You may wish to read an introduction to this section first.
Fortifications by the sea
Thursday, April 29, 1790. The ancient name of Cefalu was Cephalaedis or Cephalaedium. Its origin is very remote and it is mentioned by many of the classic writers. (..) The ancient city was situated on the summit of a lofty rock projecting into the sea.
Sir Richard Colt Hoare - A Classical Tour through Italy and Sicily - published in 1819.
Cefalu (..) is a very neat town, the see of a bishop and contains 10,000 inhabitants. A high mount under which this place is built renders Cefalu one of the most formidable military positions in Sicily; it seems to have been a favourite spot with the Saracens as a strong castle is built in the centre and the whole circumference is surrounded with a wall and towers. This place would certainly be impregnable if properly fortified.
Edward Blaquiere (an English naval officer during the Napoleonic wars) - Letters from the Mediterranean - 1813
Being difficult of access and in a state of decay the town was removed into the plain by King Roger II to grace the magnificent temple which he erected on this spot. Sailing from Naples to Sicily with three vessels he was overtaken by a dreadful tempest in the gulf of Salerno and tossed for two days in the waves. In the midst of the peril he vowed to build a temple on the first shore to which he should be driven in honour of the Saviour of the world. He at length reached Cefalu and here fulfilled his vow by raising the structure which now forms the cathedral. Colt Hoare
Cefal¨ is situated in the middle of the northern Sicilian coast. A high rock which sheltered a small harbour attracted the attention of Greek settlers which founded a colony at its foot. Its name had a reference to kefa, head, promontory. In 1063 it was conquered by the Normans and in 1131 King Roger II initiated the construction of the Cathedral.
Cathedral: detail of the fašade
Like that at Monreale and others of the same area it is in the Norman style of architecture. Colt Hoare
The front is retired to the back of two great flanking towers, and the space between them is filled by a loggia or vaulted porch of three pointed arches in a later style. It was once adorned with mosaics of King Roger and his successors, of which no trace now remains. Above and behind this loggia the upper part of the front shows itself with two tiers of pointed arcading, the lower interlacing, and interrupted by the only western window.
Sir Thomas Graham Jackson - Gothic Architecture in France, England, and Italy - 1915.
Sir Thomas Graham Jackson (1835-1924) was one of the leading architects of his time. He extensively wrote about Byzantine, Romanesque and Gothic architecture. These styles were regarded as total deviation from all the chaste proportions of the Grecian art (Henry Swinburne - Travels in the Two Sicilies. 1777-1780) by late XVIIIth and early XIXth centuries art historians and travellers.
A characteristic of the Norman buildings in Sicily is the wide use of zigzag mouldings, rather than more elaborate decorative patterns based on foliage or series of niches housing small statues.
Another feature of Norman architecture which can be noticed also in the Cathedrals of Monreale and Palermo is the use of interlacing arches. They were also typical of Arab architecture and were widely employed in the decoration of monuments in Spain. The first Norman kings of Sicily availed themselves of Arab architects and decorators as well as of Greek mosaic makers.
The Cathedral is flanked by two massive bell towers which had a defensive purpose. In the XVth century their aspect was lightened by the addition of a smaller storey with a pyramidal roof. Considering that the portico with three large bays is another XVth century addition and that the whole complex is surrounded by high walls it is reasonable to think that initially the Cathedral was designed to provide a last resort defence in case of attack. The Latin term for this kind of building is ecclesia munita (fortified church) and it applies to the Cathedrals of Catania and Palermo too. Basilica della Santa Casa at Loreto can be regarded as a later example of ecclesia munita.
Cathedral: detail of "Porta Regum" (Kings' Door), the main portal (the view is impaired by an anti-pigeon net)
The building is rather dilapidated and has been a good deal spoiled by
later alterations. T. G. Jackson.
The portal was designed and executed between 1471 and 1484 by a master stonecutter from Como in northern Italy. He made use of ancient slabs of marble, many of which were decorated with acanthus scrolls. Its details were hardly visible until a thorough restoration was completed in 2001.
The Nave and Choir of this Church raised as a Votive Offering are ornamented with ancient Columns and ancient Capitals (..) and beyond the Nave are mosaics.
Mariana Starke - Travels in Europe for the Use of Travellers on the Continent and likewise in the Island of Sicily - 1838 Edition - based on a travel to Sicily made in 1834.
The plan of the cathedral (..) has a nave seven bays long with side aisles, a transept projecting a little beyond the aisles, and a choir and aisles of two bays ending in three apses. The nave and transepts have wooden roofs, the choir is vaulted, and the apse has a pointed semi-dome set within an arch. (..) The nave is now very bare, the arches and walls being plastered and whitened.(..) The two bays of the choir are cross-vaulted; the first is ruined by rococo work, but the second together with the great apse has retained its mosaics which are perhaps the finest in the island. T. G. Jackson
Cathedral: (left) baptismal font (XIIth century); (right) one of the capitals
The cathedral has an interesting font of a material resembling our Frosterley marble, consisting of a bowl
4' 6" in diameter with four lions in relief, resting on two
spirally fluted stones. (..) The columns are of granite all of one height, raised on pedestals, and
with good classic bases. Many of the capitals seem of
late Roman work, the rest are based on Corinthian, but
some have animals and figures mixed with acanthus
leaves. They all have the Byzantine pulvino (a piece in the form of a truncated pyramid) marble. Many
are much damaged, and in some the horns are gone. T. G. Jackson
The image used as background for this page shows a remaining fragment of the original Cosmati-type decoration of the Cathedral.
Cathedral: mosaic of the apse (see a similar mosaic at Hagia Sophia in Constantinople with the right hand fingers in the same position)
In the centre is a large half-length figure of Christ, dominating the church magnificently. The head seems to have been a good deal restored, but has preserved a singularly dignified and impressive aspect. The right hand is extended in benediction, the thumb touching the third and fourth fingertips, the first and second fingers extended and bent. In the left hand is a book with a text in Greek and Latin from St. John VIII. 1 2. (I am the light of the world: he that followeth me, walketh not in darkness, but shall have the light of life). (..) There is another inscription round the face of the arch within which the apse is set, as follows: "Factus homo factor hominis, factique redemptor, Iudico, corporeus corpora, corda deus" (I, man's maker, now made man, and redeemer of him I made, God in flesh, judge all human hearts and bodies). T. G. Jackson. Those familiar with the paintings by John Singer Sargent (it opens in another window) in the Boston Public Library will recollect having read it there.
In the drum of the apse are three tiers of mosaic, the two lower being interrupted by the only window. The uppermost has in the centre a figure of the Virgin with hands extended as an orans, in the attitude of prayer, between two angels on either hand. (..) The columns at the starting of the apse are in two heights, the upper half seems of porphyry, but on closer inspection proves to be covered with porphyry-coloured mosaic. T. G. Jackson
Cathedral: mosaics of the side walls
The two lower tiers
contain figures of the Apostles (and other saints and prophets) with their names in
Greek. T. G. Jackson
When the Normans conquered Sicily they found out that the Bishop of Palermo was loyal to the Patriarch of Constantinople and that ceremonies in churches were held in Greek. With the approval of the Popes they appointed a number of trusted bishops who reported to the Church of Rome and gradually Latin replaced Greek as the official language for ceremonies. This change is visible at Monreale and Cappella Palatina in Palermo where the oldest mosaics have headings in Greek and the newest ones in Latin. This did not occur at Cefal¨ because the successors of King Roger II lost interest in the Cathedral he founded and did not complete its decoration.
Cathedral: mosaic of the vault
The quadripartite vault has four seraphs, radiating from the centre, with six wings as in the pendentives of S. Sophia, and eight cherubs, emerging from a nebulous space in the pointed base of the cell. (..) It would be difficult to praise these splendid mosaics too highly. They preserve the decorative quality of the earlier Byzantine school of Ravenna, with less stiffness than those of the 6th century, and escape the slight tendency to grotesqueness which shows itself in the later work at Monreale. T. G. Jackson
(left) Cloister and northern transept; (right) an arm of the cloister
The north transept rises finely from the cloister, and is backed
up by the great mountain behind the town. (..) North of the nave is a sadly dilapidated cloister with stilted pointed arches and coupled colonnettes. Many of the shafts are gone and are replaced by rough piers of masonry, and one side of
the cloister has been rebuilt plainly in comparatively
modern times. T. G. Jackson
The cloister is coeval to the Cathedral, but only two original arms remain. One was destroyed by fire in 1809 and another one was dismantled in 1952. The decoration of the cloister was executed by master stonecutters from Apulia, another region of southern Italy which was ruled by the Normans.
Cloister: details of the capitals: (above) imaginary beasts; (below) an acrobat and Noah building the Ark, a subject which was illustrated in the mosaics of Monreale too
Some of the capitals have Byzantine
foliage, others have animals and
one is an amusing composition of an acrobat with his
head between his legs at each corner representing no
doubt some jester who had amused the court of King
Roger, and caught the sculptor's fancy. T. G. Jackson
The decoration of the capitals alternated images from medieval bestiaries with depictions of scenes from the Bible. Because of the missing arms this series of scenes is not complete.
are tolerably regular, but those in the
upper and lower parts of the town are
very narrow (..) There are
few good houses, and some curious
remains of medieval domestic architecture, with pointed windows divided
by slender pillars, and archivolts ornamented with patterns in black and
white stone. In the principal street
is a picturesque building called "Casa di Rogero", from the popular tradition
that it was built by King Roger as a
A Handbook for Travellers in Sicily - Murray - 1864
Domus Regia (House of the King) was the name by which this fortified palace in the centre of Cefal¨ was referred to in old books written in Latin. It was erected in the XIIIth century, perhaps making use of previous buildings and for centuries it belonged to the Ventimiglia, a noble family of Piedmontese origin. They held important positions with the German and Aragonese rulers of Sicily. In 1603 the building was sold to a Dominican monastery and eventually it was partitioned into flats and warehouses.
The decoration of this and other churches in Sicily and Malta is an interesting depiction of the sufferings of souls in Purgatory. Maybe because anima (soul) is a feminine word in Italian or because of an association between sin and the female sex which began with Eve, the souls in need of purification were portrayed as naked young women emerging from flames. Prayers for the salvation of the dead and the shortening of their sufferings in Purgatory had great importance in the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries and their effect was certified officially as one can read in marble tablets below many sacred images and crosses in Rome and elsewhere.
Museo Mandralisca: (left to right) an Arab funerary inscription; "Portrait of an Unknown Seaman" by Antonello da Messina (ca 1470); XIXth century view of Cefalu by Francesco Bevelacqua; coin from ancient Syracuse portraying the Nymph Arethusa; Egyptian Amulet of the Tet
The Baron Mandralisca has a small
collection of antiquities found on this
site; he has some pictures in addition. A Handbook for Travellers in Sicily - Murray - 1864
Baron Enrico Piraino di Mandralisca (1809-1864) gathered in his small palace an interesting collection which included antiquities and works of art as well as shells and scientific instruments with the intention to provide his fellow citizens with a tool to ameliorate their education.
Plan of this section:
Agrigento - The Main Temples
Agrigento - Other Monuments
Catania - Ancient Monuments
Catania - Around Piazza del Duomo
Catania - Via dei Crociferi
Catania - S. Niccol˛ l'Arena
Palermo - Gates and City Layout
Palermo - Norman-Arab Monuments
Palermo - Martorana and Cappella Palatina
Palermo - Medieval Palaces
Palermo - Cathedral
Palermo - Churches of the Main Religious Orders
Palermo - Other Churches
Palermo - Oratories
Palermo - Palaces of the Noble Families
Palermo - Public Buildings and Fountains
Palermo - Museums
Piazza Armerina and Castelvetrano
Reggio Calabria - Archaeological Museum
Selinunte - The Acropolis
Selinunte - The Eastern Hill
Syracuse - Main Archaeological Area
Syracuse - Other Archaeological Sites
Syracuse - Castello Eurialo
Syracuse - Ancient Ortigia
Syracuse - Medieval Monuments
Syracuse - Renaissance Monuments
Syracuse - Baroque and Modern Monuments
Taormina - Ancient Monuments
Taormina - Medieval Monuments
Villa del Casale