Tag Archives: Claudio Monteverdi

In Sicilia: Monreale Cathedral

Monreale Cathedral Sanctuary

From time to time, our friend David writes to say, “You MUST.” And so it was, when we decided to visit Palermo, that he wrote, “You MUST go to Monreale.”

Needless to say, before this, I’d not even heard of Monreale—which turns out to be a small town just outside Palermo that happens to have a stupendous Arab-Norman Cathedral.

The cathedral’s story starts in the year 831, when Arabs took control of Palermo, turned its cathedral into a mosque, and banished the Bishop of Palermo into the bargain.

Not wishing to venture too far from his beloved cathedral, the Bishop settled in a small village in the hills overlooking Palermo, the site of modern-day Monreale. There, he built a modest church to keep the flame of local Christian worship alive.

Some 240 year later, in 1072, the Normans drove the Arabs from Sicily, establishing Palermo as their capital. [citation]

Exterior detail

Here’s a bit more potted history to set the stage on what came next:

Following the decisive battle of Palermo . . . the conquerors decided to keep the best of Byzantine and Arab culture, government and law intact, adding their own northwestern European institutions to the mix whenever this was deemed necessary or pragmatic. [citation]

William II, the penultimate Norman king to rule Sicily, was 18 when he acceded to the crown in 1171.

Though William sought to make his realm . . . a European one, he engaged in certain practices . . . unusual for a Christian Norman Knight. Not only did he have many Muslim ministers, astrologers and doctors in his court, William is said to have kept a harem in his palace, and to have spoken, read and written Arabic. [citation]

Construction began on Monreale’s cathedral the following year. “The superstructure took four years to build, reaching completion in 1176. Work on the mosaics and cloister was completed by the time of the young king’s death in 1189.” [citation] The resulting Monreale Cathedral “and its cloister represent the largest concentration of Norman, Arab and Byzantine art in one place.” [citation]


On entering the Cathedral, the vast expanse of golden mosaics is overpowering.

Like other Arab-Norman buildings, this building was built by Muslim and Byzantine artisans working together. In this most spectacular example of the cultural fusion taking place in 12th century Sicily, these artisans created one of the largest displays of mosaic art in the world covering over six thousand square meters. Only the Church of Saint Sophia in Constantinople, today known as Aya Sophia in Istanbul, had a larger display, now mostly lost. [citation]

I was never sure where to look, or for what. In the end, it didn’t seem to matter. I walked and looked and sat, sat and looked and walked, all the while wondering about the people who did this painstaking work, who they were, what they thought, and what they felt.

I’ve not been able to find out anything about the artist-workers. Dante, so far as I know, doesn’t have anything to say about them, but he does have something to say about William II (known as “the Good”). In Paradiso, Canto XX, Dante places William II in the lower arc of the eagle’s brow:

The fourth you see within the lower arc
Was William, for whom that land goes in mourning
That weeps for Charles and Frederick yet alive.

Now he knows how an upright king is loved
In heaven, as he still makes evident
By the effulgent likeness of his glory.

To close, here’s a tantalizing speculation about the Dante-William II connection:

What the eagle says about William II, beyond mantling him in the splendor of a generic love of heaven just for princes, is that he is sorely missed by the territories that “now” languish under the misrule of his tyrannical successors, Charles II of Anjou and Frederick II of Aragon, rulers of Puglia and Sicily, respectively, in Dante’s own time and unrelentingly vituperated by him . . . . [Richard Lansing, The Dante Encyclopedia, p. 885]

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Additional Information

A description of the mosaics is here. A schematic of the mosaics is here. A good collection of labeled images of the mosaics is here.

A splendid Benedictine Cloisters is situated next to the Cathedral. Alas, short holiday opening hours didn’t allow time to visit. In lieu a cyber-tour link of the cloisters is here. (Photographs of the mosaics may be found on the same site.)

 Listening List

Claudio Monteverdi, The Vespers of 1610 (with thanks to David Nice for recommending this selection)

Even today, in an age which has heard Bach’s Mass in B minor, Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, and the requiems of Berlioz and Verdi, the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 is astonishing for the grandeur of its conception and the opulence of its sound. For its time, it was unprecedented. No other surviving work from that time is written on such a scale, combining the grandest of public music with the most intimate of solo songs; no other such work calls for the many colorful obbligato instruments and uses them in such a daringly modern, virtuosic way.

The full program notes from which the above excerpt is taken may be found here.


Voices: 2 sopranos, alto, 3 tenors, 2 basses; 2 mixed choruses (SATTB)
Orchestra: 2 flutes, 2 tenor recorders, 3 cornettos, 3 trombones, bass trombone
strings*, continuo (organ and other instruments)
*2 violini da brazzo (violins), 3 viuole da brazzo (violas),
bass viuola da brazzo (cello), contrabasso da gamba (double bass)


I. Domine ad adiuvandum me festina
II. Dixit dominus
III. Nigra sum
IV. Laudate pueri dominum
V. Pulchra es amica mea
VI. Laetatus sum
VII. Duo Seraphim clamabant
VIII. Nisi dominus
IX. Audi coelum
X. Lauda Jerusalem dominum
XI. Sonata sopra ‘Sancta Maria ora pro nobis’
XII. Ave maris stella
XIII. Magnificat (I)
XIV. Magnificat (II)

The source for the instrumentation and movements information is here.

On YouTube here.  (John Eliot Gardiner/The Monteverdi Choir/The English Baroque Soloists/The London Oratory Juniors Choir; performed at the Basilica di San Marco, Venice, 1990)

On Spotify here. (Harry Christopher/The Sixteen)

Bonus Track: Demonstration of Byzantine mosaic-making


Credits: The sources for quotations may be found at the links in the text. As always on the blog, the photographs, unless otherwise indicated, are mine.