From historic Agrigento, the Publisher’s Tour group made their way to the capital of Sicily – Palermo, which was to serve as the base for the group’s travels through the north and western portions of the island.
Just outside Palermo sits the historic hill-town of Monreale, one of the most renowned tourist spots of the island. Located on the slopes of Monte Caputo, overlooking the fertile valley called La Conca d’oro (the Golden Shell), renowned for its orange, olive and almond trees, Monreale is world famous for its artistic legacy. The Cathedral of Santa Maria la Nuova is the town’s centerpiece, a dazzling mixture of artistry framed by traditional Romanesque architecture.
The Cathedral was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2015, which included nine buildings dating back to the Kingdom of Sicily (1130-1194). The list includes one bridge, two palaces, three churches and the cathedrals of Palermo, Cefalú and the most spectacular of all – Cattedrale di Monreale.
After the occupation of Palermo under the Emirate of Sicily, the Bishop of Palermo was forced to move his seat outside the capital. The role of the Cathedral was assigned to a modest little church, Aghia Kiriaki, in a nearby village, later known as Monreale. After the Norman Conquest in 1072, Christians took back the former Palermo cathedral, but the village’s role as temporary ecclesiastical center inspired King William II to build a cathedral there. When the Norman Kings of Sicily chose the area as his hunting resort, commerce increased, as did the population.
Under King William II, a large monastery for the Benedictine Order was founded and provided with large assets. The monks came from Cava de’ Tirreni in the province of Salerno in Campania. The new construction also had an important defensive function since Monreale was the seat of the Archbishop of Sicily, which from then on exerted a significant influence over Sicily. King William built Castellaccio (Bad Castle) on the slopes Monte Caputo. Primarily a defensive structure 2,500 feet above sea level, it contained towers on the western side, a middle tower and an entrance tower on the eastern side. Since it was also used by the monks from the nearby monastery, it had a chapel of which the three apses and a central nave still remain.
Cattedrale di Monreale is 336 feet in length and 132 feet wide. Built between 1174 and 1189, its copper doors were created by the artisan Bonanno Pisano, while its interior is the work of countless craftsmen who were brought in from Constantinople. Decorated with almost 70,000 square feet of mosaics, it is estimated that roughly 4,500 pounds of 24 caret gold are contained within the tiles – over $120 million in today’s market for the gold alone. The artistic result with over 800 years following its completion, is still breathtaking. It is one of Sicily greatest sights.
The name Monreale is a contraction of monte and reale, meaning ‘royal mountain.’ The Cathedral is a fascinating blending of three distinct styles – Norman, Eastern Roman Empire and Middle Eastern, enriched by rich carvings, in addition to the extraordinary, majestic mosaic work.
Visitors should also explore the Benedictine Cloister located on the south side of the Cathedral. Built during the same period as the Cathedral, the cloister was constructed in a square plan of 155 feet by 155 feet. Each side has 26 arches resting on columns capped by elaborate capitals carved to tell stories from the Bible. It is a different form of artistry that defines the cloister. There are no gold mosaics, although many of the columns are inlaid with the precious tiles, but it is no less impressive to realize that the capitals of the columns (228 in all) were carved by just five master craftsmen. Visitors can gain entrance to the roof on the southwestern corner of the nave. The view of the Conca d’oro and the coast is breathtaking from the roof and is worth each of the 180 steps that are necessary to reach the top. Walkways also lead around the apse of the Cathedral, offering you a closer look at the mosaics that are high above the church floor. It is an inspiring setting within an enchanting part of the Island of Sicily.