by Roderick Conway Morris

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Regione Siciliana
Palazzo dei Normanni, Palermo, 11th century with additions

How an Art Style Spread through Europe

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME, Italy 12 March 1994


The Eternal City's only direct experience of the Normans was a fleeting and unhappy one. In 1081 Robert Guiscard arrived with his knights to 'defend' Pope Gregory against Henry IV - and ended up sacking and setting fire to a large part of the town.

Palermo, Caen, Rouen, London, Winchester or Durham - where the architectural imprint of Norman rule is visible till this day - would have been more natural venues for the ambitious 'The Normans: 1030-1200' show (at the Palazzo Venezia, till 30 April), with its nearly 400 exhibits from collections from Bath to Bari and Saint-Germain-en-Laye to Siracusa. The show is billed to transfer to Venice (from May to September), but as this was evidently news to several foreign curators I met at the opening, it seems doubtful that the organizers can count on some of the lenders agreeing to be separated from their treasures for so long.

The show is subtitled 'People of Europe' - but it is difficult to think of a group more alien to the spirit of Maastricht. Viking marauders in origin - 'Northmen', hence Normans - by the beginning of the 10th century they had made themselves masters of a large chunk of northern France. Once Normandy's land borders stabilized they remained more or less unchanged for over two centuries. Yet the Normans maintained their warlike, expansionist traditions - conquering England, all of southern Italy and Sicily, and fighting as mercenaries and adventurers, founding outposts in Spain, Turkey, Syria and North Africa.

William the Conqueror's seizure of England in 1066 was the only organized expedition of its kind. The Normans' other enterprises were carried out by small freelance bands of freebooting warriors. Loot was the first priority, but acquiring land, status and titles ran close behind. As the French historian Lucien Musset points out in the handsome, well-illustrated and informative catalogue, with its many essays by different hands, the Normans were, if nothing else, indefatigable social climbers. Musset is also penetrating on the role of pilgrimages as the means of conveying news back to Normandy on areas ripe for invasion - harmless-looking Norman pilgrims passing through on their way to some holy shrine could be the prelude to the arrival of a terrifying and murderous posse of armed horsemen, who, this time had come to stay.

While it is a thoroughly worthwhile exercise to bring together so much fascinating and sumptuous metalwork, ivory, sculpture, stained glass and other pieces, it is a pity that there is no clear argument running through the exhibition and the layman - without studying the 600-page catalogue - is offered scant help in decoding the intricacies, and implications, of Norman art.

The Normans' mentality was paradoxical: booty ruthlessly obtained by the pillage and rapine of fellow Christians in England and Italy paid for the building of colossal churches and pious foundations in Normandy. They could be merciless crusaders, slaughtering the Infidel in Palestine, but proved themselves successful and even-handed rulers of the Latins, Greeks and Arabs in southern Italy and Sicily (where Muslims were in the majority).

Norman castles and churches were an unmistakable expression of their entire culture. Their churches were conceived, like their castles, as symbols of power, designed to impress and overawe subject peoples. Stone was imported from Normandy to England - often cut into standard sizes, making it possible throw up grandiose, almost prefabricated cathedrals in a remarkably short time. The elaborate crooks and mitres (an innovation of this period) of aristocratically-born Norman ecclesiasts served as emblems of authority and dominance scarcely less potent than the tall helmets and lances of the warrior caste.

The fact that many Norman architects and planners worked all over the Norman world gave their buildings a homogeneity lacking in the decorative arts that were employed to adorn them.

In England intermarriage with the Norman aristocracy and artistic interchanges were already occurring before the conquest (the pre-conquest Westminster abbey buildings, for example, were inspired by Norman models). The Bayeux 'Tapestry' (actually, of course, an embroidery) was Made in England (in or near Canterbury), and much of what is dubbed Norman Art is, in reality, a fusion of native and Norman traditions. The richness of English ornamentation appealed to the conquerors, who were accustomed to a more austere visual environment and, in due course, the Normans acted as the conduit for the diffusion of English artistic styles in Europe.

Similarly, Norman admiration for Byzantine mosaic led them to introduce the art form into Sicily to decorate their new churches - creating an extraordinary hybrid style, that is at once exotic and yet still Norman.

The Normans in Sicily showed a marked predelection for the beautifully-wrought household goods produced by Islamic artist-craftsmen - lovely ivory coffers, for example, some of which, like one in the show dating to the 12th-13th century from the Schnütgen-Museum in Cologne, have ingenious combination locks. Made for secular use, some coffers are engraved with risque amorous verses - but, being in Arabic, this proved no obstacle for these boxes becoming reliquaries for the bones of saints and martyrs.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023