Fatimid artisans inspired artwork in Sicily and southern Italy

Glove, Palermo, 1220 Vienna. This glove of red silk embroidered with gold thread and ornamented with pearls, rubies, sapphires was made for the coronation of Emperor Frederick II in the royal workshops of Palermo. Image: Sibylle Mazot, Islam: Art and Architecture.
Red silk glove, Palermo, 1220 Vienna, was made for the coronation of Emperor Frederick II in the royal workshops of Palermo. Image: Sibylle Mazot, Islam: Art and Architecture.

Sicily came under Fatimid rule in the tenth century shortly after Imam al-Mahdi established the dynasty’s caliphate in North Africa in 909. The island developed vital trade relations with Fatimid North Africa and with Egypt when the seat of the Fatimid administration moved to their new capital of Cairo, founded by Imam al-Mu’izz.

The Fatimid period was a golden age of arts and crafts. Cairo became a major centre for the production of valuable artifacts, supplying the daily needs of a prosperous sector of the population. Furniture and textiles made in Cairo had a particularly high reputation and were exported to the entire Mediterranean area. Ceramics were much sought after in Italy, where Fatimid bowls – bacini – were used as decorative items or as vessels for religious ceremonies.

Although the Fatimids lost control of the island in the twelfth century, the influence of Fatimid art is evident in Sicily and southern Italy including the ceiling of the Cappella Palatina in Rome, the royal chapel of the Norman kings. The painting of the ceiling, one of the best surviving examples of Islamic art in the Mediterranean, was commissioned by King Roger II around 1143. Some sources state that a team of artisans may have been  imported from Cairo to produce the luxurious royal palace.

Ceiling of the Cappella Palatina, Palermo. Image: Wikipedia
Ceiling of the Cappella Palatina, Palermo. Image: Wikipedia
Coronation mantle Roger II, Palermo, 1133-4, Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum. Image: Jonathan Bloom, Arts of the City Victorious
Coronation mantle Roger II, Palermo, 1133-4, Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum. Image: Jonathan Bloom, Arts of the City Victorious

The coronation mantle of Roger II, which according to an inscription embroidered on the hem was made in the royal workshops at Palermo, ‘has long been cited as an important example of Fatimid inspiration1

The Fatimid treasury included silk textiles and vessels enamelled or inlaid with precious gems, perhaps influenced by Byzantine art. The closest artistic connections between Sicily and Fatimid Egypt can be seen in the woodwork especially the doors of the Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio in Palermo. The craftsmen who carved these doors, were said to have been ‘trained in the Fatimid school.’1

Sources:
1Jonathan M. Bloom, “The Legacies of Fatimid Art”, Arts of the City Victorious, Yale University Press, 2007
Ceiling of the Cappella Palatina, Victoria & Albert Museum (accessed June 2016)

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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