Arts, architecture, culture in Norman Italy

The book and illumination

The illumination was a form of artistic expression which was radically transformed at the time of the Normans. Initially, portraits of the new great men were painted in the monastery scriptoria following the tradition of works of previous centuries. They were pictures of kings enthroned amidst their dignitaries and their retinue, in line with a tradition of rigid, hieratic figures, notably upheld by the monastery at Monte Cassino.

But the introduction into Norman Italy of manuscripts by ancient authors coincided with the advent of new illumination workshops at Bari, Naples and Salerno, where novel forms of illustrations were devised, capable of imagining the creatures of Ovidís "Metamorphoses", and of dressing the heroes of tales from the ancient historians in the garb of Norman knights. This profane inspiration stood apart from the monastic tradition, but is also found in the carvings in the churches and monasteries where representations of warriors wearing the armour of the time flourished in the early 12th c.

This renewal of the repertoire, graphics and ornamentation of the Greco-Roman book was further influenced by Moslem art, through the illustrations of the books of the geographers or the astrologers painted at the court of Palermo for al-Idrisi, author of the "Book of King Roger" (1154), or al-Sufi, whose "Book of Stars" was translated into Latin (Liber de locis stellarum), under William II. Byzantine art was also brought to bear, especially through top court officials, the "emirs" Eugene and Henry Aristippus, who brought back to Constantinople from their embassies works donated by the emperor.

This iconographic renewal led to a remarkable work late in the Norman period: the book dedicated to the emperor Henry VI (Liber ad honorem Augusti) by Peter of Eboli, probably written and illuminated in Palermo. Graphic illustrations of palace scenes, processions and battles are just as important as the text itself. The narrative method is similar to the Bayeux Tapestry, both in the composition of successive tableaux, and in the argument, relating the punishment of the perjuror, Tancred of Lecce, and the triumph of the hero, the emperor Henry VI.


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