Arts, architecture, culture in Norman Italy

Religious architecture

The territories conquered by the Normans in southern Italy were at the crossroads of three great civilizations: ancient Rome handed down the model of the palaeo-Christian basilicas through the art developed in the Lombard principalities and the sphere of influence of the Holy Roman Empire under Ottonian rule. The Greek Byzantine influence is easily recognizable in the domed central-plan churches of Calabria and Apulia, and Moslem architecture in the palaces of Sicily.

With the Normans, and, more generally the Franks who came with them, architectural models tried and tested in their home regions or passed on by Cluniac monasticism were also introduced into the Mezzogiorno. But they remained in a minority in the Italian architectural landscape. The main feature of the "Norman genius" in architectural terms was, through the very active patronage of the Norman princes and the monastic orders that they fostered, the development of a harmonious synthesis of the broad range of cultural movements in the south of the peninsula and in Sicily. This flourishing of architecture relied on a principle of transmission characteristic of mediaeval mentalities, imitatio: reference to a prestigious model, reproduced over a wide area of influence, although without ruling out variations or formal innovation. A possible classification of the architectural landscapes during the Norman period would therefore be based on a few major categories :

- the Monte Cassino Benedictine group, its prototype being the St Benedictís church at Monte Cassino, designed by Abbot Desiderius, with the abbey church of the Holy Liberator at Majella, Capua cathedral, Caserta Vecchia cathedral, the church of Sant'Angelo in Formis;

- the Franko-Norman group, whose standard model was Aversa cathedral, with the abbey church of the Holy Trinity at Venosa, Acerenza cathedral;

- the Apulia group, inspired by St Nicholas's basilica at Bari, with Canosa cathedral, the church of SS Cataldo and Nicholas at Lecce;

- the Benedictine-Cluniac group, a typical example of which is the church of the Holy Trinity at Mileto, and to which belonged buildings not only in Calabria but also in Sicily, Mileto cathedral, Santa Maria de la Roccella, San Giovanni Vecchio di Stilo;

- the Sicilian group which, while having a lot in common with the preceding type, was to occupy an independent position in the sense that it grouped the architectural experiments most widespread between the 11th and 12th centuries, including French productions. Examples are the churches of Palermo: St John of the Lepers, St John of the Hermits, St Mary of the Admiral, the Palatine Chapel; Cefalý cathedral, the whole of Monreale.


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