The cultural influences of Sicily collide in this palace that dates back to the 8th century b.c., when Punic administrators set up an outpost in the highest part of the city. In the 9th century a.d. the Arabs built a palace on the spot for their emirs and their harems, and the Normans turned what was essentially a fortress into a sumptuous royal residence. It was here that Frederick II had his early 13th-century court of minstrels and literati that founded the Schola Poetica Siciliana, which marked the birth of Italian literature; what remains is an incomparable testimony to Palermo’s cultural heydays. The Spanish viceroys took up residence in the palace in 1555, and today most of the vast maze of rooms and grand halls houses the seat of Sicily’s semiautonomous regional government.
Arab–Norman cultural influences intersect most spectacularly in the Cappella Palatina, covered in glittering Byzantine mosaics from 1130 to 1140 and finished in time for the coronation of Roger II, who proved to be not only the most powerful of European kings but also the most enlightened. High in the cupola at the end of the apse and in the cupola is Christ Pantocrator (as usual in this iconic image, he holds the New Testament in his left hand and makes the gesture of blessing with his right hand). He is surrounded by saints and biblical characters, some interpreted a little less piously than usual—Adam and Eve happily munch on the forbidden fruit, and rather than showing any hesitation in their act of defiance they are greedily reaching for a second piece. Shame prevails in the next scene, when God steps in reproachfully and the naked couple covers themselves with leaves. The mosaics are vibrant in the soft light, and the effect is especially powerful in scenes depicting waters, as in the flood and the Baptism of Christ—in these, water appears actually to be shimmering.
More scenes appear on the wooden ceiling, done in a three-dimensional technique using small sections of carved wood, known in Arabic as muqarnas. A team of carpenters and painters was brought in from Egypt to create the playfully secular scenarios of dancers, musicians, hunters on horseback, drinkers, even banqueters in a harem. You’ll see them best with binoculars or a telephoto lens.
Visits to the Royal Apartments are escorted, as this is a seat of government. Tours are almost always conducted in Italian; ask if there is an usher on duty who can speak English. The apartments are not open to the public when the Sicilian parliament is in session—meeting in the Salone d’Ercole, named for the mammoth 19th-century frescoes depicting the “Twelve Labours of Hercules” (pundits like to say this is apt decoration for legislators wading through government bureaucracy). The fairly pompous staterooms from the years of Spanish rule give way to earlier remnants, among them the Sala dei Presidenti; this stark chamber was hidden in the bowels of the palace for several centuries, completely unknown until 2002, when an earthquake knocked down one of the walls and unveiled an untouched, medieval relic. The Torre Gioaria (tower of the wind) is a harbinger of modern air-conditioning systems: A fountain in the middle of the tower (since removed) spouted water that cooled the breezes coming from the four hallways. In the Torre Gioaria is the Sala di Ruggero II, decorated with mosaics of nature and hunting scenes. Much less hospitable are the Segrete, or dungeons, where the cold stone walls are etched with primitive scenes of Norman warships. The otherwise enlightened Frederick II is said to have taken his interest in science to perverse lengths in these chambers, where he shut prisoners in casks to see whether or not their souls could be observed escaping through a small hole at the moment of death. He also imprisoned children and forbade any interaction beyond sucking and bathing to see if they would develop a natural language that would provide clues to the speech God gave Adam and Eve.
Frederick was fascinated by the stars and brought many astronomers and astrologers to his court. His Bourbon successors shared the interest and in 1790 added an astronomical observatory, still functioning, at the top of the Torre Pisana. From these heights in 1801 the priest Fra Giuseppe Piazza discovered Ceres, the first asteroid known to mankind.