Arts, architecture, culture in Norman Italy

The court of Palermo, a cultural & scientific center

The Norman kingdom of Sicily’s contribution to the cultural history of Europe was essential from the time of Roger II, crowned king in 1154. Hugh Falcandus credits this to the Norman king, explaining how he "conducted a search for the customs of other nations in order to borrow whatever he found very beautiful and very useful". By the place granted in his court to scientists and to works from both sides of the Mediterranean, the Norman king showed ambition equal to the emperors’. Clericks came from all other the world, and specially from the Plantagenêt court. Peter of Blois, one of Henry II's curiales is known to have begun his career as the teacher of Roger's son.

In fact, like the still Moslem Spain, Norman Sicily gave the Latin West access to the great work of the Greek and Arab cultures. The works of Ptolemy, Plato, Aristotle and the writings of Eastern Church fathers like Gregory of Naziance were translated by Henry Aristippus, archdeacon of Catania, tutor to William I and later emir of the emirs. This odd character – it is not sure whether he was Greek or Norman – further distinguished himself by his scientific studies in astronomy and even vulcanology! At all events, he went up onto the crater of Etna. This was not an isolated occurrence, since it was carried out notably in conjunction with the emir Eugene, who translated Ptolemy’s Optics.

The most emblematic character of this opening up to the world at the court of the Norman king was the Arab geographer al-Idrisi, who compiled for Roger II a universal geography combining information from his knowledge of Greek and Arab writers, from accounts he gathered at the king’s court about the Anglo-Norman world and the Scandinavian countries, and from his own travels. Written in Arabic, "The Book of King Roger" was dedicated to Roger in 1154, the year he died.

While poetry, epic and profane literature were things he enjoyed, the king was also interested in theology – regarded as the most important discipline in mediaeval thought – and he commissioned homelies of Byzantine inspiration from Philagathus the Philosopher, for the opening of the Capella Palatina. Maio of Bari, Roger II’s chancellor and a key figure at the start of William I’s reign, himself wrote a commentary on the Christian profession of faith, the Pater noster, before falling victim to the plots of the Norman aristocracy in 1160.

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