Life in the towns

Urban landscape and town building

The Normans did not bring with them a model for town planning or urban architecture. They adjusted to the local situation; what was remarkable, however, was the way they founded new churches, rebuilt existing ones, and constructed towers and castles, generally built into the walls. The royal palaces and pleasure gardens, notably at Palermo, were a one-off case reserved for the capital of the Norman kings.

Also, the urban landscape in southern Italy offers a range of different situations. Far from being limited to the Roman-type division into small regular portions, we find many cases of towns being abandoned or falling back behind close walls, protected on high ground or by the arm of a river, as at Caserta or Capua in Campania. But the urban layout was also sometimes more recent, as in towns founded by the Byzantine authorities in Apulia in the early 11th c., and arranged on either side of a central street: the platea.

The presence of walls is a common feature for populations that tended to increase during the Norman period, which meant building up two or more floors on relatively small plots of just a few dozen square meters. Soft local stone (tufo) was used in Apulia and Campania, as well as brick and wood. These constructions left few traces. Hastily and not very well built, with poor foundations, the general consensus is that for the most part they were damaged or destroyed by fires and earthquakes, to be replaced or rebuilt in the late Middle Ages.

It is chiefly thanks to written records that we can identify workshops, stores and warehouses set up along the streets, on the ground floor of the houses. As in all mediaeval towns, the different social strata lived side by side, with only certain trades gathered in specialized districts.


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