by Jeremy Dummett
Cefalù is a picturesque town occupying a point of land stretching out to sea, located about 70 kilometres from Palermo. It has become a popular holiday destination for its spectacular position, its maze of medieval streets and its proximity to the unspoilt hilly country inland. On one side of the town a medieval gate leads to the seafront and a beach facing the open sea. On the other side, protected in a natural bay, lies the harbour filled with fishing boats and holiday craft. Immediately above the town rises the massive shape of the Rocca, a square rock formation in whose caves have been found traces of a Sicel settlement. The Sicels were an ancient tribe who inhabited Sicily before the arrival of the Phoenicians and the Greeks. Cefalù took its name from a local dialect version of the Greek for “headland”.
The medieval town is full of interest with its cobbled streets, some fine palaces, ancient fountains, a Jewish quarter and a communal area where the women used to do the town’s washing. In the centre is a small and interesting museum, called the Mandralisca. It contains one of Antonello da Messina’s most famous paintings, the Portrait of an Unknown Man from 1470, a collection of ancient coins, and some Greek terracottas, including a vase from the fourth century BC on which is shown a tuna seller carving his fish.
But the town’s main claim to fame is its Norman cathedral, to be found in a square towards the seafront. The cathedral was built on the orders of the Norman King Roger II, with work starting in summer 1131. Building took place in stages, with the core completed in Roger’s time and additions made during the reigns of William I and William II. The towers in the front façade were added in 1240. The cathedral stands on high ground at the far end of the town’s main square, just below the Rocca, with its towers visible for miles around.
In common with other medieval churches, the cathedral has a founding legend. According to this, Roger found himself in a storm at sea in danger of his life, when returning from southern Italy. He took an oath that if he survived he would found a cathedral at the place where he landed and dedicate it to the Saviour and the saints Peter and Paul. When the storm subsided, the ship came ashore at Cefalù. The legend hides the true motive for founding the church and a bishopric at Cefalù. This was probably to please Pope Anacletus. It may have been part of the 1130 settlement with Rome when Roger was crowned king by the pope.
The interior of the cathedral has received many additions, especially in the baroque era, but remains exceptional for its mosaics. Carried out by craftsmen brought over by Roger from Byzantium, the decoration in the main apse is of the highest quality. The same craftsmen probably worked on the mosaics in the Cappella Palatina and at the Martorana in Palermo. The figure of Christ Pantocrator (from the Greek for “almighty”) which, according to an inscription was complete by 1148, is especially memorable. Roger was fond of his cathedral at Cefalù and had a sarcophagus prepared for himself there. He was, however, buried in the cathedral in Palermo. In later Norman times Cefalù fell out of favour, with precedence going to Monreale.