Thursday, November 26, 2009

Mosaics and Manuscripts (Rev.)

Monday 23 November 2009
[Some postings after the fact due to spotty Internet access.]

If, as is purported to be the case, Ibn Jubry in the 12th century said of Palermo, “it dazzles the eyes with its perfection,” he might have been right. Indeed, one of my colleagues continued the idea as we approached the entrance to the Cattedrale di Monreale: “Prepare to be dazzled.”


Well, the phraseology could not have been more appropriate. Sunday’s visit to the Palazzo dei Normanni and the Cappella Palatino provided a splendid introduction to the Arab-Byzantine influence in religious architecture and its glittering mosaics.

And “glittering” is a perfect descriptor in this case, since the Cappella Palatino has just re-opened after a two-year closure for the restoration of the mosaics. Funded by a German businessman, the result is probably the most sparkling – almost new-looking – mosaics in Christendom!.

At the Cattedrale di Monreale, the story is the same – even the panels depicting Noah and the flood seem to be telling the story in the same way, so there must have been some tradition to following a particular storyline. But there the resemblance ends.

First of all, there’s the difference in scale. The Cappella Palatino is beautiful to behold and, as I say, positively brilliant in light and shiny-ness. At the Cattedrale di Monreale, the panels containing the mosaics are much bigger, and while probably as brillant (allowing for some darkening after so many centuries), they are much higher up toward the high ceiling of the space (the Cappella Palatino is not nearly so high, although it is high enough to be awe-inspiring).

Then there are other differences, perhaps because of the difference in size. At Monreale, for example, there is any number of depictions of angels, some even with one of their wings folded under to fit into the space set aside for the particular image. At the Cappella Palatino, the mosaics seem to be subtler, and the folds of the drapery of the fabrics (especially the garments of some of the saints) are beautifully arranged and show the light in various shades as it catches against the fabric. Transparency, too, is beautifully depicted. In one panel at the Cappella Palatino we see one of the saints standing aside in a beautiful white garment, of which the top or over-garment is so shear as to show the undergarments clearly. In the large basin in which Saint Paul sits, being baptized, the translucency of the water ranges from slightly darker to almost transparent, and the outlines of Paul’s body and his skin is clearly depicted.

All mosaics are not religiously oriented, of course, and at the Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the villa is one of the most important surviving Roman sites, in large part because of the splendid and amazingly preserved mosaics.

At first glance, the site seems to be a great construction site, with cranes and power tools and construction teams all over the place. On coming closer, of course, it can be seen that the Villa Romana is a “working” archaeological site, and we were fortunate to be shown around by a mosaic specialist and the landscape architect supervising the site. It's all quite spectacular, and the 3,500 square meters of mosaics are awesome.

Quite spectacular, not only in their numbers but the quality of the preservation (the mosaics probably date from about AD 286-305), the subjects are an amazing collection of scenes. Most spectacular is the Corridor of the Great Hunt, a room depicting the capture and delivery of wild beasts for the bloody spectacles held in the Colosseum in Rome. According to some theories, the villa was the home of an important and apparently very successful merchant in these wild animals (which would explain the numerous other depictions of wild animals in other mosaics throughout the villa), and the corridor demonstrates, in vivid detail, just how successful the business was for the master of the house. Another room - and the most famous - shows young women in athletic pursuits in what must be the earliest depiction of women in bikinis. The other many rooms are dedicated to telling the stories of the gods and, delightedly, one of the scenes from the Odyssey. Quite a splendid experience, viewing these mosaics.

Continuing our admiration of religious depictions and returning briefly to Palermo, the manuscripts to be seen in and about the city are numerous and for the most part well cared for. In the private collection of Baronessa e Barone Chiaramonte Bordonaro there is an unusually elaborate antiphonary, a large choir book from the Middle Ages designed to be installed on a large lecturn so all the monks could see the words and the notes. This particular antiphonary has brilliant red initials on some pages and, surprisingly, it also has highly gilded initialing, so the manuscript is very special to see.

Large collections of manuscripts are also preserved at the Abbazia de San Martino (which also has a thriving conservation studio, used both for taking care of its own collection and offering restoration services as a business to other collectors) and at the library at Monreale, connected to the Cattedrale but housed in the former archbishop’s palace, now the gallery for the Monreale Modern Art collection. It is a special treat to walk about in this huge – and gloriously restored – space and be led into the large rare books and manuscripts library, full of well-cared for and beautifully organized treasures that bear witness to the Monreale authorities’ commitment to their care.

Back in Palermo proper, we are amazed to see not only the rare book collections of the Biblioteca Comunale de Palermo and the Biblioteca Centrale della Regione Siciliana, but two manuscript collections that leave the visitor just a little breathless (OK: Dazzled!). Obviously all of them cannot be described here, but among the treasures of the former was a parchment scroll from the 14th century. Perhaps 10 feet long, the manuscript describes the genealogy of the kings, and it is a magnificent piece to look at, especially when the rare books and manuscript staff of the library unroll it so carefully.

A final treasure we saw at the Bibliotheca Comunale – all right, perhaps not a manuscript per se – and in fact which we were given as a present is an amazing book, the catalogue of a huge exhibition sponsored by the library. The book is enormous, and it describes a collection of drawings – the so-called Codex Resta, a collection of drawings named for the friar who put the collection together about 1689. The book, I digegni del Codice Resta de Palermo, describes the collection (actually in more detail than I can deal with, since I don’t read Italian all that well) of padre Sebastiano Resta and the special beauty of this volume has to be the careful care that went into assembling and then so delicately reproducing the many drawings. An awesome souvenir to take away from this splendid day.

At the Centrale della Regione Siciliana, we learned about an equally – and equally unique – treasure, including an almost unbelievable story. One of the very special items in the collection is a 16th-century Portuguese map which, although known to exist, had been lost for several centuries, only to be discovered being used as the binding for a collection of manuscripts. Now restored, the map naturally enough is considered by some to be the jewel of the library’s collection, with the tale of its re-discovery and its splendid restoration told in a book published by the Centrale della Regione Siciliana (administratively similar to our state libraries in America, perhaps) Il Portolano dell’Ammiraglio Corsaro: Una carta nautical portoghese del xvi secolo ritrovata nella Biblioteca centrale della Regione Siciliana in 2008.

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