The Painted Ceilings of the Cappella Palatina.

Author:Grabar, Oleg
Position:Book review


The Painted Ceilings of the Cappella Palatina

Genoa: Bruschettini Foundation for Islamic and Asian Art; New York: East-West Foundation, 2005. 518 pp.; 200 color ills., 762 b/w. $195.00

The Cappella Palatina in Palermo, completed sometime in the middle of the twelfth century (there is some discussion about the exact sequence of its construction and decoration, about which more will be said shortly), is without doubt one of the most unusual monuments of medieval art. With its Latin shape, Byzantine mosaics, and an Islamic muqarnas (stalactite) ceiling covered with paintings, it seems to reflect a sort of ecumenical political and cultural intention fitting nicely with the unfulfilled ideals of our own times and vaguely suggesting that Norman Sicily, at least under Roger II and his son William I, prefigured the equally idealized convivencia of fourteenth-century Spain. From the point of view of our own century, such a notion may be reasonable, and perhaps even proper, and it is easy enough to depict twelfth-century Norman culture as a model in which economic and political ambitions overwhelmed sectarian antagonisms and to see Roger II and his son as enlightened rulers of a multiethnic state. An art historian may even find it morally rewarding to interpret a monument of visual effectiveness as the illustration of political and cultural harmony.

In reality, however, matters are much more complex and far less rosy. In fact, much recent, and not so recent, scholarship has dissected the Norman twelfth century, and especially the royal chapel in Palermo, into masses of often contradictory components. The bibliography of the book under review takes up 212 pages and is divided into ten sections. I am sure that it is as complete as can be, although out of sheer orneriness, I hope that graduate student seminar reports, the only collective exercise in which this bibliography can truly be examined and exploited, will uncover significant missing contributions to our knowledge of Norman Sicily and to the arts of the time. In the meantime, I will stick by the many fairly recent studies by Ernst Kitzinger, William Tronzo, and Jeremy Johns that argue that the chapel was built in 1140 but its decoration not completed until the 1150s, that the peculiarities of the plan and elevation as well as of the decoration reflect the ceremonial practices, taste, and ideological pretenses of two rulers rather than a call to ecumenical values, and that there is no necessity to assume a single coherent plan for the building and its decoration. While it is obvious that the 1140 chapel had a ceiling, it was not necessarily the muqarnas ceiling we see there now, which could easily have replaced some earlier and simpler covering device, perhaps a vault.

Leaving aside the complicated problems of the exact sequencing of construction and decoration and of the royal ideologies expressed in the relation of the chapel to the palace, the two largest bodies of visual documents presented by the building itself are the Christian mosaics of the walls and arches of the nave and of the dome over the sanctuary and the heavily decorated "Islamic" ceiling of the main nave of the chapel and of the two side aisles. The latter have been much damaged and restored over the centuries and are not considered in this book. But a list of the motifs found on the ceiling of the aisles is provided (pp. 508-11) with references to an earlier book by Ugo Monneret de Villard for illustrations.

The mosaics have been frequently analyzed, from many points of view, ranging from technique to style and iconography. This is not so for the paintings of the ceiling, whose wealth and variety of imagery are infinitely greater, even if it is not always visible from the floor. Its numerous repaintings have now been fairly systematically and fairly successfully cleaned away, so that the original...

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