The Battle of the Two Cathedrals

In Palermo, Walter of the Mill, the very powerful bishop and William II's former tutor, tried, unsuccessfully, to convince the young king to grant him and other nobles more power. He had already commissioned the cathedral of Palermo as proof of papal supremacy while the young William was still a minor. When he was crowned, young William's first act was to confirm his sovereignty, proving to the bishop and the Sicilian nobles who was really in charge. By establishing a bishopric in Monreale, William very cleverly curtailed the omnipotence of the bishop of Palermo. By also building and annexing an abbey to the cathedral, and assigning it to the Benedictine monks from Cluny, William enabled the abbot to automatically become an archbishop without the need of papal approval, thus exacerbating the fierce antagonism between the French monks and the papacy (the latter included Walter). Justifying the cathedral dedicated to Santa Maria La Nova (Saint Mary The New) with the story of the dream, William endeavored to outdo his old tutor. What resulted was a mammoth complex that took less than 20 years to build -- a miracle for its time. Unlike the cathedral of Palermo, which has most of its artistic splendor on the exterior, Monreale's cathedral features all its beauty on the inside. Luckily, as an independent archbishopric, it never underwent any of the horrendous "improvements" that were applied to the cathedral of Palermo, and therefore its original beauty was preserved -- it's a true miracle that it was left intact.

How the Mosaics are Made

The millennia-old art of creating mosaics takes a precision and skill that few possess today. Around the Duomo in Monreale there are, however, a couple of workshops that still invest time and passion into the craft. If you make your way under the archway just beyond the north portico to view the apse of the cathedral, you'll find one of the few mosaic makers in town. The shop, Mosaico Arte e Artigianato, at Via Arcivescovado 13 (tel. 091-6406036) creates everything from very simple landscapes (costing just a few euros) to elaborate replicas of famous paintings (costing thousands of euros), and they even offer basic starter kits for the kids to keep them busy.

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