Palermo and Segesta


 We took the autostrada to Palermo, the coast between Cefalú and Palermo is crowded by a blight of unsightly towns and vacation villages which make driving a real chore. Palermo is large and riddled with one-way streets. Thank God, the police and the inhabitants are lax: double parking is no problem.... For the first time we had to try three hotels, before we found an affordable place on the third floor. For a hefty price the attendant buried our car in the subterranean hotel garage. We were, probably unnecessarily, too apprehensive to park the car in the street... We stayed three days, too little time for Palermo. On the first day we visited the Cappella Palatina, on another we walked to La Siza, a reconstructed Arabic-style pleasure palace of the Norman kings (no photographing), and got lost in town. On the last Sunday, while all Italy had no electric power, we took a bus to Mount Pellegrino, and on Monday we drove to Monreale and on to Segesta and Trapani. By far the strongest impression made...

The Cappella Palatina

It was a free day and a crowd of bus groups a block long was lined up at the entrance to the Royal Palace. I persuaded a kind tour escort to let us join her group. While her sheep where herded through the cavernous place, we just stayed on....

There are many photo books depicting this golden cave, built by King Roger II (between 1130 and 40), few give an impression of the architecture as a whole. All of the following pictures were taken (at 1/8 sec) without a flash, and are not as sharp as one could wish (I discarded a number of them entirely), but I could not have taken these photos at all with a normal camera and Kodachrome 64. My digital Canon was a real boon.

The dome Christ Pantocrator surrounded by archangels (like in the Baptisterio in Florence) — another borrowing from Dionysius Areopagitus — this time beyong any doubts.


 The left side of the nave. The central area of the nave was roped off.


Christ between Petrus and Paulus above the royal throne at the rear of the chapel. 

 The right nave, the deeds of St. Peter.


The right cross-nave depicting the prophetic events in Christ's life according to the Eastern-Orthodox canon: Christ's birth and baptism, Joseph's dream and the flight to Egypt, his transfiguration, and his entry into Jerusalem. Presumably similar subjects adorned the walls of the cathedral of Cefalú.


 Everywhere in the dark niches one finds exquisite Arabic Sufi-ornaments..


 The Royal Chapel is on the second floor of this charming courtyard.


On the third floor are the richly ornamented royal chambers which now house the offices of Sicilian parliament 


 Barbara on the red carpet at the entrance to the royal suites.



The Cathedral of Monreale

Built after 1180 during the reign of William I, the son of Roger II, the great Norman cathedral has survived in its full original splendor.  Since Roger II's time and the construction of Cefalú and the Cappella Palatina, the spirit of the mosaics has changed from a neo-platonic mysticism emphasizing the Eastern-Orthodox canon to a depiction of scenes from the Old and New Testament according to Western tradition....

As it were, Christ in the apse has turned 30 years older, he has grown copious hair, his face has become flabby, his beard grayed... (copy of a photograph from a book Barbara bought for me in Monreale)

...compared to the emaciated, haggard face of the mystic vision of Him in Cefalú.


 The nave and its left wall. The lighting is much poorer than in the Palatina, and I was unable to photograph the well publicized mosaics on the high walls. Notice the wonderfull sculpted capitels which rival those in the churches of the Burgundy.

 The left wall, scenes from the life of Christ, the right wall depicts the important events of the Old Testament.


The Doors of Paradise, the main, western portal of the cathedral. The bronze panels were executed by Bonanno Pisano in 1186, and are signed(!) and dated on the lower left half.. Pisano probably was also responsible for the overall planning of the interior decorations of the cathedral and the cloisters.

Top left half of door (Christ's last years)

Bottom left half (Old Testament)

Bottom right half (Genesis and other events from the Old Testament)




 Segesta is possibly the most beautiful Greek temple (430 BC) in Sicily. An hour east of Palermo it lies among rolling hills. Greece seems very close. The temple, an acropolis, and a Greek theater were part of a thriving town which was destroyed by the Carthagians and finally razed by the Arabs in 1100 AD.

 The temple is the last classical Doric building (460 BC). It is a superb example of a classical architecture, built following all the Athenian rules of a sophisticated construction of the 5th century. It is lighter and far more elegant than the Poseidon/Hera temple in Paestum.: the base is slightly curved, and the interstices between the columns change to off-set perspective — but it was apparently never finished. The archeologists debate whether it ever had a roof (there are no cuts in the structure for the wooden beams of a ceiling and no remnants of a cella.

This picture gives an idea of the liberating freedom of the inner space of the temple and the proportion of its columns.


The unfinished character of the temple of Segesta is also reflected in the missing crenellations of its columns, which would have been applied last, after the drums had been stacked.

Since reading Vincent Scully's "The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods," which investigates the relationship between the surrounding landscape and the Greek temples, I have become interested in the details of the hills and valleys seen from the site. In Greece this connection is obvious and very strong: the axes of the temples point at specific numinous geological objects in the landscape, which, mostly female forms, define the original nature of the sanctuary. In Italy this relationship is much less pronounced, probably because these places were not located at spots already sacred for millennia before their construction. The temples in Greece stand at locations, which had already been dedicated to the goddesses of the matriarchal era before the Doric invasion. The Italian temples are colonial architecture, erected for other reasons than the pre-existence of sanctuaries of the Great Goddess. Segesta is an exception, a deep gorge opens to the west, and the hills to the north — better seen from the theater — draw a line, which though not "sacred" to the Goddess, forms a "megaron" of its own kind around the temple and the acropolis.  

 This picture shows the variation of the inter-columnar spaces and the slightly bulging curvature of the architrave — a "blown-up cushion" like in the Parthenon in Athens.

Likewise I believe to see the same curvature in the base-line — although it is harder to see because of the perspective distortions introduced by the camera.   

 The southeastern corner. The columns a cut from local stone and after crenellation would have been covered with stucco and painted.

 The northwestern corner and the hill on the axis of the temple.


 One takes a minibus to the acropolis and after climbing across a low ridge stands on top of the theater and this magnificent "skine" provided by the surrounding landscape. — This is a composite of three photographs, click on the picture to enlarge it — and notice the elegant S-curve of the bridge of the autostrada to Trapani.

We spent the night in Trapani — not a particularly interesting town. Fearing an experience like in Taormina we did not drive up to Erice, but instead returned to Segesta in the morning for another two hours, and then wound our way south through idyllic country to Castelvetrano, the church of SS Trinitá di Delia, and Selinunte.