In the recent wonderful British Museum exhibition on the historical cultures of Sicily, the curators described 12th century Norman rule as a ‘Golden Age’ , an ‘Enlightened Kingdom’ in which the ‘coexistence of Western, Islamic and Byzantine cultures created what was probably the most progressive court in Europe.’ From the perspective of the time, the relationship between different peoples in Norman Sicily, as in Moorish Iberia, was remarkably tolerant. There was, of course, nothing equal in the relationship between different peoples; it was, after all, the relationship of the conqueror to the conquered. And ‘tolerance’ was not so much a political philosophy as a form of governance, a means of using social divisions to help impose control. When tolerance did not achieve the necessary results, whenever a particular group was deemed too turbulent, rulers could be intolerant in the most vicious of ways. Communities were often relocated en masse to another region. In the 1220s, for instance, Frederick II transported some 20,000 Sicilian Muslims to Lucera in southern Italy, to rid himself of what he saw as a troublesome group.
But if political power was inevitably asserted from the top, and often with brutal force,cultural influences coursed in all directions. Rulers frequently adopted the styles of conquered peoples. In Sicily, Norman kings, like the Muslim rulers they supplanted, adorned themselves in flowing silk robes, employed eunuchs as servants, and dined on artichokes and aniseed, couscous and cinnamon, pomegranates and pistachios, sesame and saffron. This was, to adopt a contemporary and contested phrase, cultural appropriation at its sharpest. The results are visible in contemporary Sicily, from the cuisine to place names.
It was in architecture, however, that Sicilian cultural appropriation is most gloriously revealed. The pinnacle of Norman-Arab-Byzantine architectural fusion is arguably the Cathedral of Monreale, a small town a short distance from Palermo. Its construction was begun by William II in 1174, a century after the Normans retook Palermo from the Arabs. Built by Arabic and Byzantine as well as Norman craftsmen, it is a thrilling amalgam of cultural traditions and religious symbolism. The austere look of the Norman façade has been softened with Arab motifs. As you enter, you are bedazzled by an astonishing expanse of Byzantine mosaics and Islamic decoration. Granite columns reach up to a beautifully-carved wooden roof. The windows of the clerestory throw soft light upon a magnificent series of golden mosaics that run the length of the nave and through which is told the Christian story. And beyond, lie the cloisters, a glorious quadrangle of beautifully-proportioned marble columns and Arabic arches that remind one of Cordoba or Granada or even Cairo. It is a fusion both inspiring and intoxicating.