Designing Norman Sicily: Material Culture and Society

We thank Liam Fitzgerald for this evocative introduction to this fascinating new survey of how the stuff of Norman Sicily, its mosaics, frescoes, art and architecture, was used to construct its history.

If a band of Norman adventurers were to follow their ancestors and cross the Alps into southern Italy and Sicily in the mid-twelfth century, they would find the region to be a familiar but strangely alien world. They would encounter cathedrals inlaid with Islamic decorations, French spoken alongside Arabic and Greek, and markets filled with coins depicting the king in the dress of a Byzantine emperor accompanied by Cufic inscriptions. During the Middle Ages, the Mediterranean was a region of intense cultural interaction, and the Norman kingdom of Sicily lay at its heart. When Roger II was crowned king of Sicily and Southern Italy on Christmas Day 1130, the society he governed was not a homogenous entity, but a vibrant mix of the cultures and religions of his Latin, Muslim and Greek subjects. Seeking to consolidate his rule over the ‘populus trilinguis’, the tactful king began selectively adopting elements of all three cultures in royal art and architecture.

For example, editor Liam Fitzgerald explores the creation of the ducalis, an imitative silver coin issued by Roger II in 1140 to commemorate the ascension of his son and namesake as Duke of Apulia (Chapter 5). Unlike any other western currencies from the period, it is concave in shape, a technique employed in the numismatic traditions of the Byzantine empire to emphasis their imperial primacy. However, it is the iconography used for the coin which is most striking. The scene on the reverse of the ducalis was taken directly from an early religious coin of Emperor Alexios I, which depicts St. Demetrius handing the patriarchal cross to his successor John II in 1082. But the designers of the ducalis took the image, reversed it, and secularised it: the coin depicts Roger standing in the superior position handing ducal power to his son and successor. The ducalis is clear of example of the imitative methods the new Norman administration employed to extend the king’s power over the various cultures of his kingdom.

From these kinds of individual projects of appropriation, a distinct visual language gradually emerged that was markedly different from its various cultural sources. As a form of propaganda, the artistic vocabulary of Siculo-Norman culture intended to reflect on the Norman king’s religious and cultural tolerance, and continued acceptance of the established traditions of his conquered people. While many historians today debate whether Roger II’s Sicily actually was the multicultural paradise it was purported to be, its art and architecture is material proof that this was the image of his kingdom that the ambitious Norman monarch wanted to project. Yet at the same time, when we look at individual coins, textiles, buildings, and settlements, we start to see the contributions that artists and creators made to a meaningful visual language. We can see the creativity and decision-making of craftsmen, and ideas changing as they move from medium to medium.

Combining archaeology, art history and historical research, this book provides a new insight into broader cultural and social dynamics that underpinned the development of the visual story of Norman Sicily. Together, the contributors shed new light on the agency of the designers, what their intentions were, and why certain iconographies and motifs were adapted by engravers, map-makers and embroiderers in their work. The book reveals that the medieval period was far from an insular age, and that multicultural ideas could and did proliferate—often in surprising ways—in the art and architecture of a society that existed almost eight hundred years ago.

This guest post was written by Liam Fitzgerald, King’s College London / The British Museum.

Co-editors: Emily A. Winkler is a Fellow of St Edmund Hall and member of the History Faculty at the University Oxford; Andrew Small is a DPhil student at Exeter College, University of Oxford.

Contributors: Martin Carver, Emma Edwards, Liam Fitzgerald, Katherine Jacka, Alessandra Molinari, Lisa Reilly, Fabio Scirea, Margherita Tabanelli, William Tronzo, Sarah Whitten, Emily A. Winkler.

Designing Norman Sicily
Edited by Emily A. Winkler, Liam Fitzgerald & Andrew Small
9781783274895, Hardback, £39 or $48.75

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