The Castle la Cuba

The pavilion of delights Emerging from a large artificial lake, the castle built by William II in 1180 was a pavilion of delights, that is, a place where the King and his Court could spend pleasant hours in the cool of the fountains and gardens of citrus, resting in the daylight hours or attending festivals and ceremonies in the evening. The Arabic inscription The news about the customer and the date are certain thanks to the epigraph placed on the attic wall of the building. The extraordinary fact is that this inscription is written in Arabic, which shows the tolerance and openness of the Norman court. Among the Royal Solaces of the Normans of Sicily, its Arabic name means arch or vault and the castle, which has a rectangular shape lightened by square protruding towers, is really the triumph of the pointed arches that form its dominant architectural motif. The daughters of the Saracen king The last monument created by the Normans in Palermo was one of Frederick II’s favourite during his childhood. A very ancient legend (dating back its origin in time) said that Zisa and Cuba were daughters of a Saracen king who would have built for them two castles, which had to be worthy of the marvellous beauty of the two girls. Refreshing solutions The interior of the Cuba was divided into three aligned spaces and communicating with each other. At the centre of the interior are the remains of a beautiful marble fountain, a typical element of Arab buildings needed to freshen the air. The central hall was decorated with muqarnas, ornamental and architectural solution similar to a half dome.  After the Norman pomp, the hospital After the Normans and the Swabians, the Cuba was allocated to various uses. The lake was drained and on the banks some pavilions were built, used as a hospital in 1576 and in 1621. Then it lodged a Burgundians mercenary company and finally it was owned by the State in 1921. The inspiration of Boccaccio Between the water and the trees that once surrounded the castle, Boccaccio set one of his Decameron novels, the sixth of the fifth day. It is the love story between Gian di Procida – nephew of the eponymous hero of the great Sicilian Vespers – and the beautiful Restituta, a girl from Ischia kidnapped by “young Sicilians” to be offered as a gift to the then King of Sicily, Frederick II of Aragon. Source:


The Royal Palace

From the Arabic al Qasr to the Palace of the Normans Now known as the Palace of the Normans, the Royal Palace where the young Frederick II lived is located in the highest position of the old town centre, just above the first Punic settlements, whose traces are still visible in the basement. The first building, the Qasr, is attributed to the period of the Arab domination of Sicily. The Normans changed it to express the power of the monarchy. A structure of turret-shaped buildings was thus realized, connected together with a system of arcades alternated to gardens, that also housed workshops of goldsmiths and production of tissue (the Kiraz). The new palace was also directly connected to the cathedral through a covered road. Mosaics and precious marbles in the Palatine Chapel In 1132, during the reign of Ruggero II, the Palatine Chapel was built, which became the centre of gravity of the various structures in which the palace was divided. Consecrated in 1140 by King Ruggero II, the church was dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. The three naves are divided by re-used ancient columns supporting pointed arches; the floor is made of mosaic, and precious marbles cover the bottom of the walls. The upper part of the apse, transept and dome is lavishly covered with Byzantine mosaics on a gold background depicting Christ Pantocrator, the evangelists and Bible stories. The apartment of Frederick In addition to the Palatine Chapel, the building parts attributed to the Normans are the Pisan Tower, home to the Treasury room, and the Tower of Gioaria, which, for the refined elegance of the architectural solutions and the refinement of the decorations, most likely housed the apartments of the Norman kings and of Frederick II. Pets in the hall of King Ruggero Of Norman period is also the hall of King Ruggero, covered with fine mosaics of the Byzantine school with hunting scenes. The decorations show great dedication in the rendering of the animals including, besides the mythological centaurs, leopards, peacocks, deer and swans, on a background of trees and palms. The ceiling of the hall dates to the time of Frederick II, as evidenced by the representation of the Swabian eagle. The cradle of the SicilianSchool Later, the Swabians kept in the palace administrative chancellery and above all literary activities: in Frederick II’s times, the grand palace was a centre of culture where the classical, Arabic and Byzantine tradition intertwined. Here the poets of the “Sicilian School” gathered, and it can be said that Italian poetry was born within these walls. The Palace of the Viceroys First the Angevins and then the Aragonese privileged elsewhere at the expense of the castle. The building regained an important role in the second half of the sixteenth century when the Spanish viceroys elected it to their residence, going along with major refurbishments aimed also to defensive needs, with the creation of a system of ramparts. The Hall of the labors of Hercules With the Bourbons, the palace was transformed again: in 1790 Ferdinand IV had lifted up on the Pisan Tower the astronomical Observatory still existing today and particularly specialized in the study of astrophysics; in 1798 the Bourbon court, moved into the Palace because of the French occupation of Naples, makes various spaces change, in order to adapt them to new needs; in 1811 for the umpteenth time the walls and the ceiling of the Sala d’Ercole were decorated – since 1947 the seat of the Region of Sicily Assembly – so called because of the numerous temperas depicting the fatigues of the mythological hero; after 1820 the ramparts were demolished. Sources:



Profile of flower The city of Frederick II’s infancy and childhood already at the time of the Swabian had an important story behind, whose remains the little king of Sicily was able to admire in his travels through the streets of the city. Palermo was founded by the Phoenicians in 734 BC with the name of Zyz, which seems to come from the shape of the city: cut by two rivers, it recalled the profile of a flower. Up to that time the area had been a trading centre and a base for north-western Sicily.   The failure of the Greeks and the domination of the Romans Acquired a certain commercial importance due to its location, it became a popular destination for Greeks who lived in the eastern part of Sicily, who, however, were never able to dominate it. The first breakthrough came from the Romans, who, after a long siege, managed to remove it from the Carthaginians of Amilcare Barca. Under the government of Rome, Palermo continued to play the role of a strategic port in the Mediterranean, experiencing a period of absolute tranquillity for several centuries.   Palermo Muslim capital Palermo was Roman until the barbarian invasions caused the looting and destruction of the city. The release of Palermo was thanks to the Byzantines, who held the city for three centuries. In the ninth century, Muslims from North Africa invaded Sicily and Palermo was taken in 831: the Muslim rulers moved the capital of Sicily to Palermo. The Muslim power, however, was eroded by internal struggles that paved the way for foreigners, until, in 1071, after four years of siege, Ruggero d’Altavilla, first Norman earl, took Palermo by force.   The young heir to the throne Then came the time of the Swabians that began with the coronation of Henry VI of Hohenstaufen. At his death there was a decade of political turmoil as his heir, his son Frederick, was only 3 years old and could not ascend the throne until 1208. Within a year, the child was orphaned of both parents and was given by will to Pope Innocent III.   A prince on the streets of Palermo Frederick’s childhood was not exactly that of a prince: he spent all his time on the streets of Palermo, a cosmopolitan city, a melting pot of different races and cultures. Until the age of 14, the young Swabian resided in the Sicilian town, in the palace or in the Palace of the Cuba. The boy grew up, under the tutelage of Gentile Manopello, having as teacher William Francis, who reported directly to his bishop, Rinaldo da Capua, who in turn kept the Pope informed.   The envied court In 1208, Frederick II was proclaimed king and a year later he married Constance of Aragon. Despite the continuing absence of the Emperor, Palermo for 40 years was a real metropolis on the lips of the whole Europe: his court was envied by everyone, being full of writers, lawyers, scientists, poets. Here emerged the Sicilian school of poetry, literary movement that for the first time used a vernacular dialect for literary purpose, the Sicilian.   Return to Palermo During the Swabian period the city did not get rich from many building works; the only important structure is the church of S. Francis, which, however, by command of the emperor, was destroyed in 1240 as a reaction to the papal excommunication. The sudden death of Frederick II was only the prelude to the end of the Swabians in Sicily and in its capital: the body of the emperor was transported to Palermo to be buried in the Cathedral next to his mother Constance of Hauteville, his father Henry VI and his grandfather Ruggero II.   The eternal sleep in the company of strangers The solemn closing in the red porphyry urn took place on 25th February 1251. As far as we know today, the Emperor’s peaceful sleep lasted only eighty-seven years, as in 1338 and in 1342 the coffer was opened to accommodate two other characters who the documents of that time make correspond to William, Duke of Athens and Peter II, both sons of Frederick II of Aragon.   A woman in the coffin of the Swabian Another attempt to open the grave, operated in 1491, was fiercely resisted and avoided by the worshippers who believed it to be an act of sacrilege. But no one could avoid an urn inspection in 1781, during the renovation of the cathedral. According to a detailed description of the inspection reported by Francesco Danieli, Frederick II wore various tunics decorated with buckles, ornaments and fine embroidery; his hands were folded on his stomach, his right hand adorned with a ring that bore a large emerald. The royal head, covered with a crown made from sheets of gilded silver, pearls and precious stones, rested on a cushion of hide; near the neck there was a globe, symbol of the imperial majesty; on the left side you could see the sword with the wooden handle also decorated with threads of gilded silver. The outcome of the inspection, however, was not entirely quiet since the text of the Danieli mentions a doubt on the identity of a companion: in place of William, Duke of Athens seemed to be an unknown woman. After the inspection, the urn was reset as it had been found.   The profaned treasure In 1994, as part of programs to commemorate the eight hundredth anniversary of the birth of Frederick II, was arranged to carry out a new inspection but, to the astonishment of experts, only rags, straw and hemp were found, the treasure that had been buried with the Emperor was gone. Some speculate that the violation of the tomb took place during the Second World War, by the troops of the occupying German.   The return of the Swabians The confusion caused by the death of Frederick and the worrying aversion of the Holy See against the Swabian descendants resulted in Palermo in a revolution which ended in 1255 with the proclamation of a free municipality. This situation lasted only a year, until Manfred, vicar of Conradin, re-established the situation and, pretending the death of his half-brother, was crowned king in 1258.   The decline with the Angevins Manfredi, beloved son of Frederick II, got Palermo back to be one of the most famous capitals in Europe. The new king inherited from his father all the advantages but also the dislike of the papacy that was fatal to him, as Clement IV launched against him a crusade to help Charles I of Anjou to conquer the kingdom of Sicily. The final battle took place in Benevento with the death of Manfred and the beginning of the Angevin domination over Sicily and its capital Palermo, which lost their hegemony in the Mediterranean following the shift of power to Naples.   From the Spanish rule to the separatist movements Much appreciated, instead, was the domination of the Spanish who made Palermo the seat of the Viceroy: the territory was reassessed as a bastion of strategic importance for the fight against the Ottomans. The Spanish domination lasted two centuries and ended in 1713 with the Treaty of Utrecht. In the Bourbon period, namely in 1816, Palermo lost this capital status, becoming the second administrative centre after Naples: it caused different riots of separatist nature in the island.   Liberty and wars In the first two decades of the twentieth century Palermo went through a flourishing period, with a brief but intense liberty period. Not affected by the First World War, the city suffered considerable destruction by bombing during the Second World War, until being occupied in July 1943 by the Allied troops of the American General George Smith Patton. Sources: – “Nuovo Sopralluogo nel sarcofago di Federico II” di Carlo Fornari e Alberto Gentile