Monreale (PA)

Exterior of Monreale cathedralI fear my memories of Monreale ('The Royal Mountain') are distorted. You are obviously expected, as a visitor, to approach from the north, from Palermo: if, like me you are coming from the south, from Pioppi, you enter a confusing tagliatelle of streets where its impossible either to escape or park, and there seems to be no sign of one of the largest Norman cathedrals in Europe. But miracles can occur (and why not here in the shadow of this most irreligious cathedral?). Opposite where I parked was a barber's shop - I'd needed a trim for some weeks - but I was not expecting the most superb trichological treat of my life. If Carslberg did hairdressing, it would be like this Parucchiere del Uomo - 'probably the best haircut in the world'. It put to shame the great hairdressing salon in the basement of Harrods where I used to go in the early 60s (is it still there?). However, I digress. The cathedral and its mosaics are the reason I'd come here.

The cathedral was built for an entirely secular purpose. William the Good (sounds like a title for Richmal Crompton) - son of William I ('The Bad') and grandson of the great Roger II - was only thirteen when he inherited the kingdom of Sicily in 1166. The real power, even after William came of age, was in the hands of an Englishman, Walter of the Mill (Gualtieri Offamilio in Italian). William decided to squeeze Walter by building a new cathedral a mere 5 miles away from "his" cathedral in Palermo. Not only was it to be bigger and better, it was also going to be the future mausoleum for the royal family. The layout of the cathedral and its cloister were Latin - but the fountain in the cloister was Moorish, and the column capitals, each one different, are by Tuscan, Apulian, Byzantine, Arab and Provençal craftsmen. The 70,000 square feet of mosaic in the cathedral was the work of Greeks - but the inscriptions are in Latin. William was a good friend to the Muslims in Sicily (often appearing in Arab dress) - but his reign is the last in which there could be said to have been genuine religious toleration.

Christ Pantocrator mosaic in Monreale CathedralAnd so, binoculars at the ready, into the duomo. The interior of the cathedral is very dark - it certainly was on the November morning of my visit, but even unlit, the effect is overwhelming. The lights are capricious - for my first 500 lire I got about 3 seconds. Regardless of expense, I studied the mosaics in the nave (Old Testament from Creation to Flood) until I got a crick in the neck. The aisles (Life of Christ) got more cursory treatment. The centre apse has a huge mean-looking Pantocrator - which (I wrote at the time) seemed to saying, Bob Geldof style, "Give me your f***ing money!"

The cloisters, as already mentioned, with the Arab fountain and amazing pillars, is another overwhelming experience. From Monreale, I tried to drive up to S. Martino delle Scale, but the road was blocked. I paused to eat the delicious pizza slice I'd bought earlier in Monreale, and to savour the view over Palermo and the Conca d' Oro.

Moorish fountain and cloister at Monreale Dramatic capital in Monreale cloister
View over Palermo and the Conca d\'Oro from above Monreale


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