I don't want to just tell (for the umpteenth time) the beauty of the Cathedral of Monreale, and how it affected my soul (I visited it in July 2022, but I had already visited it way back in March 1977) and my esthetic sense. The reflection that this time it has encouraged in me is that it allows, among other things, to cast a glance on the Norman autocracy, on the unchallenged dominion of this monarchy over southern Italy, and on the rapid subsequent decline of its state model.
Historians teach us that between the tenth and eleventh centuries in Europe there were only two "modern" states, in the sense of "absolute", without feudal or local powers contesting them: the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Sicily , both monarchies of Norman origin, therefore descendants of formidable warrior lineages, fierce marauders until a few decades earlier.
Their war organizational skills, put to the benefit of peace works, contribute to building these two "modern" kingdoms, in the sense that in them there is an iron control of the center (the monarch) over local particularisms: in singular contrast with what happens in the rest of Europe, in the same years in the grip of feudal particularisms or place of exercise of city autonomy.
This centralization of powers, if desired, can also be seen in Sicily in the large churches: they are not places in which nascent local autonomies are reflected, but the result of the will of the royal powers or of the powers connected to them. Those real "Palatine chapels" that are Monreale but also Cefalù are of this kind. The so-called Arab-Norman art, which presents an admirable fruit in Monreale, is classified by art historians as a "Romanesque" period: a period which in the rest of Italy saw the flowering of cathedrals of this style, not only splendid (even if overall a little less grandiose than those in Palermo), but numerous, almost one for each city of a certain importance: a clear image of the prosperity of local powers. Think not only of central-northern Italy, of the classic "Italy of Municipalities ”, but also for example to Puglia.
Here, on the other hand, a few, splendid, and macroscopic creations: the marvelous mosaics of the Cathedral of Monreale surpass those of the basilica of San Marco by extension, in a city that was already very rich like Venice at the time. The absolute power of the Norman kings, similar to that of oriental despotisms, can produce this result with ease: how can it involve the transfer in one fell swoop of as many as one hundred Benedictine monks from the abbey of Cava dei Tirreni, near Salerno, to Monreale, for populate the newly formed abbey.
On the other hand, this power of the autocracy will soon end: in the middle of the following XIII century, with the death of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen - heir of the Normans and their monarchic absolutism - and with the passage of Sicily to the Angevin monarchy, the anomaly of Sicily as a "modern state", in Europe, will cease, and "refeudalization" will take over. And on the other hand the energies of the local territorial powers (essentially of the cities) weakened by the Normans, will never recover in Sicily.
For this reason, in my opinion, it is only right that we look at Monreale also as the apogee of a splendid season of history and art in Sicily, destined to have no inheritance.