CEFALÙ, A SEASIDE TOWN WITH A NORMAN CATHEDRAL

by Jeremy Dummett

(Extract from Sicily, Island of Beauty and Conflict)

Cefalù with the Rocca behind

Cefalù occupies a dramatic position, poised between rock and sea, on the north coast of Sicily some 70 kilometres east of Palermo. In front is the Tyrrhenian sea, while directly behind the town rises the square shape of a huge rock formation, the Rocca, which dominates the landscape in a similar way to Monte Pellegrino near Palermo. Cefalù took its name from a local dialect version of the ancient Greek, kephaloidion, meaning point or headland. This is entirely appropriate as the environment here with its old harbour, limpid sea and rocky coastline, is distinctly Greek in character. The old town consists of a cluster of houses packed closely together at the base of the Rocca facing the sea. At its heart lies Piazza Duomo, at the far end of which stands the cathedral, with an elegant portico and two tall towers in yellow stone. The cathedral was built on a higher level than the piazza so that it rises above the rooftops, visible from miles away.

It was the Normans, after they captured Cefalù in 1063, who expanded the town around the base of the Rocca, and who, under King Roger II, began the building of the cathedral. Al-Edrisi, Arab geographer to Roger II, described the town as: “A fortress-city on the sea, with markets, baths and mills all within its walls. A spring that comes out of the rock provides drinking water, sweet and fresh, for the population. The fortress of Cefalù is built by a tall mountain, difficult to climb because of the high, rugged coastline.”

Cefalù was a favourite place of Vincenzo Consolo, the Sicilian writer who came from Sant’Agata di Militello, which lies down the coast towards Messina. Consolo moved to Milan, and in a career that lasted from the 1960s until his death in 2012, published works of historical fiction and travel writing, steeped in the culture of Sicily. He wrote of the discovery of a small town, Cefalù, compact in its structure, which had miraculously preserved its historical inheritance. For Consolo, Cefalù represented a point of reference, a small world rich in content, where his discoveries never ended.

The old town

Two main streets run north-south across the town, Corso Ruggero across the bottom of Piazza Duomo, and Via Vittorio Emanuele next to the seafront, linked by nine parallel smaller streets in an ancient grid system. The smaller streets are cobbled and carry decorative paving stones in various shapes. The town’s coat of arms also appears, a design consisting of three fish facing a central circle which represents a loaf of bread. Via Vittorio Emanuele was formerly known as Via Fiume for a river once ran here and the lavatoio, the old wash house, is still to be seen half-way down the street. Here fresh water runs along channels cut into the rock past stone blocks on which women used to beat their garments. For the ingenuity of the irrigation, the lavatoio is thought to have Arab origins. Nearby is the last of the city gates to have survived, Porta Pescara, which leads to the seafront and the old harbour.

The Marina

The old harbour, or the Marina, as it is known, is bordered by a breakwater which stretches out into the crystal-clear sea to protect the area where boats were moored. While there are still a few small boats in evidence, the sandy beach is now given over to holidaymakers and their families enjoying ideal swimming conditions. Behind the beach stands the outside wall of the old town where houses and apartments were built haphazardly on top of the Spanish ramparts. The tall façade contains a profusion of windows, balconies, supporting arches, terraces and roofs that rise above the beach and rocks below. From apartments built in the wall, and from restaurants and bars at ground level, a breath-taking view is afforded of the sea and the bay curving around with the green hills beyond. It is an atmospheric location used to good effect in Cinema Paradiso, a film made by Giuseppe Tornatore in 1988 about his native Sicily.

Heading down Via Vittorio Emanuele away from the Porta Pescara, one emerges from the old town onto a long promenade, the Lungomare Giardina. This follows the curve of the bay above the sandy beach and is where many of the hotels are situated. On the eastern side of the Rocca is the modern harbour filled with yachts and holiday craft. Cefalù, along with Taormina, was one of the first places in Sicily to become an international resort and is popular with the English, French and Germans. It is well organised and due to its wide bay, where much of the tourist infrastructure is situated, can absorb large numbers of visitors.

The cathedral

In the cathedral, Cefalù holds one of the great Norman monuments of Sicily. It was built before the cathedrals at Palermo and Monreale and like them displays a fusion of Arab and Norman architecture. Along with Monreale, and the Palatine Chapel and the church of the Martorana in Palermo, it is decorated with colourful mosaics. Cefalù was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2015.

The Norman cathedral

The cathedral overlooks a piazza flanked by old palaces and backed by the sheer face of the Rocca. It stands in a raised position, high above the piazza, and is reached by a flight of steep steps. Two towers, subtly different in design, rise on either side of a façade consisting of a double row of blind arcades above three arches. The towers, with their square shapes, narrow windows and pyramid roofs, recall the Arab fortress-palaces. All this was constructed in sand-coloured stone which glows in the sunlight. Palm trees in the piazza complete the exotic picture.

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 build a cathedral where he landed and dedicate it to the Saviour and to 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 to please Pope Anacletus and was probably part of the 1130 settlement which led to Roger being crowned king of Sicily and southern Italy, with the pope’s support. As Otto Demus, an expert on the Norman churches of Sicily, observed, the founders wished to conceal their political aims under a cloak of miracle and devotion.

Roger took a personal interest in the building and laid the foundation stone on 7June 1131. He then ensured that the cathedral was magnificently endowed with land and serfs. A palace was built for the king in the town possibly on the site of the building in Corso Ruggero known as the Osterio Magno. Later Roger expressed the wish to be buried in his cathedral in Cefalù and had a sarcophagus prepared for himself.  

Building of the cathedral, which employed Arab craftsmen, took place in stages, with the core completed in Roger’s time and additions made during the reigns of William I and II. The towers and the façade were added in 1240 and the portico and arches, the work of Ambrogio da Como, in 1471. The interior is in the form of a Romanesque basilica with many later additions. Down the central nave sixteen ancient Roman columns support Arab-Norman arches. The wooden roof bears traces of paintings, in the Islamic style, showing court scenes like those in the Palatine Chapel in Palermo. In the chapel to the right of the altar is a statue of the Madonna and Child by Antonello Gagini from 1533, and to the left, a painted crucifix by Tommaso de Vigilia. The stained-glass windows high in the nave were added during restorations carried out in 1925-32.

The mosaics are the cathedral’s crowning glory. They cover the apse and the wall above the altar with a variety of figures that stand out against a golden background. They were the work of master craftsmen from Byzantium brought over to Sicily by Roger II, and as indicated by an inscription, were completed by 1148. In a strict hierarchy, there appears a huge image of Christ, with below, images of the Virgin Mary and four archangels, the twelve apostles, prophets and saints. The cathedral is thus a triumphant blend of Norman, Arab and Byzantine-Greek artistic talent.

Dominating the mosaics is the Christ Pantocrator (the Almighty), who looks down, his right hand raised in blessing, his left hand holding a book open at a text from St John, in Greek and Latin, which begins: “I am the Light of the World”. In a portrait rich in symbolism, the solemn bearded features project authority but also compassion and sorrow, while two loose locks of hair across the forehead imply something more personal, indicating that he is both God and man. His robe is of purple and gold, the colours of divinity, his mantle of blue, the colour of mankind. This image of Christ has been widely praised. Although not produced in the Byzantine Empire, this apse mosaic of the Christ Pantocrator, is one of the most beautiful and famous in the world.

The cloisters of the old monastery, which are from the twelfth century, are to be found to the left of the cathedral’s entrance, at the end of an alleyway. Like the cathedral, the cloisters represent a precursor to Monreale, on a smaller scale. In the centre of the cloisters were originally four gardens, each representing a theme from the Old or New Testaments and with a fountain in a corner. A series of twin columns line the cloisters with capitals containing elaborate decorations linked to the themes of the gardens. The side wall of the cathedral is visible from the cloisters showing Islamic-style patterned decorations like those on the cathedral walls at Palermo and Monreale.   

Roger II’s wish to be buried in his cathedral at Cefalù was ignored by his son, William I. He was buried instead in Palermo’s cathedral where his tomb can be seen today. Under William II, Cefalù fell out of favour, with precedence going to Monreale.

The Mandralisca museum

Enrico Pirajno, baron of Mandralisca, who came from Cefalù, was an archaeologist, a naturalist and a collector of paintings and ancient artefacts. He took an active part in defying the oppressive Spanish Bourbon regime, became a deputy in the Sicilian government of 1848, and served in the first government of united Italy. His marble tomb can be seen in the church of the Purgatory in Corso Ruggero. The museum occupies Mandralisca’s former house, in the street bearing his name, which links Corso Ruggero to Via Vittorio Emanuele. The collection reflects the baron’s broad interests and includes ancient coins from the Greek era, pottery from the fourth century BC and a mosaic from the first century BC. His interest in seashells is represented by a collection of 20,000 specimens. A library of 6,000 volumes includes books on Cefalù from the seventeenth century.

Mandralisca found some of his finest pieces on the island of Lipari where he carried out excavations. One is a vase from the fourth century BC on which appears the picture of a fishmonger, wielding a large knife, about to carve up a tuna for a client. The buyer has money in his hand and appears to be negotiating a price with the seller, a scene familiar today in street markets across Sicily.

The gallery on the first floor displays paintings by Pietro Novelli, Antonello de Saliba, Francesco Bevelacqua, Giovanni Sogliani and the school of Pietro Ruzzolone. The outstanding exhibit is the Ritratto d’uomo (Portrait of a Man) by Antonello da Messina, from around 1470. Mandralisca found it on Lipari, being used in a pharmacy as part of a cupboard door. It is a small painting, oil on wood, featuring a mature looking man with a half-smile, which engages the viewer in a hypnotic way. Consolo, in his historical novel, The Smile of the Unknown Mariner, tells the story of Mandralisca, his fascination with the arts of Sicily, and of his gradual involvement in the uprisings against the Spanish Bourbons.

The Rocca

Getting to the top of the Rocca, which stands at 270 metres above sea level, requires care and stamina. It is a steep climb, taking about an hour, up a narrow path that begins in Percorso Pedemontana, a street that follows the side of the Rocca, not far from Piazza Garibaldi. The area on top is strewn with fragments of walls, buildings and water cisterns from many different eras. Its high position meant it was a suitable location for religious rites and it is linked to various ancient myths.

The Rocca was occupied from pre-historic times and through antiquity served as a place of refuge. There are remains of a wall linking the Rocca to the port below. Traces of a Sicel community, from the ninth century BC, have been found. The megalithic blocks of stone, known as the Temple of Diana, are probably the remains of an ancient sanctuary dating from the fourth or fifth century BC. The foundation of a castle from the twelfth century can be seen on a peak over-looking the sea. Part of a defensive wall is also visible. The son of Charles of Anjou, the Frenchman whose rule of Sicily was overthrown by the Sicilian Vespers, was apparently imprisoned here.

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