Rain in the Opera

by wjw on July 26, 2023

The Duomo in Palermo was built at the command of William II the Good.

(William was the son of William I the Bad. Father William doesn’t seem to have been particularly bad, as medieval monarchs go. He seems to have acquired his monicker because he had a tendency to promote competent commoners over the heads of the local nobility, who viewed royal offices as their hereditary right.

(William II, on the other hand, seems to have earned his nickname. He was much less bellicose than his ancestors and preferred peaceful pursuits to leading military campaigns, which were not particularly successful anyway. He was married to Joan, the daughter of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, but died childless.)

It rained all day when I visited Palermo. We were denied entrance to one church on the grounds that it was raining inside and unsafe for visitors. We were also supposed to get a backstage tour of the opera, but it was raining in the opera, too. The opera management felt bad for us, so they provided a kind of free tapas buffet with wine in the basement bar, which was very good of them.

The Normans commenced to building churches as soon as they acquired Palermo, but the only architects and builders on hand were Muslim. As a result those early churches had a lot of Islamic influences and design.

By the time of William II, the designers were able to go Full-On Byzantine. As evidenced by the occasional Arabic inscription here or there, they rebuilt and redesigned an old mosque (which had itself been built on the site of an old Christian church). Mosaicists and their fine gold-backed tiles were imported from Constantinople. The result was a Greek-style church blazing with gold.

Later a Gothic portico was added, and the cathedral was expanded during the 18th Century and a lot of baroque decor and art laid on. It is something of an architectural shambles but from the inside it’s very pretty.

We did a lot of wandering around Palermo in the rain, enjoying the monuments and statues and facades. I was largely protected by my North Face rain jacket, but my feet got wet splashing through puddles.

I began to reevaluate this particular style of travel. It’s fine spending one day on a remote archaeological site, but spending a single day in a big, bustling, historic city like Palermo left me wanting a lot more. I could have spent a week there, and maybe next time I will.

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