Palermo, Sicily, Italy
King Guglielmo (William) II.
The palace stood in the middle of a large Norman hunting ground and was only used for brief stays. It served as a solatium, or place of pleasure, with its natural backdrop of lush fruit trees and palm groves, streams and ponds.
Building work (1165–80) was started during the reign of Guglielmo I and completed during the reign of Guglielmo II.
It is currently used as a museum of Islamic art.
The east-facing rectangular palace is built on three floors (total height 25.70 m) and has two towers set midway along its shorter sides. The elaborate top edge of the building includes friezes and an attic cornice that bears an epigraph in Arabic. This bold line of the top edge was subsequently interrupted by the inclusion of crenellations.
The ground floor consists of a central fountain room with smaller rooms to the side. The same layout is evident on the second floor with the central room, probably originally an open courtyard given the presence of a central impluvium. The height of the fountain room and the entrance hall means that the first floor consists of just two lateral wings linked on the west side by a long corridor.
The fountain room on the ground floor is square with one side open to the hall through a large pointed arch and the other three sides lined with large niches with muqarnas vaults. This was the most important part of the building and was used for feasts, concerts and banquets. Wall mosaics and column capitals decorated with iconographic motifs inspired by nature and hunting suggest that this room was intended as an extension of the garden within the palace. The water emerges through a singular nymphaeum in the west niche opposite the entrance and runs into the fishpond via an incline cut with zigzag channels. There are still some traces of this pond and of the small pavilion that rose from its waters.
A mosaic inscription in naskhi script around the entrance arch exalts the Norman sovereign who commissioned the work.
The palace, which was used for recreation, was erected in the large Norman hunting ground around Palermo, a lush verdant setting complete with streams and ponds. It is an excellent example of the combination of Islamic (the interior includes exquisite muqarnas decoration) and Byzantine cultures (cycles of wall mosaics). It was completed during the reign of Guglielmo (William) II.
From the mosaic inscription celebrating King Guglielmo II on the entrance archway; from historical sources (account by Romualdo Salernitano).
Bellafiore, G., La Zisa di Palermo, Palermo, 1994.
Rudolph Meier, H., “I Palazzi Residenziali di Palermo”, in I Normanni, Popolo d’Europa 1030–1200, (ed. M. D’Onofrio), Rome, 1994, pp.221–7.
Staacke, U., Un Palazzo Normanno a Palermo: La Zisa, la Cultura Musulmana negli Edifici dei Re, Palermo, 1991.
Siculo-Norman Art: Islamic Culture in Medieval Sicily, pp.73–8.
Pier Paolo Racioppi "Zisa" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2017. 2017. http://www.discoverislamicart.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;it;Mon01;1;en
Prepared by: Pier Paolo RacioppiPier Paolo Racioppi
Laureato e specializzato in storia dell'arte presso l'Università di Roma “La Sapienza” sta conseguendo il dottorato di ricerca in Storia e conservazione dell'oggetto d'arte e d'architettura presso l'Università di Roma TRE. Ha svolto attività seminariali presso l'Istituto di Storia dell'Arte all'Università La Sapienza di Roma e attualmente è docente di storia dell'arte del Rinascimento presso la IES at Luiss (Roma).
Ha pubblicato diversi contributi sulla tutela artistica, il collezionismo e le accademie d'arte, ed ha collaborato al Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani dell'Enciclopedia Treccani.
Translation by: Laurence Nunny
Translation copyedited by: Monica Allen
MWNF Working Number: IT 01
Islamic Dynasties / Period
On display in
Discover Islamic Art Exhibition(s)The Normans in Sicily | Royal Art and Architecture Geometric Decoration | Geometric Decoration in Architecture
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