Tuesday, 20 November 2007

The Normans in Southern Italy: Cultural developments

Much of the culture of southern Italy in the Norman period was of monastic origin. The courts of the Norman lords were centres of artistic production, first and foremost the royal court of Palermo. Montecassino, Salerno and Palermo formed the melting-pot in which the four cultural components of Norman Italy (Lombard, Byzantine, Islamic and French) were fused together.

Medicine was particularly advanced: firstly at Montecassino, then, with important results, at the school of medicine in Salerno. The literary output was also notable: in particular, there were numerous translations of scientific texts from Arabic and Greek. There was also a flourishing school of book illumination.
In the field of architecture, Norman patronage led to the construction of a series of ecclesiastical buildings in which the pre-existing traditions (‘Cassinese’, Byzantine and Arabizing) tended to coexist with the imported Benedictine-Cluniac style. Although little attention was paid to painting, the Norman kings commissioned a series of truly outstanding mosaic cycles (Monreale, the Cappella Palatina in Palermo), which today are perhaps the most splendid memorial to their era.


Even though it did have universities like Bologna or Paris, medieval southern Italy was of great importance for the study of medicine thanks to its vicinity to the Muslim world. This knowledge was then diffused in Italy through the monasteries. Constantine the African, a translator of Arabic medical texts, was one of the main protagonists; possibly of North African origin, he lived and worked at Montecassino, where he met Alfanus, the archbishop of Salerno, who translated medical texts from Greek into Latin. Together with their pupils, these scholars translated numerous texts, which then constituted the real corpus of knowledge in Western medicine.

It was, however, above all in the city of Salerno that, in the 11th century, there was an extremely active medical milieu, mainly oriented towards practice and founded on the Western tradition of the early Middle Ages: Gariopontus, Petrellus and other physicians studied anatomy and their encounter with Constantine’s translations gave birth to the so-called school of medicine in Salerno. This was, in fact, the only institution in southern Italy that was comparable to the other centres of learning in the West.

Literature: history-writing

Literature, too, in the Norman period was a mainly monastic phenomenon, as is evident in such an important literary genre as history-writing. In monastic circles, history began to be linked to the search for juridical guarantees for property, so that so that the sub-genre of the chartulary flourished in the large monasteries.

The chartulary was a chronicle in which the historical account and the transcription of justificatory documents were intertwined. This practice was particularly evident in the history-writing of southern Italy in the 12th century: Chronicon Sanctae Sophiae (1119, St Sophia in Benevento); Chronica monasterii Casinensis (Montecassino); the Chronica of St Bartholomew of Carpineto and St Clement of Casauria (in the Abruzzi). Works on the Norman conquest were also produced in monastic circles: thus Geoffrey Malaterra, a monk at St Agatha in Catania, was the author of a biography of Roger I of Sicily, and Amatus of Montecassino wrote his Historia Normannorum (now lost and only preserved in a 14th century French translation). Alexander, the biographer of Roger II, was the abbot of San Salvatore di Telese (near Benevento).

There was, however, also a certain amount of lay - or, at least, non-monastic - history-writing: apart from Romuald Guarna, archbishop of Salerno, author of a universal chronicle, mention should be made of Chronicon Beneventanum by Falco of Benevento (a history of Benevento from 1102 to 1140) and the celebrated Liber de regno Sicilie by Hugo Falcandus, who continued his account up to 1169.

Literature: scientific prose

The court of Palermo was one of the leading cultural centres of 12th century Europe. One of those working at Roger II’s court was the Muslim geographer Edrisi, the author of the Book of Roger. The Greek monk Nilos Doxopatrius wrote, also for the king, the Taxis (description) of the five patriarchal sees into which Europe, Asia and Africa was divided. Other court personages, such Maio of Bari, author of a commentary on the Pater, were concerned with literature too. The collection of the homilies of Philogathos de Cerami, one of which was delivered before the king at the inauguration of the Cappella Palatina was an example of Byzantine literature.

Even more important, however, was the activity of translation (from Greek and Arabic) that, at court, pivoted on the figures of Henry Aristippus and the admiral Eugenius. Aristippus translated Plato’s Meno and Phaedo, and Diogenes Laertius’s lives of the philosophers; Eugenius translated Ptolemy’s Optics.

Illuminated manuscripts

The quality and quality of lay books published in southern Italy from the 11th to the 13th centuries is very indicative of the cultural project elaborated by the Normans.

The miniature of historical subjects was one of the great contributions of the cultural milieu of southern Italy. In this region, excellent propaganda tools were available to the Normans, who were seeking legitimation: these included the coats of arms, titles, historical writing and the works of art commissioned by the civil authorities. In the Registrum of Sant’Angelo in Formis (Montecassino, early 12th century) the new princes of Capua have old coats of arms, frozen in the weary formulae of the routine following the period when Desiderius was abbot of Montecassino.

However, the presence in Apulia of a number of manuscripts of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which arrived with the Normans, took concrete form in the Codex Napoletano IV. F. 3., the miniatures in which display the capacity of medieval art to master classical themes (similar to these are the drawings in the borders of Orosius’s Histories against the Pagans in Vat. Lat. 3340, of Neapolitan or Salernitan execution). They are characteristic of the vigorous process of modernization that affected illuminated manuscripts in the period Norman rule.

In the 12th century, the intervention of Roger II in the field of publishing, with greater emphasis on scientific books, meant that the illuminated manuscript remained in the background. However, the maps by the Muslim geographer Edrisi in the Book of Roger are an expression of the Mozarabic art of Sicily, as are the bizarre figures in an exemplar of the Latin translation of the Liber de locis stellarum by Al-Sufi (Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Paris, ms. 1036), executed in Palermo for William II.

The renewal of the iconographic repertoires, graphic forms and ornamental motifs of the Graeco-Norman book was greatly influenced by the models of Byzantine art, especially thanks to such figures as the admiral Eugenius and Henry Aristippus. The copy of John Scylitzes’ chronicle (the Madrid Codex, Biblioteca Nacional, Vitr. 26-2) is particularly famous. The celebrated manuscript in Bern (Burgerbibliothek 120) dates from the end of the Norman kingdom. The only exemplar of the Liber ad honorem Augusti (an eulogy of Henry VI) by Peter of Eboli is a ‘new book’, where the political illustration and the manifesto takes the place of the colourless, neutral chronicle and where the illustrations are as important as the text.

Religious architecture

In the religious architecture that flourished in southern Italy in the Norman age it is possible to distinguish a number of basic models, which are to be found in a large part of the monumental buildings of the period[1]. The architectural styles may be classified as follows:

  • Benedictine-Cassinese group, the most outstanding example of which is the church of San Benedetto at Montecassino, conceived by Abbot Desiderius (other examples : the abbey church of San Liberatore alla Maiella, Capua Cathedral, Caserta Vecchia Cathedral, the church of Sant’Angelo in Formis).
  • Franco-Norman group, the typical schema of which is found in Aversa Cathedral (other examples: the abbey church at Venosa, Acerenza Cathedral).
  • Apulian group, inspired by the basilica of San Nicola in Bari (other examples: Canosa Cathedral, the church of Santi Cataldo e Niccolò in Lecce).
  • Benedictine-Cluniac group, the model for which is the church of the Holy Trinity of Mileto, although it also includes not only Calabrian buildings, but also Sicilian ones (other examples: Mileto Cathedral, Santa Maria della Roccella and San Giovanni Vecchio at Stilo).
  • Sicilian group, which, although it had numerous links with the preceding types, had an independent position because it incorporated elements of the most widespread architectural and decoration styles in southern Italy in the 11th and 12th centuries, as well as stylistic elements from France (other examples: the Palermo churches of San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi, San Giovanni degli Eremiti, Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, the Cappella Palatina; Cefalù Cathedral; the Monreale complex).

The remarkable output of mosaics of Norman Sicily was concentrated in the period between c. 1140 and c. 1190. It originated from the transplant of the traditions of Byzantine figurative art to Sicily by mosaicists brought to the island in successive waves to execute works commissioned by the Hauteville. A summary of the most outstanding works follows.

  • Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (the Martorana), Palermo (1143 and 1151): the mosaics in this church include the two dedicatory panels representing Christ crowning King Roger II and the admiral George of Antioch prostrate before the Virgin.
  • Cappella Palatina, Palermo: the celebrated figure of the Pantocrator adorns the cupola. Roger, with erudite quotations, describes himself as the patron of the chapel. It has recently been hypothesized that the Cappella Palatina was also intended to be the king’s state apartment.
  • Cefalù Cathedral: Roger’s favourite building; the king highlights his fondness for it in a series of hexameters inscribed in the mosaic decoration, where he described himself as a structor (builder). The figurative style is, once again, typically Byzantine.
  • Monreale Cathedral: a magnificent mosaic cycle (6,400 sq m) commissioned by William II. Monreale itself was built as a ‘royal city’, combining the functions of cathedral and mausoleum.

Painting is perhaps one of the media least used by the Normans as a vehicle for their political propaganda. It is, therefore, difficult to reconstruct the Hauteville’s commissions in this field with any degree of precision. An emblematic case is Salerno Cathedral: the celebratory inscriptions on the exterior of the building proclaim that it was commissioned by a Norman (Robert Guiscard), but there is a lack of any cycles of painting to back up this statement. The cathedral’s mosaic cycle (little of which now remains) seems to have a purely theological function and is inspired by Roman models. The church of Sant’Angelo in Formis, near Capua, is, from an iconographic point of view, wholly Benedictine (the same applies to the lost mosaics of Capua Cathedral). The Normans’ lack of interest in painting is even more evident in the Abruzzi and Molise.

There are, however, two important exceptions. Roger I exalted his political prowess by having the ‘memorable exploits’ against the Muslims painted on the walls of the church of Ravenosa in Sicily. This cycle has now been lost, but it is considered to be a sort of Mediterranean pendant to the Bayeux Tapestry, a figurative representation of the epic narrated by Geoffrey of Malaterra in his account. Then there is the enamel placed on the front of the ciborium of the basilica of San Nicola in Bari: St Nicholas is depicted crowning King Roger, who is dressed in a tunic and armour, and bears the insignia of power in his hands.

[1] Giovanni Coppola ‘Sur quelques techniques de construction dans l’Italie normande’, Les Normands en Méditerraneé, University of Caen, 1994, pages 203-221 provides a good summary of current thinking.

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