way in the church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, which it is hard to believe never was a mosque. It is the only church in Palermo with a bell-tower, itself crowned with a cupola.

Most of these buildings are witnesses in different ways to the peculiar position of Palermo in the 12th century as the " city of the threefold tongue," Greek, Arabic, and Latin. Elements from all three sources may be seen, and inscrip-tions abound in all three languages. King Roger's sun-dial in the palace is commemorated in all three, and it is to be noticed that the three inscriptions do not translate one another. In ptrivate inscriptions a fourth tongue, the Hebrew, is also often found. For in Palermo, under the Norman kings, Christians of both rites, Mussulmans, and Jews were all allowed to nourish after their several fashions. This distinguishes Palermo from some other Sicilian cities which belonged wholly or mainly to one people—Greek, Latin, or Saracen. In many of the early churches of Palermo it is easy to see that they were first designed for the Greek rite, which was gradually supplanted by the Latin. The abiding connexion of Palermo with the races of south-eastern Europe comes out in several other shapes. In Saracen times there was a Slavonic quarter on the southern side of the city, and there is still a colony of United Greeks, or more strictly Albanians, who sought shelter from the Turks, and who keep their national religious usages.

The series of Christian-Saracen buildings is continued in the country houses of the kings which surround the city, La Favara and Mimnerno, the works of Eoger, and the better known Ziza and Cuba, the works severally of William the Bad and William the Good. The Saracenic architecture and Arabic inscriptions of these buildings have often caused them to be taken for works of the ancient emirs; but the inscriptions of themselves prove their, date. Different as is their style, their mere shape is not very unlike that of a contemporary keepj in England or Normandy.

All these buildings are the genuine work of Sicilian art, the art which had grown up in the island through the presence of the two most civilized races of the age, the Greek and the Saracen. Later in the 12th century the Cistercians brought in a type of church which, without any great change of mere style, has a very different effect, a high choir taking in some sort the place of the cupola. The greatest example of this is the neighbouring metro-politan church of Monreale; more closely connected with Palermo is the church of San Spirito, outside the city on the ae^.th side, the scene of the Vespers. Palermo is full of churches and monasteries of later date, as in Saracen times it was crowded with mosques. But only a few are •of any architectural importance, and they often simply range with the houses.

Domestic and civil buildings, from the 12th century to the 15th, abound in Palermo, and they present several types of genuine national art, quite unlike anything in Italy. The later houses employ a very flat arch, the use of which goes on in some of the houses and smaller churches of the Renaissance, some of which are very pleasing. But the general aspect of the streets is later still, dating from mere Spanish times. Still many of the houses are stately in their way, with remarkable heavy balconies. The most striking point in the city is the central space at the cross-ing of the main streets, called the Quattro Cantoni. Here the eye catches the mountains at three ends and the sea at the fourth. But none of the chief buildings come into this view, and the intersecting streets suggest a likeness, which is wholly deceptive, to the four limbs of a Roman Chester. Two indeed of the four are formed by the ancient Via Marmorea, but the Via Macqueda, which supplies the _other two, was cut through a mass of small streets in Spanish times.

The city walls remain during the greater part of their extent, but they are of no great interest. The gates also are modern. The best is Porta Nuova, near the king's palace, built in 1584 to commemorate the return of Charles V. fifty years earlier. The design is far better than could have been looked for at that time. Outside the walls, in the immediate neighbourhood of the city, there are, besides the royal country houses and the church of San Spirito, several buildings of the Norman reigns. Among these are the oldest church in or near Palermo, the Lepers' church, founded by the first conqueror or deliverer, Count Roger, and the bridge over the forsaken stream of the Oreto, built in King Roger's day by the admiral George. There are also some later mediaeval houses and towers of some importance. These all lie on to the south of the city, to-wards the hill called Monte Griffone (Griffon = Greek), and the Giant's Cave, which has furnished rich stores for the palaeontologist. On the other side, towards Pellegrino, the change in the ancient haven has caused a new one to grow up, but there is little of artistic or historic interest on this side.

Besides works dealing with Sicily generally, the established local work on Palermo is Descrizione di Palermo Antico, by Salvatore Morso, Palermo. 1827. Modern research and criticism have been applied in Die Miltelalterliche Kunst in Palermo, by Anton Springer, Bonn, 1869; Historische Topographie von Panormus, by Julius Schubring, Liibeek, 1870; Studii di Storia Palermitana, by Adolf Holm, Palermo, 1880. See also "The Normans in Palermo," in the third series of Historical Essays, by E. A. Freeman, London, 1879. The description of Palermo in the second volume of Gselfels's guide-book, Unter-Italien mit Sicilien, Leipsic, leaves nothing to wish for. (E. A. P.)


The coins bearing the name of ______ are no longer assigned to Palermo; but it is probable that certain coins with the name (_____) are of Panhormus.

The above article was written by: E. A. Freeman, D.C.L, LL.D., Regius Professor of Modern History, University of Oxford.

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