IT is remarkable to how many different environments, from Scotland to Sicily, the Normans adapted themselves; with what violent energy they aroused sleeping regions and peoples; and how completely, in a few centuries, they were absorbed by their subjects, and disappeared from history.
For a turbulent century they ruled southern Italy as successors to the Byzantine power, and Sicily as heirs to the Saracens. In 1060 Roger Guiscard, with a tiny band of buccaneers, began the invasion of the island; by 1091 its conquest was complete; in 1085 Norman Italy accepted Roger as its ruler; and when he died (1101) the “two Sicilies”—the island and southern Italy-were already a power in the politics of Europe. Control of the Straits of Messina, and of the fifty miles between Sicily and Africa, gave the Normans a decisive commercial and military advantage. Amalfi, Salerno, and Palermo became the foci of an active trade with all Mediterranean ports, including Moslem centers in Tunisia and Spain. Sicily, now a papal fief, replaced Mohammedan mosques with resplendent Christian churches, and in southern Italy Greek prelates gave way to Roman Catholic priests.
Roger II (1101–54) made Palermo his capital, extended his rule in Italy to Naples and Capua, and in 1130 expanded his title from Count to King. He had all the ambition and courage, resourcefulness and subtlety of his uncle Robert Guiscard; so alert in thought and industrious in action that Idrisi, his Moslem biographer, said of him that he accomplished more asleep than other men awake.1 Opposed by the popes, who feared his encroachment upon the Papal States; by the German emperors, who resented his annexation of the Abruzzi; by the Byzantines, who dreamed of regaining southern Italy; and by the Moslems of Africa, who longed to recapture Sicily, he fought them all, sometimes several of them at once, and emerged with his kingdom greater than before, and with new acquisitions in Tunis, Sfax, Bone, and Tripoli. He made use of the intelligent Saracens, Greeks and Jews of Sicily to organize a better civil service and administrative bureaucracy than any other nation in Europe had at the time. He allowed the feudal organization of agriculture in Sicily, but kept his barons in check with a royal court whose law covered every class. He enriched the economy of Sicily by bringing in silk weavers from Greece, and furthered commerce by competent protection of life, travel, and property. He allowed religious freedom and cultural autonomy to Moslems, Jews, and Greek Catholics, opened career to all talent, himself wore Moslem garb, liked Moslem morals, and lived as a Latin king in an Oriental court. His kingdom was for a generation “the richest and most civilized state in Europe,”2 and he was “the most enlightened ruler of his age.”3 Without him Frederick II, a still greater king, would have been impossible.
The King Roger’s Book of Idrisi suggests the prosperity of Norman Sicily. A hardy busy peasantry covered the rich soil with crops, and kept the cities fed. They lived in hovels, and suffered the usual exploitation of the useful by the clever, but their life was dignified with a colorful piety, and brightened with festivals and song. Every season of the agricultural year had its dances and chants; and vintage time brought bacchanalian feasts that bound ancient Saturnalia with modern Carnival. Even to the poorest there remained love, and folk songs ranging from license and satire to lyrics of purest tenderness. In the town of San Marco, said Idrisi, “the air is perfumed by the violets growing everywhere.” Messina, Catania, Syracuse flourished again as in Carthaginian, Greek, or Roman days. Palermo seemed to Idrisi the finest city in the world: “It turns the heads of all who see it… it has buildings of such beauty that travelers flock to it, drawn by the fame of the marvels of architecture, the exquisite workmanship, the admirable conceptions of art.” The central street was a panorama of “towering palaces, high and superb hostels, churches … baths, shops of great merchants…. All travelers say outright that there are nowhere buildings more marvelous than those of Palermo, nor any sight more exquisite than her pleasure gardens.” And the Moslem traveler Ibn Jubair, seeing Palermo in 1184, exclaimed; “A stupendous city! … The palaces of the king encircle it as a necklace clasps the throat of a maiden with well-filled bosom.”4 Visitors were struck by the variety of languages spoken in Palermo, the peaceful mingling of races and faiths, the neighborly confusion of churches, synagogues, and mosques, the elegantly dressed citizens, the busy streets, the quiet gardens, the comfortable homes.
In those homes and palaces the arts of the East served the conquerors from the West. The looms of Palermo wove gorgeous stuffs in silk and cloth of gold; the ivory workers made little caskets shaped and carved in delicate or whimsical designs; the mosaicists covered floors, walls, and ceilings with Oriental themes. Greek and Saracen architects and artisans raised churches, monasteries, and palaces whose plan and ornament, showing no trace of Norman styles, gathered up a thousand years of Byzantine or Arabic influence. In 1143 Greek artists built for Greek nuns, with funds provided by Roger’s Admiral George, a convent dedicated to Santa Maria dell’ Ammiraglio, but now known as the Martorana from its founder. It has been so often restored that little remains of its twelfth-century elements. Typically an Arabic inscription from a Greek Christian hymn runs round the inner dome. The floor is of gleaming varicolored marble; eight columns of dark porphyry frame three apses, their capitals are most gracefully carved; walls and spandrels and vaults glitter with golden mosaics, including a famous Christos Pantocrater—the Universal King—in the sanctuary cupola. Finer still is the Capella Palatina, the chapel of the palace begun by Roger II in 1132. Here everything is exquisite: the simple design of the marble pavement, the perfection of the slender columns and their diverse capitals, the 282 mosaics filling every tempting space, above the altar the solemn figure of Christ in one of the sovereign mosaics of the world, and, over all, a massive timber ceiling in honeycomb design, carved, gilded, or painted with Oriental figures of elephants, antelopes, gazelles, and “angels” that were probably houris from a Mohammedan’s dream of paradise. In all medieval or modern art there is no royal chapel that can compare with this jewel of Norman Sicily.
Roger died in 1154, aged fifty-nine. His son William I (1154–66) earned the title of “the Bad,” partly because his life was written by his enemies, partly because he let others govern while he lived amid eunuchs and concubines in Oriental ease. In his reign the Moslems of Tunisia rose against the Christians, and ended Norman power in Africa. William II (1166–89) lived much the same sort of life as “the Bad,” but was called “the Good” by amiable biographers if only to avoid a confusion of names. He asked pardon for his lax morals by financing in 1176 the monastery and cathedral of Monreale—a “mount royal” five miles outside of Palermo. The exterior is a disagreeable confusion of shafts and interlacing columns; the cloisters are a work of majestic strength and beauty; the mosaics of the interior are renowned but crude; the capitals, however, are richly carved with realistic life—Noah drunk and sleeping, a swineherd tending a pig, an acrobat standing on his head.
Perhaps the Oriental morals of the Norman Sicilian kings weakened their constitutions and shortened their line. Forty years after the death of Roger II his dynasty ingloriously died. William II left no children, and Tancred, illegitimate son of a son of Roger II, was chosen king (1189). Meanwhile the German emperor Henry VI had married Constance, an aunt of William II; eager to unite all Italy under the imperial crown, he claimed the throne of the Sicilies; he secured the active alliance of Pisa and Genoa, whose commerce was irked by Norman control of the central Mediterranean; in 1194 he appeared before Palermo with irresistible force, persuaded it to open its gates to him, and was there crowned King of Sicily. When he died (1197) he left his thrones to his three-year-old son Frederick, who was to become the most powerful and enlightened monarch of a thirteenth century rich in puissant kings.