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Churches of Palermo
In this list we've divided some of the city's better-known churches into architectural categories. All these churches are in the old historic part of Palermo and all are normally open to the public unless otherwise indicated. Hours are normally 9-12:30 and then from 4 to 7 PM.
Palatine Chapel: This is located in the Norman Palace, which also includes the earlier chapel (now the crypt), the Phoenician archeological site and several original features of the palace, such as the "Salon of King Roger" (Sala di Ruggero). It is described on its own page. (Number 2 on the Palermo Map.)
The Cathedral of Palermo is also described on a separate page.
Martorana: Saint Mary's of the Admiral (shown at right) is its official name. This church was built in 1143 at the behest of George of Antioch, who was a famous Admiral during the reign of King Roger II. George of Antioch was also responsible for the construction of the "Admiral's Bridge." Admiral George's official title was the Arabic "Amir-al-Bahr" or "Emir of the Sea." (Both the Italian "ammiraglio" and the English "admiral" are derived from this medieval Arabic title.) Arabic lettering is visible around the cupola. The church, which was Greek Orthodox during the Norman era, was "converted" to the Roman Rite in the 13th century. It became part of the Byzantine Catholic diocese of Piana degli Albanesi in 1935.
The Martorana's original Norman Arab construction was unfortunately altered in the 17th century . The main nave and a good part of the mosaics were torn down and replaced with Baroque construction and frescoes.
The sections of the Church that still retain their original Arab-Norman characteristics possess some of the most beautiful mosaics ever executed in Sicily. Though the mosaic decorations here are not extensive, they are said to be the work of the best Byzantine craftsmen of that epoch, masters of the art specifically brought to Sicily from Constantinople by King Roger II to create the images in the Norman Palace and the Cathedral of Cefalù.
The most famous mosaic in La Martorana is the one of King Roger II being crowned by Christ. It represents the sovereign's authority as emanating directly from God, not the Pope, an extremely important concept in the politics of 12th century Sicily. This design was later emulated in Monreale Cathedral, where King William II is portrayed crowned by Christ in a mosaic wall panel. Other noteworthy mosaics in the Martorana are that of Christ Pantocrator and that of Admiral George worshipping the Madonna.
The splendid bell tower, representing the apex of Norman-Arab style, is the Church's outstanding external feature. The Martorana is open most weekdays from 9:30 to 1:00 and from 3:30 to 5:00, weekends from 9:30 to 1:00. (Number 6 on the Palermo Map.)
San Cataldo and Piazza Pretoria: The tiny Church of San Cataldo, located near the Martorana, was built around 1154 by Maio (or Maione) of Bari, who was the "Emir" or Prime Minister of King William I "The Bad." Inwardly and outwardly, the church retains its twelfth-century ambience; it doesn't even have electric lighting. Externally, its most distinctive features are the three pinkish red domes or cupolas. Even if you've already seen Saint John of the Hermits, San Cataldo is impressive in its austerity. The Church, which is a religious seat of the knights of the Holy Sepulchre, is open only occasionally but worth a look if you have a chance. Down the steps at street level, at the base of its foundation, are the remains of a Roman wall. (Number 5 on the Palermo Map.)
Across Via Maqueda from the Church of Saint Joseph of the Theatines is Piazza Pretoria and its splendid fountain. Its sixteen statues are divided among the four sets of stairs leading to the largest fountain in the center; these statues are nudes of nymphs, humans, mermaids and satyrs. It is surprising that this fountain was permitted to be erected in Palermo during the heyday of the Spanish Inquisition. The fountain was originally commissioned for the Tuscan Villa of the Viceroy Don Pedro de Toledo, and created by the Florentine sculptor Francesco Camiliani in 1555. In 1574, the Viceroy's son , whose own artistic tastes were a bit more conservative, sold the fountain to the City of Palermo. It was shipped here piece by piece and was installed in front of the Municipio (City Hall), the large ochre building nearby. (Number 4 on the Palermo Map.)
St John of the Hermits Monastery: Located near the Royal Palace, the Abbey Church of St. John of the Hermits (San Giovanni degli Eremiti) is another fine example of 12th century Norman-Arab construction here in Palermo. That it was built upon a mosque may account for its particularly Arabic style, with five reddish cupolas. (Incidentally, we do not know for certain whether these cupolas were originally red.) The bell tower is the only part of the building that has a distinctively Norman appearance, with its Gothic lines and mullioned windows. Were it not for the bell tower, Saint John's could easily be mistaken for a mosque.
The construction of St. John of the Hermit's was ordered by Roger II in 1130 for the Benedictine Order. St. John's visual impact results mostly from its external features, with its charming Arabesque domes amidst the surrounding trees and gardens, and an elegant cloister, probably a 13th century addition constructed in the Romanesque style, though it combines harmoniously with the Church and its surrounding gardens. The Church of St. John of the Hermits is open Mondays through Saturdays from 9 to 1 and 3 to 7. On Sundays, the Church is only open in the morning from 9 to 1. There is a nominal admission fee. (Number 20 on the Palermo Map.)
Magione Basilica: In the Kalsa quarter of the city, a few steps from the central train station and a busy street named for Abraham Lincoln, stands the Basilica of the Holy Trinity, usually called "the Magione." Construction of this splendid church was begun around 1170 under the direction of Matthew Aiello, a chancellor of the King. It initially served as a monastery of the Cistercians, whose cloister still stands next to the church. As King of Sicily, Henry VI von Hohenstaufen (ruled 1194-1197) confiscated the complex and erected a commandery of the Teutonic Order, which established it as their conventual seat for western Sicily. The presence of the Teutonic Knights reflected Henry's attempt to bring a German influence to the Sicilian court. His premature death changed this, but the Teutonic knights remained until the fifteenth century. In 1787, King Ferdinando of I of the Two Sicilies made the church part of the royal demesne as a commandery of the Constantinian Order of Saint George, whose cross appears over the portal at the entrance to the courtyard. The Constantinian Order still uses the Magione for some of its services.
The church's style contrasts somewhat with that of the other Norman-Arab churches in Palermo. With its sweeping arches, the Magione embodies a more typically Northern European style clearly influenced by the early Gothic. It has a transept, pointed roof, and no tower or cupolas. The Magione was built before the vogue for rose windows (such as those in the "Romanesque Gothic" churches of Saint Francis and Saint Agostino described below), while the exterior design of the church's apse is similar to that of the cathedrals of Palermo and Monreale.
Baroque elements added over the centuries were removed during an extensive restoration following the damage inflicted during the Allied bombardment of 1943. Restoration of the cloister continue. The Magione one sees today is very similar to the the church as it appeared when it was built. The Magione is open most weekday mornings and also on Sunday mornings. (Number 15 on the Palermo Map.)
St Francis Assisi: The Basilica of San Francesco d' Assisi (St. Francis of Assisi) is a splendid medieval church erected in the typically Italian Romanesque Gothic style. Construction was begun in 1255 by the Franciscan Order, which still has a monastery here. The portal is noted for its richly decorated triple false arches, while the exquisite rose window above the main entrance is the epitomizes medieval Latin church architecture. The facade, built in the early 1300s by the Ventimiglia, Abbatelli and Chiaramonte families, is not unlike that of the Church of Sant' Agostino, but inside St. Francis retains a much more medieval flavor. The church has a nave with magnificent arches, and also a beautiful cloister. A side chapel is dedicated to the Sicilian branch of the Grimaldi family, better known in Genoa and Monaco.
St. Francis of Assisi is open from 7:30 to 12:30 in the morning and from 4:30 to 6:30 in the afternoon most days. There are some charming restaurants and cafés in the piazza in front of the church. (Number 26 on the Palermo Map.)
St Augustine (Sant'Agostino): The Church of Sant' Agostino (St. Augustine), on Via Francesco Raimondi, was built in the fourteenth century in a Romanesque Gothic architectural style that is locally known as "Chiaramonte Gothic." The construction of the church was financed mostly by a powerful Sicilian baronial family, the La Grua, whose coat of arms is visible on the exterior. Most of the interior was reconstructed in the Baroque style in later centuries. The facade, rose window and main entrance are typically medieval, as is the cloister off to the left side of the church.
This cloister is built in the Catalan Gothic style and surrounds a central fountain. The "chapterhouse" located at a corner of the cloister preserves some original thirteenth century features. Embedded into the wall of the stairs leading from the church's side entrance is an ancient Roman tomb. Sant' Agostino is located near the Capo Market, a large street market that captures the flavor of Palermo's Saracen past. Capo is a blend of general confusion and a jumble of vendors' stalls, winding toward the old gate (Porta Carini) of what used to be the city wall. The original market is not the part near Sant' Agostino, but the section where one finds meat, fish and produce vendors. Sant' Agostino is worth a visit, but the Church of San Francesco, built in the same style, better preserves its medieval look because it has suffered fewer modifications over the centuries. (Number 21 on the Palermo Map.)
Santa Maria della Catena: The Church of Santa Maria della Catena (St. Mary's of the Chain) takes its name from the huge chain that was strung across the water here to bar entrance to the "Cala," the interior part of Palermo's harbor. This practice originated during the Middle Ages, when raids by Turkish corsairs and other assorted pirates were not uncommon.
The Church was erected in the late 1400s, designed by Matteo Carnelivari in what is best described as a mixture of late Gothic and early Renaissance styles. The church's main entrance, reached by a flight of wide steps, has a triple arched portico built in the Renaissance style. Inside, there are sculptures both from the 1400s and the Renaissance periods. The Church is only open on Sundays for services. The church is next to Piazza Marina. (Number 13 on the Palermo Map.)
Casa Professa: The "Chiesa del Gesù" (Church of Jesus), also known as Casa Professa is Baroque masterpiece located in Palermo's Alberghieria quarter near the Quattro Canti. The Jesuits built the original church here, the Order's first one in Palermo, between 1564 and 1578. Afterwards, the Church was enlarged with the addition of side chapels and further decorated in the Baroque manner. When it was finally completed in 1634, the Church was Palermo's most ornate Baroque church, and still is.
Interestingly enough, a great part of the work here was done by Jesuit priests themselves and not by commissioned artists. The Baroque was the architectural embodiment of the Counter Reformation's ideals, its answer to the simplicity stressed in most Protestant places of worship. Its ornate stone inlay (intarsia) is the church's most distinguishing artistic feature.
Casa Professa was damaged during World War II, but was superbly restored following that conflict. It is open most mornings from 8 until 10:30 and most afternoons from 5 to 6:30. (Note: Presently, it is closed for restorations.) Nearby is the Ballarò street market and the medieval Church of San Nicolò. The market, and its very name, dates from Arab times. (Number 24 on the Palermo Map.)
Saint Joseph of the Theatines and Quattro Canti: San Giuseppe dei Teatini is the large church located on the southeast corner of the Quattro Canti. It is the ultimate in Baroque. The church was designed by Giacomo Besio in 1612. The Dome was added in the 18th century. One of the more noted works of art in this Baroque jungle is "The Triumph of Sant' Andrea Avellino" painted in 1724 by the Dutch artist Borremans.
Located at the intersection of Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda, the "Quattro Canti" (Four Quarters) is the traditional center of Palermo, the crossroad marking the heart of Palermo's old historic district. Many of Palermo's monuments, artistic churches and other sights of historical and touristic interest are located within walking distance of the Quattro Canti. Although almost everyone in Palermo calls the Four Corners "Quattro Canti", the intersection's official name is actually "Piazza Vigilena," named for the Spanish Viceroy who had the sculptures built on the Four Corners back in 1611. Each of the four buildings that comprise the Quattro Canti, has three levels covered with Baroque sculptures that were designed by the architect Giulio Lasso. The sculptures on the facades of the four buildings illustrate various themes: the Four Seasons, Spanish kings and various patron saints of Palermo's four old quarters. The fountains at ground level are typically Baroque. These sculptures were actually executed by a collective of talented local sculptors of that era, among whom d'Aprile, La Mattina and Tedeschi. (Number 7 on the Palermo Map.)
Saint Dominic: The Basilica of San Domenico (St. Dominic), off Via Roma, is another fine example of Sicilian Baroque and is also known for the many prominent Sicilians laid to rest in it. San Domenico's landmark is the obelisk-like "Colonna dell' Immacolata" in the piazza in front of the basilica.
The church is noted for its facade, designed and built in 1726 by Tommaso Maria Napoli. The inside of the Church is not particularly interesting, except for the tombs of several Sicilians of national prominence. Francesco Crispi, the first prime minister of a united Italy, is buried here. The church is also the final resting place of folk scholar Giuseppe Pitré, and artist Pietro Novelli.
The streets off the piazza will lead you into Vucciria, another one of Palermo's street markets with an oriental bazaar ambience. "Vucciria" is a corruption of the French for butcher-shop, "boucherie." (Number 23 on the Palermo Map.)
© 2008 Best of Sicily Travel Guide. Used by permission.