Norman Sicily: Art and Power in Palermo

Vespri Siciliani

November 3-4, 2017

Marines’ Memorial Theatre, San Francisco

Even before their rapid conquest of England in 1066, Norman knights arrived in Saracen-controlled Sicily. Pretending to serve as mercenaries variously to the Lombards, the local lords of Benevento or the Byzantines, they plotted long-term opportunities for themselves in Sicily. Those who found it even more enticing than a Crusade to the Holy Land settled in to enjoy domination of the local population. Sicily under the Normans became a crossroad for intense yet prosperous interaction among Norman-Catholic, Byzantine-Orthodox and Arab-Islamic cultures, endowing Palermo with great art, an art that glorifies the severe authoritarianism of centralized royal and divine power, such as the famous mosaic of Christ Pantocrater in Monreale.

Friday, November 3, 2017

7:30-9:30 pm

Sicily as a Site of Encounter / Teofilo Ruiz (History, UCLA). After the defeat of the Muslims, Sicily became a county under Norman rulers in 1071 and, under Roger II, a kingdom in 1130. The kingdom of Sicily encompassed most of southern Italy (the mezzogiorno), so towns along the Amalfi coast joined this ambitious political and cultural project. Under Norman and Hohenstaufen rulers, Sicily became a paradigmatic site of encounter. Greek, Arabic, and Latin became the official languages. The Normans promoted a vigorous cultural program in which great works of art, such as the church at Monreale, the Mediterranean map of al-Idrisi, and the tombs of Norman kings in Palermo, showed the richness of cultural hybridity. This lecture recaps the history of Sicily and southern Italy and discusses Sicily as a site of encounter. In Sicily a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-linguistic population forged a unique moment in time. Their many accomplishments, carried out under Norman and Hohenstaufen rule, show the possibilities for cooperation, as short-lived as they were, in Mediterranean societies.

Performance / Sicily at the Opera: Sicilian Life on the Operatic Stage / Clifford (Kip) Cranna.  Sicily’s unique culture and history have been vividly reflected in operas written by, for, or about Sicilians. San Francisco Opera’s Dramaturg Clifford (Kip) Cranna examines the ways in which operatic art has mirrored the island’s colorful past. Live performances will highlight such masterpieces as Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani (The Sicilian Vespers), based on momentous events in medieval Sicilian history, and Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry), a potent tale of machismo, betrayal, and revenge in the 19th-century Sicilian countryside. Featuring Marie Plette (soprano), Philip Skinner (bass-baritone) and Bryndon Hassman (piano).

Saturday, November 4, 2017

10:00 am – noon & 1:30 – 4:00 pm

Before the Normans / Fred Astren (Jewish Studies, SFSU) — For half a millennium before the late 11th-century Norman conquest, the history of Sicily and southern Italy was characterized by division and competition between distant empires and local centers of power. Muslim amirs and rival Frankish and Greek emperors competed with land-based Lombard Benevento and Capua, and with maritime city-states, such as Gaeta and Amalfi. Naples and Salerno were land-sea hybrids. Religious gazes were directed variously toward Rome, Constantinople, or Mecca, with a significant minority of Jews looking toward Jerusalem. In fact, this island and peninsula in middle of the “Middle Sea” was at the center of Mediterranean connectivity, whose curse brought armies and navies, but whose blessings put its peoples in contact with a wide variety of economic, cultural, linguistic, religious, and intellectual trends. In this arena of complex struggle and multiple-layered accommodation between North and South, and East and West—with no strong central power—the Normans found opportunity, but also had to grapple with deep and abiding diversity.

Manifesting Connections: The Art and Architecture of the Kingdom of Sicily / Sharon Gerstel (Art and Archeology, UCLA) / Throughout its medieval history, Sicily benefitted economically, culturally, and politically from its position as an important station on trade routes between Europe and Africa, Byzantium and the West. The splendid monuments of the Kingdom of Sicily, founded by Roger II, demonstrate how, under the patronage of specific rulers and the sponsorship of members of their court, the island’s diverse cultural strands could be interwoven to create unique works of art and architecture. These works, as we shall see, were intended to manifest connections with cultures and courts located far from the island kingdom. Analysis of the works also provides insights into the make-up of the island’s cosmopolitan culture. In this lecture, we will unravel the Islamic, Romanesque, and Byzantine strands that make up Norman art and architecture in Sicily. We will also consider how the region’s incomparable ecclesiastical mosaics contributed to the modern understanding of medieval cultures.

The Courtly Love Poetry of Syracuse in Sicily / Beverly Allen (Italian, Syracuse University). The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250) presided over his remarkable court at Castel Maniace in Syracuse (and at his numerous other castles throughout Sicily and Puglia), where one of the earliest traditions in Italian literature took hold: courtly love poetry, sung by troubadours from Europe and North Africa. We will explore representative poems, including one by the Emperor himself, and consider the general traits of this genre, the possibility that it defined love in the Western World, and the less-known possibility that it may have served as a code for heresy at a time when the Roman Inquisition was just getting started.

Performance / Troubadour Music from the Court of Frederick II / Tim Rayborn. Including pieces by the Occitan troubadours in exile, the German Minnesingers, and the maluf of the Tunisian Hafsida, played on the medieval citole, the medieval harp, and the Arabic ‘ud.

Panel Discussion with the Presenters; Q&A

Download the postcard here: HW Norman Sicily Postcard


Beverly Allen Beverly Allen (PhD, Italian Studies, UC Berkeley) is Professor of French, Italian and Comparative Literature, Emerita, at Syracuse University, where she also held the William P. Tolley Distinguished Teaching Professorship in the Humanities. She has also taught at UC Santa Cruz, Stanford, Cornell, and the University of Zagreb. Her diverse career includes a decade of investigative journalism and activism in Bosnia and Croatia during the 1990s. Insiders at the UN have said her Rape Warfare influenced the creation of a new international law making rape a Crime Against Humanity. A prize-winning literary translator and screenwriter, her study of genocide and mass rape led her to an understanding that the Sacred Feminine is missing in Western Culture. Current topics of study include Gnosticism, early Christianity and the figure of Mary Magdalene, Dante and the Sacred Feminine, Fairy Tales, medieval European heresy and courtly love, Jung’s work, and the literature of Italy’s storied cities, including Syracuse in Sicily. note photo credit: Photo by Dave Mathisen, 

Fred AstrenFred Astren (PhD, Near Eastern Studies, UC Berkeley) is Professor and Chair of the Department of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University. He holds a B.E.S. degree from University of Minnesota with specialization in medieval history and an MA in Arabic from UC Berkeley. Areas of research include medieval minority/sectarian history, with special focus on Jewish history in the Mediterranean and in the orbit of early Islam, and the Karaite Jewish sect. His current book project is Before the Geniza, on Jews and the Mediterranean in the early Middle Ages. In print recently or forthcoming are articles on the Mediterranean in medieval Jewish history, the introduction of paper and medieval Jewish history, Jews and the medieval Muslim conquests, and the representation of minority religion in the medieval Islamic world. Books include: Karaite Judaism and Historical Understanding (2004), and Judaism and Islam: Boundaries, Interaction, and Communication (with co-editors, Benjamin Hary and John L. Hayes) (2000).

Clifford-(Kip)-CrannaClifford (Kip) Cranna, Dramaturg at San Francisco Opera, has served on the staff since 1979 and was Director of Music Administration for over thirty years. In 2008 he was awarded the San Francisco Opera Medal, the company’s highest honor, and in 2012 he received the Bernard Osher Cultural Award for distinguished efforts to bring excellence to a cultural institution. He holds a BA in music from the University of North Dakota and a PhD in musicology from Stanford. For thirty years he was Program Editor and Lecturer for the Carmel Bach Festival. He lectures and writes frequently on music, teaches at the SF Conservatory and the Fromm Institute at USF, and moderates the SF Opera Guild “Insight” panel discussions. In 2016 he acted as Dramaturg for the Kennedy Center’s presentation of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Dr. Cranna serves on the boards of Chanticleer and Humanities West and on the Advisory Board of Opera Parallele.

Sharon-E.-J.-GerstelSharon E. J. Gerstel is Professor of Byzantine Art and Archaeology at UCLA. She is author of Beholding the Sacred Mysteries: Programs of the Byzantine Sanctuary and Rural Lives and Landscapes in Late Byzantium: Art, Archaeology and Ethnography. She has edited A Lost Art Rediscovered: The Architectural Ceramics of Byzantium (with J. Lauffenburger); Thresholds of the Sacred: Architectural, Art Historical, Archaeological, Liturgical and Theological Views on Religious Screens, East and West; Approaching the Holy Mountain: Art and Liturgy at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai (with R. S. Nelson); Viewing the Morea: Land and People in the Late Medieval Peloponnese; and Viewing Greece: Cultural and Political Agency in the Medieval and Early Modern Mediterranean. She co-directs, with C. Kyriakakis, the international project “Bodies and Spirits: Soundscapes of Byzantium.”

Bay area native Bryndon Hassman is in his 27th year as a member of the music staff of the San Francisco Opera, where he has worked on such diverse productions as Richard Strauss’ Capriccio, Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, the American premiere of Messiaen’s St. François d’Assise and the West Coast premieres of Harvey Milk and The Death of Klinghoffer. Mr. Hassman has received critical acclaim on numerous productions for the San Francisco Opera Center, and for his work on the world premieres of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking and Conrad Susa’s Dangerous Liaisons. A 1989-90 participant in the Merola Opera Program, he has appeared in recital accompanying Renée Fleming, Ruth Ann Swenson, Jerry Hadley, John Relyea and Thomas Hampson for the Schwabacher Debut Recital Series.

Marie Plette (soprano) is acclaimed in major opera houses of North America and Europe for her compelling portrayals from Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly to Love Simpson in Cold Sassy Tree and the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro. Artist in Residence at Oakland School for the Arts, Plette has performed for San Francisco Opera, most recently as Madama Butterfly; and in the title roles of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos and Barber’s Vanessa for West Edge Opera in Berkeley; in multiple performances with Livermore Valley Opera; for Jake Heggie’s one woman opera Another Sunrise for Festival Opera in Walnut Creek. Winner of the 1992 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, Plette made her Metropolitan Opera debut as the First Lady in Die Zauberflöte. She has performed frequently with the company since then in roles including Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, Gutrune in Götterdämmerung, and Kristina in The Makropoulos Case. Marie Plette has received awards from the George London Competition, two grants from the Richard Tucker Foundation, a Sullivan grant, the William Matthews Sullivan Foundation, and the San Francisco Opera’s Il Cenacolo Award.

RaybornAn internationally acclaimed multi-instrumentalist, Tim Rayborn has been active in the fields of early and world music for more than two decades. He sings and plays dozens of musical instruments from medieval Europe and the Middle East, including lutes, plucked strings, flutes, and percussion. He earned his PhD in Medieval Studies at the University of Leeds (England), and has performed throughout the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia. He has recorded on more than 40 CDs. Tim is also the author of several books on music and history, including: The Violent Pilgrimage: Christians, Muslims and Holy Conflicts, 850-1150 (2013), Against the Friars: Antifraternalism in Medieval France and England (2014), A New English Music: Composers and Folk Traditions in England’s Musical Renaissance from the Late 19th to the Mid-20th Century (2016), and Beethoven’s Skull: Dark, Strange, and Fascinating Tales from the World of Classical Music and Beyond (2016).

Teofilo Ruiz Teofilo Ruiz is Professor of History, UCLA. He received UCLA’s 2008 Distinguished Teaching Award and was 2011-12 Faculty Research Lecturer. Earlier, he taught at Brooklyn College, CUNY Graduate Center, University of Michigan, the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (Paris), and Princeton. He received a 2011 National Humanities Medal for his “inspired teaching and writing.” He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2013 and named one of four Carnegie US Professors of the Year in 1994. He has received fellowships from NEH, Mellon, Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton), ACLS, and Guggenheim. Among his books are The Terror of History; Crisis and Continuity: Land and Town in Late Medieval Castile (2011) (Premio Del Rey Prize, American Historical Association); Spanish Society, 1400-1600 (2001); From Heaven to Earth: The Reordering of Castilian Society in the Late Middle Ages, 1150-1350 (ppb 2011); Medieval Europe and the World; Spain, 1300-1469: Centuries of Crises (2005); and A King Travels: Festive Traditions in Late Medieval and Early Modern Spain (2012), and a history of the Western Mediterranean (2016).

Philip Skinner’s long distinguished career has included performances with the San Francisco Opera, Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, Seattle Opera, La Monnaie, and Teatro di San Carlo, as well as prominent orchestras such as the Israel Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, and the LA Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.  His roles range from King Philip in Don Carlo to Scarpia in Tosca, Mephistopheles in Faust, and Basilio in Barber of Seville.  His long association with San Francisco Opera began in 1985 and he has over 380 performances in 55 productions there including the Water Gnome Rusalka, Mephistopheles, Escamillo Carmen, Ferrando Il Trovatore, Colline La Boheme, and Lorenzo I Capuleti e i Montecchi.   Recently, he performed Eric/Ghost of Bazzetti in Great Scott with San Diego Opera, the Forester in Cunning Little Vixen with West Edge Opera, the title role in The Flying Dutchman at Livermore Valley Opera, and the King in Aida with the Pacific Symphony.

Resources Materials

Norman Sicily: Art and Power in Palermo: Resource List        

 Allen, Beverly. The Defiant Muse: Italian Feminist Poetry from the Middle Ages to the Present. 1993.

—. Revisioning Italy: National Identity and Global Culture. 1997.

Astren, Fred. Judaism and Islam: Boundaries, Interaction, and Communication. 2000.

—. Karaite Judaism and Historical Understanding. 2004.

Cliento, Adele. Arabs and Normans in Sicily and the South of Italy. 2008.

Cirigliano, Mark A. Melancolia Poetica: A Dual Language Anthology of Italian Poetry 1160-1560. 2007.

Demus, Otto. Mosaics of Norman Sicily. 1987.

Gerstel, Sharon. Viewing Greece: Cultural and Political Agency in the Medieval and Early Modern Mediterranean. 2016.

—. Rural Lives and Landscapes in Late Byzantium: Art, Archaeology and Ethnography. 2015.

Keahey, John. Seeking Sicily: A Cultural Journey Through Myth and Reality in the Heart of the     Mediterranean. 2011. (Kindle version available).

Ed. Kehew, Robert. Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours. 2005.

Leone, Nicola Guiliano et. al. Siculo-Norman Art: Islamic Culture in Medieval Sicily. 2013.

Mendola, Louis and Jacqueline, Alio. The Peoples of Sicily: A Multicultural History. 2014.

Norwich, John Julius. The Normans in Sicily: The Normans in the South 1016-1130 and the Kingdom in the Sun 1130-1194. 2004.

—. Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History. 2015. (Kindle version available).

Ruiz, Teofilo. A King Travels: Festive Tradition in Late Medieval and Early Modern Spain. 2012.

—. Spain, 1300-1469. Centuries of Crises. 2007.

PDF: Sites of Encounter Lesson #1: Sicily

Related Events

Humanities West Book Discussion Led by Lynn Harris

Norman SicilySicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History. John Julius Norwich

OCTOBER 18 6:30-7:30 pm

Commonwealth Club of California, 110 The Embarcadero, SF. Tix: or 415 597-6700.

Norman Sicily Fireside Chat with George Hammond

OCTOBER 24, 2017 6:30-7:30 pm

Orinda Library, Orinda. Free.

Humanities West Book Discussion Led by Lynn Harris, Norman Sicily,

The Peoples of Sicily: A Multicultural Legacy by Jacqueline Alio and Louis Mendola

NOVEMBER 15, 2017, 6:30-7:30 pm

Commonwealth Club of California, 110 The Embarcadero, SF. Tix: or 415 597-6700.