All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Page revised in February 2023.
All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to email@example.com.
Page revised in February 2023.
You may wish to see an introductory page to this section or to Palermo first.
Zisa: southern (left) and western (right) sides
XVIIIth century travellers who wrote about their Sicilian wanderings did not fail to mention a tall square building which they noticed while going from Palermo to Monreale.
On my return to the plains from Monreale I wandered into bye-roads, where the variety of evergreens made the appearance of the country round me almost as beautiful as if spring had banished winter and its dreary concomitants. I directed my steps to a large country-house of very ancient foundation, and remarkable architecture; it is called La Torre Zizza, built by the Saracens during their abode in Sicily, which places the epoch of its building as far back as the ninth or tenth century. The tale handed down by tradition is, that a sultan erected it for the purpose of confining his beautiful daughter Zizza; but as this word is said to mean gay, flowery, the palace may have acquired its name from its rich decoration, and fragrant gardens. Even now, when the Sicilians speak of a well dressed lady, they say she is azizzata. Except the insertion of a window and a coat of arms, I believe no alterations have been attempted in this edifice by modern hands; it is a square lone tower, three stories high, of regular courses of masonry, not at all decayed by age.
Henry Swinburne - Travels in the Two Sicilies. 1777-1780
Palermo, April 14, 1787. We were much pleased with a Moorish building, which is in excellent preservation - not very large, but the rooms broad, and well proportioned, and in excellent keeping with the whole pile. It is not perhaps suited for a northern climate, but in a southern land is a most agreeable residence. Architects may perhaps some day furnish us with a plan and elevation of it.
J. W. Goethe - Italian Journey - Translation by Charles Nisbet
Palermo, July 1790. The Zisa, together with a small mosque adjoining, on the battlements of which some Saracenic inscriptions appear, is in a perfect state of preservation. An ambassador from Morocco, who was here some time ago, was much struck with it, and said, the plan of the building was similar to those of such edifices in his own country. A large apartment, in the third story, he pronounced to be the Council Chamber.
Sir Richard Colt Hoare - A Classical Tour through Italy and Sicily - published in 1819.
The Palazzo della Ziza, on the outside of the Porta Nuova but near the City, is another Saracenic Structure once according to report so splendid that it was called Ziza from an Arabic word which means grand and excellent. Earthquakes and alterations made by the Normans have cruelly injured this Edifice, but a Fountain, a Portico, Marble Columns and Mosaics of Saracenic work still remain.
Mariana Starke - Travels in Europe for the Use of Travellers on the Continent and likewise in the Island of Sicily - 1838 Edition - based on a travel to Sicily made in 1834.
Zisa - Hall of the Fountain (see another image in the introductory page)
An Arabic inscription was discovered in 1870 in the main hall beneath later paintings. It shed light on the commissioners of the building: Norman kings William I the Bad and his son William II the Good, who ruled over Sicily in 1154-1189.
Outside the town stands the palace of La Ziza, built by William I, where he indulged in the soft indolent ease of a true oriental. The king was like his architecture, compounded of northern vigour and eastern luxury. When roused to action he showed himself a warrior and a leader of men, but at other times he shut himself up in his palaces and lived the slothful idle life of an eastern sultan. He surrounded himself with Saracen courtiers and eunuchs, and was accused of being half a Mussulman himself. Finally he forbad anyone to trouble him with the affairs of state, and left his kingdom to the mercy of unworthy ministers, who ruined and oppressed his subjects, whence, says the historian, he acquired the name of Guglielmo il Malo. La Ziza now forms a cubical block of building. (..) It is inhabited as a private house, but there is a central hall, which can be visited, preceded by an arched vestibule, now opening on the public street, where once were beautiful gardens. This hall, or alcove, is thoroughly oriental. It is a square chamber, with square recesses on three sides, the fourth being open to the vestibule. These recesses are vaulted with Saracenic stalactites, to bring them out to the central square, which is cross-vaulted. The walls were lined with marble, divided into panels by upright bands of mosaic between bead-mouldings of white marble, and over this dado was a high band of glass mosaic.
Sir Thomas Graham Jackson - Gothic architecture in France, England, and Italy - 1915. The author (1835-1924) of this essay was one of the leading architects of his time. He extensively wrote about Byzantine, Romanesque and Gothic architecture.
Zisa: (left) fountain; (right) capitals (the image used as background shows the decoration of an Arab capital)
The inside is decorated with thin arches, and ceilings hanging down
in drops. A fountain plays in the hall, and in summer
preserves a fine temperature of air, which I did not find
too cool even in winter. Swinburne
(Some) capitals are the most European feature in the building. All the rest might very well be in the Alhambra or on the other shore of the Mediterranean. In the back wall from a niche (..) gushes out a stream of water, which pours down an inclined plane of marble, wrinkled with zigzags to break the stream into sparkling wavelets; and thence through a channel between marble sides adorned with mosaic it falls into square pools sunk in the floor. A more delicious retreat from the sun of a Sicilian summer, where, lulled by the tinkling murmur of water, one looked out on shady groves through arches of marble and mosaic, could not be desired by the most indolent and luxurious oriental. Now the groves are gone, and the interior is exposed to every passer-by on the dusty high-road: the marble is mostly stripped from the walls, and the mosaic picked out, but much of the old oriental charm still hangs about what is left. T. G. Jackson
The Arab architects and decorators of the building might have come from Mahdia or Sousse in Tunisia which were a possession of the Norman Kings of Sicily in ca 1146-1160.
Much of this mural decoration has been defaced, or carried off, we are told, by the French in the 13th century; but there are considerable remains of the mosaic, especially in the central recess, where, within lovely borders of colour on gold, are three circles with trees and birds, and archers shooting at them. Here (..) one escapes for the moment from the saints of church mosaic and welcomes the rare opportunity of seeing what the secular work of the 12th century was like. Such as this must have been the splendid decorations of palaces and churches by the Iconoclastic emperors at Constantinople. T. G. Jackson
(left) SS. TrinitÓ alla Zisa; (right) former portal of the Zisa estate
The main building was adjoined by a small Arab mosque which was turned into a chapel. Zisa was bought in 1635 by Giovanni de Sandoval, a nobleman of Spanish origin, who gave the interior the aspect of a noble palace of his time, but did not destroy its most interesting halls. In 1803 a church was built at the side of the old chapel.
Zisa: exhibits: (left) 1148 gravestone of Anna, mother of Grisanto, chaplain of King Roger II with inscriptions in Hebrew, Latin, Greek and Arabic and the letters IC XC NI KA (in Greek "Christ Wins"); (right) detail of the decoration of a metal bowl with Kufic letters
In 1951 Zisa was expropriated by the Sicilian Region and it underwent a long period of restoration. Today it houses a small museum of exhibits of the Arab and Norman periods.
Cuba: eastern (left) and south-western (right) sides
The Cuba, now converted into a barrack for a regiment of cavalry, is in a less perfect state of preservation than the Zisa, but
the summit is encircled with a long inscription. Colt Hoare
The Torre della Cuba in a Garden near Palermo is a curious Saracenic rectangular Building with two Doorways having pointed Arches. Its Roof is a semi circular Dome ("qubbah" in Arabic, hence the name of the building - see some famous "qubbets" in Jerusalem) and its upper edgings exhibit Arabic Characters; if its blind windows were originally open which according to appearance they were not this Edifice must have been peculiarly light and elegant and at all events the architect who erected it was well aware of the beautiful effect produced by light and lofty arches. Starke
The building is situated along the street for Monreale and it is still inside a barracks, although it is no longer used as a military facility.
Cuba: (left) an external niche; (right-above) interior with a "muqarnas" decoration (you may wish to see that of Shah Abbas Mosque at Isfahan); (right-below) part of the inscription at the top of the building
which was built by William II in 1185, as is recorded by
an Arabic inscription on the frieze, has some Saracenic
details. T. G. Jackson
Similar to Zisa, Cuba was meant to be a leisure residence for the Kings of Sicily. Its fame was such that Giovanni Boccaccio set one of his tales there:
Some Sicilian gallants, that were come from Naples, (..) resolved to capture Restituta, and carry her away; nor did they fail to give effect to their resolve; but, albeit she shrieked aloud, they laid hands on her, and set her aboard their boat, and put to sea. Arrived at Calabria, they fell a wrangling as to whose the damsel should be, and in brief each claimed her for his own: wherefore, finding no means of coming to an agreement, and fearing that worse might befall them, and she bring misfortune on them, they resolved with one accord to give her to Frederic, King of Sicily, who was then a young man, and took no small delight in commodities of that quality; and so, being come to Palermo, they did. Marking her beauty, the King set great store by her; but as she was somewhat indisposed, he commanded that, till she was stronger, she should be lodged and tended in a very pretty villa that was in one of his gardens, which he called Cuba; and so it was done. (..)
Gianni frequently passing by Cuba, he chanced one day to catch sight of her at a window, and was seen of her, to their great mutual satisfaction. And Gianni, taking note that the place was lonely, made up to her, and had such speech of her as he might, and being taught by her after what fashion he must proceed, if he would have further speech of her, he departed, but not till he had made himself thoroughly acquainted with the configuration of the place; and having waited till night was come and indeed far spent, he returned there, and though the ascent was such that 'twould scarce have afforded lodgement to a woodpecker, won his way up and entered the garden, where, finding a pole, he set it against the window which the damsel had pointed out as hers, and thereby swarmed up easily enough.
The damsel had aforetime shewn herself somewhat distant towards him, being careful of her honour, but now deeming it already lost, she had bethought her that there was none to whom she might more worthily give herself than to him; and reckoning on inducing him to carry her off, she had made up her mind to gratify his every desire; and to that end had left the window open that his ingress might be unimpeded. So, finding it open, Gianni softly entered, lay down beside the damsel, who was awake, and before they went further, opened to him all her mind, beseeching him most earnestly to take her thence, and carry her off. Gianni replied that there was nothing that would give him so much pleasure, and that without fail, on leaving her, he would make all needful arrangements for bringing her away when he next came. On which with exceeding great delight they embraced one another, and plucked that boon than which Love has no greater to bestow; and having so done divers times, they unwittingly fell asleep in one another's arms.
Now towards daybreak the King, who had been greatly charmed with the damsel at first sight, happened to call her to mind, and feeling himself fit, resolved, notwithstanding the hour, to go lie with her a while; and so, attended by a few of his servants, he hied him privily to Cuba. Having entered the house, he passed (the door being softly opened) into the room in which he knew the damsel slept. A great blazing torch was borne before him, and so, as he bent his glance on the bed, he espied the damsel and Gianni lying asleep, naked and in one another's arms (... the novel has a happy end).
The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio (1350-1353) - Day 5 - No 6. Translation by James M. Rigg.
Villa Rao e Torres or di Napoli; (inset) detail of the decoration portraying an Ottoman prisoner
In the garden of Don * * * di Napoli,
not far distant, is an antique fountain, in extremely
good condition, which is apparently of the same
date, and was probably an appartenance of the
Cuba. Colt Hoare
When the crown of the island passed to the House of Aragon in 1282, Cuba gradually fell into decay. During the XVIth century, because of its out-of-town location, it was used as a place of confinement for those infected with plague .
The wide gardens which surrounded it were partitioned and farmed. In 1730 a fine villa was built on the site of Cuba Soprana, a tower which was part of the Cuba facilities.
(left) Cubula; (right) Cuba Soprana, a tower which was incorporated into Villa di Napoli
The pavilion called La Cubola, once belonging to La Cuba, has all the characteristics of a Mahometan
Turbeh. T. G. Jackson
As a matter of fact qubbets is also the name given to domed mausoleums in some Arab Countries as at Damascus, but it is more likely that this small building sheltered a fountain, as suggested by Colt Hoare.
S. Giovanni degli Eremiti (see it in a 1911 painting by Alberto Pisa)
S. Giovanni degli Eremiti is a most curious
church, and one of the earliest specimens of Norman architecture in Sicily.
A monastery had existed on this spot
from the days of Gregory the Great in
the 7th century, under the name of S. Erme, or Sant' Ermete; but it had fallen
into decay by the time of the Norman
conquest, and was rebuilt by King
Roger some time before 1132, because
in that year he wrote to the head of a
congregation of hermits at Monte Vergini in Apulia requesting him to send
some of his fraternity to occupy the
new monastery. Whether it was from
the hermits, or from the saints to
whom it was originally dedicated, that
the church received its present appellation, is an open question. It is now
blocked up by houses that you can
only see it from a distance.
A Handbook for Travellers in Sicily - Murray - 1864
The garden around is full of palms and semi-tropical vegetation, and above rises the church with its five pink domes, and its Saracenic windows; the whole picture is so completely oriental that one almost forgets that this is still Europe. T. G. Jackson
In the late XIXth century the church was freed from later additions and modifications and some nearby houses were demolished in order to allow for a better view of the building.
S. Giovanni degli Eremiti: (left) view with Palazzo dei Normanni in the background; (right) bell tower
The church and convent of S. Giovanni Evangelista, or as it is generally called S. Giovanni degli Eremiti is another of King Roger's foundations. This is a domical church, but it is not planned on the Byzantine model as a square round a central dome. It has a nave and choir covered with three domes in a line, an eastern transept with a dome over the southern arm, and over the other is a tower, crowned with a dome, the lower storey being cross-vaulted. In the belfry stage are windows surrounded by wide shallow concentric orders, enclosed within a square border in Arab fashion, like those at S. Cataldo. T. G. Jackson
S. Giovanni degli Eremiti: (left) nave; (right) interior of the bell tower
There are three apses at the east end, of which only the central one projects on the outside. The cross arches on which the domes rest are pointed, and the domes are carried by squinches of a kind to be more fully described when we come to S. Cataldo. The light comes from windows in the domes and in the end walls, and there are openings in the cross walls from dome to dome ranging with the windows. The building is now disused, and is quite bare and devoid of any ornamentation. This church is built into an older building on the south side consisting of a long chamber once vaulted with six bays of pointed arches, in two spans, with a row of five piers dividing it down the middle. (..) The local story is that it was a mosque. T. G. Jackson
S. Giovanni degli Eremiti: Benedictine cloister
A few steps farther westward of this court is the charming little cloister which is the delight of every artist who visits Palermo. It is very roughly worked, and evidently later than the other buildings. The arches are pointed and segmental, but the shallow order and the label that surmounts them are round. Many of the marble colonnettes have perished and been replaced by rude piers of masonry. The surviving capitals are delicately carved, but in a stone too rough to do the work justice. In the middle of the court is a well: clustering roses climb over it. T. G. Jackson
S. Giovanni degli Eremiti: (left) Arab cistern; (right) another view of the Benedictine cloister
You may wish to see the Benedictine cloister of the Cathedral of Monreale.
S. Cataldo: (left) overall view; (right) interior
The little church of S. Cataldo adjoining La Martorana, built in 1161 during the reign of William I, il Malo, has an almost more Saracenic look than any other building in Palermo. It is a simple rectangle of a nave and aisles, ending eastwards in three apses of which only the central one shows outside. The windows outside are enclosed in a sort of outer order, which, however, is not recessed in the wall, but the whole wall above the window-sill is brought forward to form it - a very singular device. (..) Externally the walls are crowned by battlements, a cresting of a very oriental form, inlaid with patterns pierced. It is now mostly new, but enough of the old remains to justify the design. It was discovered behind a coat of plaster and exposed by Professor Salinas (Director of the Archaeological Museum of Palermo in 1873-1914). The nave is divided by cross arches into three bays, covered by three domes in a row, and the aisles have transverse ribs and cross-groining. It is lit by simple windows high in the side walls, and by lights in the domes. (..) The main columns are of marble, and probably antique, with good classic bases, the principal capitals are original. In the triapsal termination of this chapel (..) we see the influence of Byzantine tradition, for the two side apses required in the Greek rite, were not needed by the Latin one. T. G. Jackson
S. Cataldo: (left) one of the domes; (right) floor decoration
The domes are carried by a curious sort of squinch across the angles of the square, half a squinch and half a niche, a feature which (..) is the typical mode in Sicily of bringing the square into an octagon, and so into a circle. The squinch consists of two orders, the inner one forming a semi-circular niche, with pointed head. (..) The pavement of opus Alexandrinum (aka Cosmati work), also displays a mixture of East and West, for though the general idea is reminiscent of pavements like those in S. Maria Maggiore, the Ara Coeli, and numerous other churches in Rome, Lucca, and elsewhere in Italy, the straight angular form of the interlacing bands that break away from the easy curves of the centre are distinctly Saracenic. T. G. Jackson
Other pages on Palermo:
- Gates and City Layout
- Martorana and Cappella Palatina
- Medieval Palaces
- Churches of the Main Religious Orders
- Other Churches
- Palaces of the Noble Families
- Public Buildings and Fountains
Plan of this section:
Agrigento - The Main Temples
Agrigento - Other Monuments
Catania - Ancient Monuments
Catania - Around Piazza del Duomo
Catania - Via dei Crociferi
Catania - S. Niccol˛ l'Arena
Piazza Armerina and Castelvetrano
Reggio Calabria - Archaeological Museum
Selinunte - The Acropolis
Selinunte - The Eastern Hill
Syracuse - Main Archaeological Area
Syracuse - Other Archaeological Sites
Syracuse - Castello Eurialo
Syracuse - Ancient Ortigia
Syracuse - Medieval Monuments
Syracuse - Renaissance Monuments
Syracuse - Baroque and Modern Monuments
Taormina - Ancient Monuments
Taormina - Medieval Monuments
Villa del Casale
1911 Sicily in the paintings by Alberto Pisa