Behind the City Hall, there is another square, Piazza Bellini where you can see two of Palermo’s most interesting churches: the Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (more commonly known as La Martorana) and the Church of San Cataldo, instantly recognizeable thanks to its trio of red domes.
The disparate architectural styles and eras of the buildings adorning this magnificent piazza should by rights be visually discordant, but in fact contribute to a wonderfully harmonious public space.
The piazza’s eastern edge is adorned by the delightful Teatro Bellini (Bellini Theatre), built in the late 19th century and named after the great Sicilian-born opera composer, Vincenzo Bellini.
This 12th-century church in Arab-Norman style is one of Palermo’s most striking buildings.
With its dusky-pink bijou domes, solid square shape, blind arcading and delicate tracery, it illustrates perfectly the synthesis of Arab and Norman architectural styles.
The interior, while more austere, is still beautiful, with its inlaid floor and lovely stone-and-brickwork in the arches and domes.
The building was founded in the 1150s by Maio of Bari (William I’s emir of emirs, or chancellor), but Maio’s murder in 1160 meant it was never finished – hence the lack of additional adornment within.
On the southern side of Piazza Bellini, this luminously beautiful 12th-century church was endowed by King Roger’s Syrian emir, George of Antioch, and was originally planned as a mosque.
Delicate Fatimid pillars support a domed cupola depicting Christ enthroned amid his archangels.
The interior is best appreciated in the morning, when sunlight illuminates magnificent Byzantine mosaics.
In 1433 the church was given over to an aesthetically challenged order of Benedictine nuns – founded by Eloisa Martorana, hence its nickname – who tore down the Norman apse, reworked the exterior in a fussy baroque fashion and demolished most of the stunning mosaics executed by Greek craftsmen, replacing them with the gaudy baroque ornamentation of their own frescoed chapel.
The few remaining original mosaics include two magnificent portraits, one representing George of Antioch, crouched behind a shield at the feet of the Virgin Mary, and one of Roger II receiving his crown from Christ (the only portrait of him to survive in Sicily).
Mussolini returned the church to the Greek Orthodox community in 1935, and the Greek Mass is still celebrated here.
The Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (La Martorana)
La Martorana was commissioned in 1143 by George of Antioch, a famous Admiral (a word of Arabic origin) of the fleet of King Roger II. Initially the church was dedicated to the celebration of Greek Orthodox rites but this changed in the 13th century when it became part of the Catholic Church. Several parts of the structure were unfortunately changed during the 17th century and many of the original mosaics were discarded to make way for Baroque frescoes.
However, the surviving mosaics are amongst the most impressive ever to have been created in Sicily. Indeed, the craftsmen who were brought from Byzantium by King Roger II to work on the Normal Palace and the Duomo at Cefalu’, also contributed their art to this church. The wonderful bell tower outside is the apogee of Norman-Arab architecture.
The Church of San Cataldo
Standing next to La Martorana is the miniscule Church of San Cataldo, characterised by its three red domes. It was built in 1154 and has retained its original ascetic atmosphere perfectly. The only decoration to speak of is the original mosaic floor. It is presently the religious seat of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre in Palermo.