Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
22.01.21 Winkler et al. (eds.), Designing Norman Sicily

22.01.21 Winkler et al. (eds.), Designing Norman Sicily

Over the last twenty years, scholarship on Sicily and southern Italy has moved from the margins of medieval studies to being one of the most vibrant and active subfields of premodern European and Mediterranean studies. A large part of the appeal of this region is its somewhat intentional and seemingly positive multiculturalism: the art and architecture of Norman Sicily is often regarded as an exemplar of a Mediterranean visual style that relied upon elements from Byzantine, Islamicate, and Latinate cultures. The golden mosaics of the Cathedral at Monreale, the opus sectile floor and muqarnas ceiling of the Cappella Palatina, and the red silk tiraz cape known as the mantle of Roger II are all instantly recognizable as parts of the Norman Sicilian aesthetic, one that shares resonances with artistic styles from other Euro-Mediterranean regions but that matches none of them exactly. The essays in Designing Norman Sicily address these and other objects to think about the ways that both their makers and their viewers participated simultaneously in a broadly Mediterranean visual culture and a specifically Siculo-Norman one.

The editors’ goal for the volume, as laid out in the introduction, is to propose that Norman visual and material culture was “more coherent than syncretic” (2), by which they mean that it was intentionally constructed as a unique visual language calling upon disparate preexisting elements to systematically fashion objects and texts that served their specific purposes, rather than one that was merely an amalgam of cultural elements that the Normans found on the island when they arrived. At the same time, the editors wished to avoid a sense that the Norman material culture was programmatic, instead asserting that individual works were crafted with individual circumstances, information, and needs in mind. Some of the essays in this volume do this more persuasively than others.

The nine essays in Designing Norman Sicily discuss a range of objects: coins, buildings, mosaics, textiles, and texts. They likewise take a wide variety of approaches, with some essays meant for a general reader and others requiring more specialized knowledge in previous scholarship. Lisa Reilly’s contribution asks how the mélange of cultural elements in the Cappella Palatina was understood by medieval viewers, seeking ways to think in terms that go beyond ones like “Islamic” or “Byzantine.” William Tronzo’s essay muses on the possibility that Roger’s mantle was intended as a burial shroud modeled on the lions of an ancient sarcophagus; he also suggests that the reception room known as the Norman Stanza may have been imagined as a tent made of stone and mosaic. Katherine Jacka discusses al-Idrisi’s Book of Roger as a handbook of strategic information about the island’s lands, settlements, and ports--a text that was specifically requested by its patron as the foundation of both political and economic power on his island. Emma Edwards investigates the use of textile gifts as a method of extending elite Norman power and influence. Liam Fitzgerald studies the silver coin known as the ducalis, asking how its mimicry of a Byzantine original helped the Norman king express both dynastic and economic power. Martin Carver and Alessandra Molinari turn to archaeology, and in particular bioarchaeology, to compare the ways that the new power structures of Norman rule impacted settlement patterns of native peoples in England and in Sicily. Margherita Tabanelli examines the multiplicity of architectural models for Norman cathedrals in both Sicily and Calabria. Fabio Scirea’s essay looks at the numerous iconographic traditions that contributed to Sicilian mosaic depictions of the Creation story. The final essay, by Sarah Whitten, turns the tables on the Normans and investigates how Lombard monasteries used familiar visual and textual tools to minimize Norman royal status, as acts of resistance against the newcomers and as bids for independence.

Notwithstanding the editors’ stated objective to treat Norman visual culture on its own terms, several of the essays seek artistic or cultural models for aspects of Norman art and architecture. The Normans are widely to known to have been quite adept at borrowing, adapting, and mixing and matching visual styles and elements that suited their particular purposes in any given moment. But their uses of materials and texts cannot be reduced to simple borrowing or adaptation of earlier models. Most of these essays come to that same conclusion--that indeed no single model or source material is sufficient to explain the multifarious elements that make up Norman material culture and what those assemblages might have conveyed to the original audiences.

Ultimately, despite their wide range of approaches and conclusions, the essays in this volume cohere around questions of power: how royal power could be bolstered through visual and textual media; how books, textiles, and buildings could underpin specific types of authority; how lordly dominance over conquered peoples differed in Sicily and in England; and how economic and political influence could intertwine. Much of the power discussed herein was that which was intentionally crafted by the Normans to support their newly-established authority. But it was not only the Normans who sought power in the region and not only the Normans whose stylistic choices shaped the texts and objects of Norman-era southern Italy and Sicily. And, as this volume shows, there was no one single way in which the Normans used material culture to establish or extend their power, nor one way to understand the content, context, and meanings of the Siculo-Norman visual language.