If Palermo is the Italian Capital of Culture for 2018, it is not by chance. Culture is a tool of contrast, knowledge of the other, and helps to overcome differences as an obstacle to peaceful coexistence. Palermo, in its history, is the expression of European cultures that have engaged in dialogue with the Arab world.
It is the product of dominions that, throughout the centuries, took place here, as well as the ability of its inhabitants to be capable of welcoming different cultural influences, as well as being able to produce a new culture through processes of the original redevelopment of knowledge acquired at the same time.
It is the cultural syncretism that characterises the history of the City in a process that produces clear layers throughout the centuries, both in providing the heritage of monuments and art, as its immaterial legacy. It is a multi-ethnic society because of its history and multi-faceted identity because of the relationship of the citizens of the past and present with the foreigner, be they the new ruler, artist or artisan who comes from a different world.
A brief, summarised description of the city’s history, from its founding, to the unity of Italy, is necessary to understand today’s Palermo.
7th century B.C.: Founded by the Phoenicians, who called it Ziz (Flower)
3rd century B.C.: Conquered by the Romans in 254-253 B.C., who change its name to Panormos, which comes from the Greek παν- όρμος, all-port.
6th century A.C.: In 535, Belisario conquers Palermo, and so begins three centuries of Byzantine rule, which clearly influences the culture of the city, including artistic production during the whole Arab and Norman period.
9th century A.C.: Sicily is invaded by the Arabs who conquer Palermo in 831. They were Muslim governors who moved the capital of Sicily to Palermo. The city now has all bureaucratic structures and services that one would expect of a capital. During the period of Arab rule, more than 300 mosques were built here, and it was a well-known city throughout the Arab world.
11th century A.C.: The Normans attack the city from the sea and land, and on 1 January 1072, they take Kalsa. King Ruggero II manages to separate various groups based on their language, customs and traditions. The Arabs stay in Kalsa and deal with trade; the Romans take the Albergheria zone and the Greeks move around the Cathedral. Under the governance of Ruggero II, Palermo becomes a court envied by all western rulers, rich with eastern palaces, flourishing with art and trade.
12th century A.C.: In 1194, Palermo gets invaded by the German ruler Henry VI. And so, the new dynasty of the Svevi people in Sicily begins, who, along with Frederick II, the son of Costanza, allowed it to reach its peak. Palermo and the court became the centre of the Empire, and include the lands of Puglia and southern Italy.
13th century A.C.: The French control of the Angevins in Sicily starts in 1266 when the Swabian Manfredi of Sicily, the biological child of Frederick II of Swabia, is defeated and killed in Benevento by Carlo d'Angiò, the brother of the French king. Angevin rule in Sicily, however, does not last long, and ends in 1282 when the Sicilian Vespers rebel and the Aragonese take over.
14th century A.C.: In 1494, Sicily is annexed by Spain and Palermo becomes home to the Viceré. The city once again begins to produce art and builds beautiful public buildings like the church of San Giuseppe, the church of Santa Maria dello Spasimo and Porta Nuova. From here onwards, Palermo stays firmly under Spanish control, except for a couple of small periods where the city passes through Savoy (1713-1718) and Austrian (1720-1735) hands.
The Bourbons take over, whose rule Garibaldi ends with the Expedition of the Thousand on 27 May 1860. After Italy was united, during the first twenty years of the twentieth century, Palermo thrives, with a brief but intense period of freedom and, thanks to an enlightened group of entrepreneurs (Florio, Ingham and Withaker), the city experiences a large period of economic and cultural growth.
Palermo as a city-mosaic
Here, every tile is an expression of different worlds. In 2016, the national government implemented the “Pact for Palermo”, supporting it with targeted funds. 5.7 billion euros have been allocated for infrastructure, the environment, production assets and economic development. Meanwhile, the Court of Audit has released several further millions of euros to open building sites, modernise buildings to incentivise tourism and culture, and strengthen urban redevelopment. The meeting chaired by Mayor Leoluca Orlando has started to work, and the results can be seen.
Four commissions for Palermo’s rebirth
The sums of money given by Rome have been used in various fields, but in 2017, the first four commissions were gathered for international planning tenders, whilst the fifth line of action, named Luci sull’arte, will examine illumination plans for historic events in an Arab-Norman style that make up UNESCO heritage in Palermo: the Royal Palace, the Palatine Chapel, the Cathedral, the Church of Giovanni degli Eremiti, the Church of Martorana, the Church of San Cataldo, Zisa Castle, dell’Ammiraglio. It is a measure that will contribute to restoring light and beauty to one of the most suggestive paths in the city from a historic and monumental point of view.
To find out more You can follow all the initiatives for Palermo – Italian Capital of Culture in our wonders section on the Palermo Council website.