• Member Stories: Manuel "Saga" Sánchez García

    SAH News
    Jun 13, 2022

    Manuel "Saga" Sánchez García is a PhD candidate at Politecnico di Torino and Universidad de Granada, and an appointed 2022–2023 Junior Fellow on Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks. He lives between Italy and Spain (although that is about to change) and has been a member of SAH since 2019.

    Can you tell us about your career path? 

    I started my studies in architecture at Universidad de Granada, under the shadow of the Alhambra. There I met my mentor Juan Calatrava, director of Granada’s architecture school at the time, who had just coordinated the facsimile reedition of Le poeme de l’angle droit by Le Corbusier (1955). That book blew my mind and encouraged me to explore a career in writing, publishing my first digital book in 2009 thanks to an EU Euroeditions grant, and participating in national conferences with small independent works before acquiring the architect license in 2013. Right after that, I moved to Bogotá, Colombia, where I pursued a two-year master’s in architecture and worked first as a research assistant and later as a lecturer, researcher, and consultant until 2018. Those were lovely years full of exciting projects, including my graduate thesis Granada Des-Granada published in 2018 by Universidad de los Andes. I also worked with the team in charge of creating a new school of art, acting, architecture, and design in Bogotá named Facultad de Creación and led by the architect Juan Pablo Aschner. Supporting the birth of a new higher education institution is a fantastic adventure.

    Finally, I moved to Turin (Italy) in 2018 as a PhD fellow in the program “Architettura: Storia e Progetto,” under the supervision of Professor Sergio Pace. Eventually, we achieved a co-tutelle agreement with the PhD program on Art History at Universidad de Granada under the supervision of Prof. Juan Calatrava. It could be said that we closed the circle in some way. I started participating more often during the pandemic in SAH activities and with EAHN, the European Architectural History Network. In January 2021, I became the Editorial Assistant of Architectural Histories, the Journal of the EAHN, working closely with its Editor-in-chief, Samantha L. Martin.

    Today I am just weeks ahead of my PhD defense. It’s an exciting moment. After that is finished (fingers crossed), I will be moving to Washington, DC, for a research stay at Dumbarton Oaks. It is one of the most important academic achievements I have ever earned, and I feel immensely thankful. They also happen to be welcoming and kind people. I got to meet a sizable group of Dumbarton Oaks current and former scholars in Pittsburgh during the SAH Annual International Conference, and I must tell you: They are really great.

    What interests you most about architectural history? 

    My research topics are kind of split into two big sides. Two faces of the same medal. My main line of work deals with medieval and early modern urban history, including Christian/Andalusian cities in Spain, colonial urbanism in the Spanish Archipelagos and Latin America (mainly in Colombia), 16th-century atlases, etc. As it happens with most Granadan architectural historians, my work is also connected to Nasrid architecture and the Alhambra, which largely impacted later Christian buildings in the region and their romanticist reimaginations during the 19th century, as well as many 20th-century and contemporary architects across the world. In 2020 I developed a GAHTC module of six lectures on these topics with Juan Calatrava and Eva Amate. It is freely available on GAHTC’s website.

    Parallelly, I am very interested in the intersection between the fields of architectural history and game studies. The area of game studies was born in the early 2000s to delve into the impacts of video games on our society. Even though plenty of architecture-related topics are being discussed at game studies conferences, not many specialized architectural historians are participating in them. Even fewer game-studies-related topics are dealt with in international meetings such as SAH’s or EAHN’s. However, this trend is changing as we speak. The call for papers for the 76th SAH Annual International Conference features two digital sessions dealing with software and “playfulness” in architecture, while one of the in-person sessions explicitly mentions their interest in the presence of Islamic architectural reimaginations in video games. The same is happening in other disciplines such as art history, sociology, and political studies, as it happened before with media like television, radio, magazines, and films when they were considered ‘emergent.’

    What projects are you currently working on? 

    My projects are divided in the same way. My main endeavor right now is my PhD thesis titled “Siblings Overseas.” It deals with notarial documents and foundational registers of cities following the famous Spanish grid, which has been traditionally seen just as a morphological model without not so much regard for the political and legal nuances behind it. For example, I studied the foundational records of four new towns created in Andalusia in 1539 through the same principles as the colonial capitals settled in America in the same decade. I delve into the confrontations between a diversity of agents in favor and against the foundation of these new towns, which I analyzed in a comparative fashion with similar complaints and judicial processes that occurred in America between founders, settlers, native leaders, encomenderos, priests, and other groups. It is an amazing but difficult topic since these records are scattered in different archives and conserved through copies of copies made across five hundred years, often manuscripts in complex handwriting styles that are not easy to read for scholars not specialized in paleography.

    My upcoming project for Dumbarton Oaks is a continuation of this line of research under the title “Uncovering colonial Lawscape.” In it, I will work further on the concept of Lawscape,1which refers to the times and spaces where the complex relationship between law and landscape is clearly visible. Of course, the landscape of actions and procedures leading to the foundational moment of a city are good example of lawscapes. I will focus on a selection of early colonial documents held at Dumbarton Oaks’ Rare Book Collection that present other lawscapes featuring native and mestizo leaders, comparing them with the manuscripts I have already studied in other countries.

    Parallelly (always parallelly), I continue growing my research on architecture and game studies. A couple of years ago, I edited a special collection on this theme, published in Culture & History digital journal. In 2021 I co-supervised a fantastic group of students at Universidad de Granada in collaboration with Prof. Rafael de Lacour. They focused their undergraduate capstone project on games such as Assassin’s Creed, GRIS, and Calvino Noir. Their designs were included in the exhibition Gaming Through Architectural Drawing, which I curated myself, also including materials from other students and collaborators with whom I have been working since 2014. This exhibition was hosted by Meetaverse, a cultural center located and built in the metaverse, 100% virtual. It was an exhibition on video game buildings that was, quite literally, built inside a video game. I also continue writing on the topic, and right now I have a couple of manuscripts that will be published soon.

    Do you have a particular memory of when you first became aware of the significance of architecture or when you knew you wanted to study it? 

    I think I always had some sort of connection with architecture. When I was a child, I used to play at Plaza Nueva and Plaza de Mariana Pineda, two of the most vibrant squares in Granada’s city center. There I met with other children to play together. We often walked uphill to the Alhambra and played at Plaza de los Algibes, an unpaved open space built over the water reservoirs of the royal medina between the Islamic castle and Charles V Palace. Playing there was natural for us as there were not as many tourists as today. There was even a small kiosk, designed in the 1950s and still standing today, where we bought ice cream in the summer.

    Later on I decided to be a writer, so I considered studying journalism even though it was considered a “lesser” career in Spain. A relative of mine who works as a journalist said to me, “If you want to write, you will write. Focus your studies on what you want to write about.” I wanted to write about my city, so I ended up studying architecture. Almost 18 years have passed from that moment, and here I am, once more, writing stuff about Granada and its architecture. My relative’s prediction was incredibly accurate.

    Who has influenced your work or career? 

    Many people, of course! As it is usually said, I stand on the shoulders of giants. I was fortunate to find professors Juan Calatrava and Rafael de Lacour early in my undergraduate studies. While Prof. De Lacour has always been very supportive and involved me in all kinds of activities, Prof. Calatrava is the most central mentor in my career as an architectural historian. They maintained contact after I moved to Colombia, so the Granadan connection never disappeared. That made it possible to “close the circle” in the PhD stage, as I mentioned before.

    At Bogotá, I worked under the wing of Prof. Cristina Albornoz Rugeles, a Colombian architect who always pushed me to fly higher. During the last years, I have been a close collaborator of Prof. Sergio Pace, my Italian PhD supervisor, taking his courses on historiography and assisting his lectures on history of the material culture. He was a student of Profs. Carlo Olmo at Turin and Paolo Portoghesi at Rome so, through him, I feel kind of connected with the Italian “line” of baroque architectural history. Finally, I have been incredibly gifted by the opportunity of collaborating with Prof. Samantha L. Martin and the Editorial Board of Architectural Histories. They are not only an incredibly group to work with, the kind of conversations and debates at the journal's core have brought my intellectual horizon to a whole new level.

    Finally, if I may mention two influences I never met personally, I would like to name the Swiss art historian Titus Burckhardt and the Polish architectural historian Joseph Rykwert. Their writings introduced me to the kind of symbolic, political, and ritual connections I seek in the architectures I study, may they be built materially or digitally. It is true that today we approach research and writing in a totally different fashion, but I always keep in mind the level of clarity of their arguments and the kind of seduction they inspire through their narrative.

    What is your biggest professional challenge? 

    After almost a decade of changing countries/continents, I would say my biggest challenge right now is to find a more stable position in academia without renouncing good job conditions or to the fantastic international experiences I get to live right now. A symptom of this longing is that my library is scattered in boxes (many boxes) stored in different places. Putting it together for the first time is something I look forward to.

    When and how did you become involved with SAH?  

    I knew about SAH when I was in Bogotá, mainly because of JSAH. When I moved to Italy in 2018, I became more involved in academic associations, including SAH, EAHN, and RSA. Near that point, I also became a member of national associations like AhAU in Spain, AISU and AISTARCH in Italy, RedCHU and SCA in Colombia. Then something special happened: I got to attend the 2019 GAHTC Member’s Conference in Miami, where I met a lot of the people that make SAH and EAHN what they are. Amazing experience. That trip moved me to a closer engagement with SAH activities.

    How has SAH enriched your experience in architectural history? 

    So, after that experience in Miami, I told myself, “Manuel, here there is a long and interesting path to be walked. You just need to take the first step.” That year I applied to SAH Annual International Conference (including the graduate students fellowship) and GAHTC’s targeted acquisition grants. I had been rejected several times before in US-based competitions, but this time was my time, and I got both of them!

    Even though the 2020 in-person conference was transformed into a digital one, the chair of my session, Prof. Jeffrey Klee, made the change smooth and productive. It served as an academic engine, boosting digital relationships with people like former SAH President Victoria Young, my fellow Spaniard Macarena de la Vega, and colleagues from Colombia like Ingrid Quintana, among others I got to meet in person for the very first time at Pittsburgh’s conference. For me, SAH operates as the center of a triangle connecting my research interests in the Mediterranean basin, Latin America, and North America. Being continuously exposed to its influence forces me to connect the local aspects of my research and my cultural roots to the global debate on architectural history, diversity, and social justice.

    Do you have a vision for how SAH should evolve in the future? 

    I appreciate very much the work SAH does for all of us. It is one of the most caring and participative communities I know, and I am in no position to say or decide how it should be in the future. This being said, I feel that while SAH presents itself as an international network and many of its programs are effectively geared towards supporting international projects and emergent scholars, most of the debates at its core are heavily framed by the North American academic context, only extensible at some points to the rest of the English-speaking world.

    At the SAH IDEAS Committee Listening Session in Pittsburgh I argued that, while I understand the necessity of these debates and connections between scholars based in the US and Canada, there should be room for more horizontal discussions where it is assumed that all scholars come from different contexts with diverse systems, hierarchies, and rules. The issues affecting research funding, career development, survey teaching, and unions, among others, are totally different from what we experience in other places. Those coming from outside force ourselves to learn about the problems you care most about so we are able to participate, which is very enriching but eventually extenuating. When I get back home (wherever that may be) after some nice and intense days with SAH, I often find myself trying to explain to my colleagues the ideas and values that were in discussion. Their conclusion is usually the same: “That would never happen here” or “We live in a different world.” In my opinion, we are not.

    If SAH, while being led from the US, aims to represent the global community of architectural history, it needs to incorporate these other international issues and support the connection with national institutions outside of the English-speaking world. That is the vision I would propose.

    What advice would you give to someone who wants to enter your field? 

    Let me approach this question as the early millennial that I am:


    1. “It is not about you; it is about your community.” In academia, as in life, nobody gets anywhere alone. If you want to grow and advance, you need to collaborate with people and listen to them while also making them listen to you. Care as much as you can for others, and do not be shy when granting small favors. Academic relationships fluctuate in intensity but they never disappear completely, and since the world is a small place, the good you did in the past will eventually become worthwhile. It is a matter of time.
    2. “It is not about your work; it is about how it fits.” Rejection is a close companion of every academic. Regardless of our skills and achievements, we are all rejected many times before achieving any worthy grant, prestigious conference, or ambitious position. It doesn’t matter how high or low you aim because, once your application is sent, it lives its own life. There will always be many circumstances affecting your chances of success other than your work’s “objective” quality, if such thing even exists. You can spend endless hours strategizing and even then, there will be things escaping your control. So, learn to flow and always aim high. Produce ideas and proposals that are innovative and engaging but without getting too attached to them. Train your “application muscle.” If you persevere, your time will come.
    3. “It is not about them helping you; it is about you asking for help.” During the many stages of your academic career, you will meet plenty of people who are supposed to mentor you and help you grow. Many of them won’t. Others will try, but you will not be the better fit for each other. So, seek the people you feel more aligned with, and do not be shy: ask for their support. They may be experts in the topics you are interested in. Perhaps you happen to work together on some random project, or maybe you just like how they navigate their academic life. Arm yourself with your best smile and seek their help. Not always will they be able to do so, but it is worth trying. Worst case scenario: they will know that you exist and that you are ambitious. That is an investment. Best case: you will receive good advice. Maybe you will gain a mentor. Perhaps a long-life friend.

    1 As defined by Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos: Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, Andreas. “Lawscape.” In International Lexicon of Aesthetics, Vol. 3. Milano: Mimesis, 2020. https://dx.doi.org/10.7413/18258630100.

    SAH members engage with the history of the built environment through a broad array of specializations, professional fields, and areas of interest. Member Stories is a regular feature that recognizes the expertise and unique experiences of our members.

  • When Organized Crime Organizes a City

    Sundus Al-Bayati
    Jun 8, 2022

    Sundus Al-Bayati is the 2019 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

    It is fitting that the Triumph of Death painting is displayed in one of Palermo’s many palazzis, the Palazzo Abatellis, where Antonello de Messina’s Annunciation is exhibited awkwardly in the middle of a room. It is unknown who painted the Triumph of Death, a large fresco extending the two-stories height of the Regional Gallery of Palazzo Abatellis. Having been engrossed recently in the bloody and grotesque history of the Mafia wars in Palermo, at their height between 1978 and 1993, this 15th-century painting seemed to speak of a grim recent past when hundreds of dead bodies populated the streets of Palermo. It wasn’t long ago that I stood in front of another Triumph of Death painting, the one by Bruegel in the Prado museum in Madrid, painted a century later, and influenced by the Italian version hanging then in Palazzo Sclafani in Palermo. Confronted with Bruegel’s Triumph of Death, I was unsettled by the bleak brown and black landscape that dominates the painting, but the army of skeletons pouring into the realm of the living, some wearing hats or bandanas, with stiff dramatic gestures, felt almost humorous.

    There is nothing comical about the Triumph of Death in Palermo. Death is a lone figure, mounted on his skeletal shrieking horse, who jumps out of the center of the painting. The horse is also dead but retains its fleshy mouth and tongue to express its suffering. The well-dressed, beautiful kings and queens suffer calmly as their bodies are pierced with Death’s arrows, nothing like Bruegel’s horror-stricken gesticulating figures running for their lives. The poor and devout either await their turn or have escaped Death’s march, for now. In the eighties and early nineties, the Mafia, like Death on his screaming horse, had triumphed in Palermo. 

    Triumph of Death painting

    Figure 1. Triumph of Death, Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo. Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/

    Triumph of Death painting

    Figure 2. Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Museo del Prado in Madrid. Image from https://www.museodelprado.es/

    The Mafia wasn’t an outlawed organized crime group working on the fringes of Sicily. They unofficially ruled Sicily and were allowed and supported to amass political and economic control of the island, because of their usefulness to different groups from aristocratic landowners, politicians in the Italian state whose elections depended on votes from Sicily and the American government in its fight against communism. Because of Mussolini’s repression of the Mafia, it made them look naturally anti-fascist to the Americans who, after the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, appointed Mafia bosses and made men into administrative and local government positions in Sicily, perhaps not intentionally.1 Nonetheless, this move was crucial in resurrecting the Mafia and allowing it to become an unstoppable system of power that controlled everything and everyone. 

    Cosa Nostra’s newly gained political power in Palermo allowed their control of the construction industry and led the rapid destruction of Palermo’s green belt to make room for the acres of concrete that constitute the cheap and grim high-rise apartment buildings outside of Palermo’s historic center. Besides being a way to launder drug money, construction and real estate development also gained Cosa Nostra the trust of the aristocratic class that owned the land around Palermo and were eager to reap the benefits of the Mafia-controlled rapid urbanization of the Conca d’Oro, traditionally agricultural land.2 Additionally, within the context of cold war politics, the Mafia was backed by some connections in the Italian and American governments for their effort in targeting socialist and communist organizers and trade union activists that were gaining popularity among laborers and workers in Sicily for the issue of land reforms that was a direct threat to the Mafia business model that was predicated on feudalism. 

    I arrived in Palermo at night, and I got a taxi right away. Except for the orange lights of the highway, the darkness hung over everything. I forgot I just landed on an island and was absent-mindedly gazing out of the window until my eyes made out the silhouette of Mount Pellegrino, which took me by surprise. The next morning, I had two simple goals in mind: find some food and go for a walk around the city to get an idea of the place that I’ll be living in for the next month. I stopped at a restaurant near the port and had the pasta alla norma, a classic Sicilian pasta dish made with eggplant and ricotta cheese. I was ready to start exploring.

    Palermo’s old city center is close to the waterfront. The harbor was strategically important for the Italian and German air bases and was bombed by five different air forces by the end of the war: French, British, American, Italian and German. The historic center suffered a great loss. Walking by the waterfront, I saw some buildings that still look damaged and yet have merged in their ruined state with subsequent shoddy additions that sit on top of the rubble or to the sides. One of the buildings overlooking La Cala port caught my attention on that first day. Its south wall was covered by a mural of two men conferring and laughing with each other. I wondered who they were but soon forgot about it.

    crumbling building facade

    Figure 3. Dilapidated buildings near the port in Palermo’s historic center

    loggia with deteriorating walls

    Figure 4. The Gothic-Catalan loggia of the Santa Maria della Catena near the Cala Port

    pedestrian walkway along ocean

    view of ocean from walkway with stone border

    view of sea from boulder-lined walkway


    Figure 5–7. Foro Italico, a pedestrian path and park in Palermo. Rubble from the destroyed buildings in WWII were dumped into the sea adjacent to Foro Italico creating an artificial beach.

    I would later find out that the two men on the wall of the Gioeni Trabia Nautical School building were Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two famous Sicilians. They were the prosecutors who investigated the Sicilian Mafia in the 1980s and whose work led to the Maxitrial, the biggest effort in Italy's history to bring the members of the Cosa Nostra to justice. It was also the first time the Italian state acknowledged the Sicilian Mafia’s existence as a criminal organization who was responsible for countless murders in the years after the war. Falcone and Borsellino were both brutally murdered a few months apart in 1992 by the Mafia.3 Palermo is full of these opposites: the city of Mafia and anti-Mafia, derelict structures on one block, exuberant Arab-Norman and Gothic-Catalan buildings on another, Mafia-built concrete blocks and monuments to the victims that fought them. 

    view from street of mural of two men on side of building

    Figure 8. Mural of Falcone and Borsellino on the Gioeni Trabia Nautical School, Palermo.

    names appear on steps to building

    Figure 9. Piazza della Memoria in front of the Justice building in Palermo named after the victims of the Mafia whose names are displayed on the steps of the staircase. Eleven steel-marble-brass columns represent the magistrates killed by the Mafia.

    The Sack of Palermo

    Palermo was heavily targeted during the Allied bombing of Sicily between 1941 and 1943. It was the second-most bombed city in Italy after Naples in World War II. Other than Baghdad, which I consider to still be in a state of war, Palermo was the first city in my travels where many ruined buildings from the war eighty years ago still stand. On my way to the Vucciria market, I passed by the crumbling graffiti-covered buildings in and around Piazza Garraffello where a 16th-century fountain, Fontana del Garraffello, somehow survived the bombs that gutted the surrounding structures. In 2014, one of those damaged buildings collapsed even further after heavy rain. Graffiti covers the exposed internal wall of a demolished building and depicts the Fontana del Garraffello with the year 1943 inscribed in the middle of it. Walking a bit further, at the intersection of Via Maqueda and Via Vittorio Emanuelle, known as the Quattro Canti, is a splendid, monumental 16th-century fountain, Fontana Pretoria. Once again, the eye is confounded by beauty and dilapidation. Across from the mayor's office of Palermo and one of the four corner buildings is the abandoned 16th-century Palazzo Chiaramonte Bordonaro, whose restoration began in the 1990s but has been halted since. In Midnight in Sicily, Peter Robb describes the unusual sight of the ruins in the historic center of Palermo on his visit in the 1990s. Thirty years after his writing, some parts of Palermo still display the open wounds of war:

    “Other cities have been bombed in the forties, and many worse than Palermo. What was unique to Palermo was that the ruins of the old city were still ruins, thirty years, fifty years on. Staircases still led nowhere, sky shone out of the windows, clumps of weed lodged in the walls, wooden roof beams jutted toward the sky like ribs rotting carcasses. Slowly, even the parts that had survived were crumbling into rubble.”4

    crowded marketplace with dilapidated buildings in background

    dilapidated buildings with graffiti

    cars parked along dilapidated building with graffiti

    street scene with crumbling buildings in background

    cars parked in alley between deteriorating buildings

    deteriorating buildings

    driveway entrance surrounded by graffiti-covered crumbling buildings

    Figure 10–16. Damaged buildings around the historic center of Palermo

    stone walkway through lawn, crumbling building to left

    crumbling brick building with graffiti

    multi-story building with deteriorating walls with graffiti

    Figure 17–19. Decrepit buildings in Piazza Magione

    statues decorate raised fountain in front of multi-story building

    statue along steps leading to fountain

    Figure 20–21. Fontana Pretoria, Palermo

    people stand outside gated fountain, four-story building in background

    deteriorating facade with Juliette balconies

    view looking up from arched entrance with face sculpture on keystone

    Figure 22–24. Abandoned Palazzo Chiaramonte Bordonaro across from Fontana Pretoria

    What is also unique to Palermo among cities destroyed during World War II is the story of its postwar development, led and controlled by the Sicilian Mafia that irreversibly altered the urban and natural character of the city as well as its immediate surroundings. So destructive was the postwar period between 1950s until mid-1980s for the city that it is referred to as the Sack of Palermo: a story of an elaborate and corrupt alliance of local, national, and international political actors whose interests aligned with Cosa Nostra’s criminal and financial hegemony at the cost of permanently damaging the identity of the city and impoverishing its population. Not long after the war, Palermo was another battlefield. The historic center experienced the most damage during the war to its rich architectural heritage and was completely neglected and left to decay while resources and attention were given to unregulated, Mafia-controlled construction of cheap, low-quality apartment blocks on the city’s outskirts such as Nuovo Borgo, Zen and CEP.5 The green hinterlands of Palermo, known as the Conca d’Oro (the Golden Shell), the citrus plains that surrounded the city and populated with 19th- and early 20th-century Art Nouveau and Liberty Style villas, were largely destroyed to accommodate the Mafia flats. Thus, a large part of Palermo’s natural landscape was lost and with it the livelihoods of the farmers and laborers who cultivated the land and looked after the estates. 

    One of the main tourist attractions in Palermo are three bustling outdoor markets: Ballaro, Vucciria, and Capo, that are frequented by both tourists and locals. Smells, textures, colors, and the loud noises of vendors and customers overwhelm the first time as one learns to navigate this social scene while wading through stalls of fruits, vegetables, grilled seafood, raw chunks of tuna, shiny swordfish, pane and panelle, and the Sicilian sfincione. The markets are unique not only because they hold on to a tradition that goes back to the Arabs that ruled Sicily, but also because they are the last remaining examples of the local enterprises that encompassed social and economic lives in Palermo’s historic neighborhoods before the war. The poor population that worked and socialized in the historic center were forced into the Mafia housing blocks as their neighborhoods lay in ruins and their livelihoods terminated. Wealthier residents were moved to the slightly better apartment buildings along Via della Liberta.6 The breakdown of socio-economic ties in the city facilitated the domination of the Mafia as more people needed jobs and housing. The bosses were the ones that decided who deserved them. Therefore, the Mafia’s grip of Palermo became stronger as the poorer population began to see the Mafia-built flats a sign of progress and modernization that was badly needed and Cosa Nostra as the main employer in the city.7

    “When you walked into the new parts of Palermo it was like walking into the mafia mind. The sightless concrete blocks had multiplied like cancer cells. The mafia mind was totalitarian and even on a summer day it chilled you.”8

    aerial view of multi-story buildings with mountains in background

    Figure 25. Mafia-built housing blocks on the outskirts of Palermo. Images from google earth

    A City Endures

    Despite the neglect and damage that Palermo suffered after the war, its rich architectural legacy that survived is a unique mixture of architectural styles I haven’t encountered anywhere else. Arabic, Norman, and Byzantine elements intermingle in the same building. The Arabs who ruled Sicily from 825 until their defeat by the Normans in 1071, many of whom were farmers, improved irrigation systems, introduced land reforms, and were responsible for the growth of agriculture in many Sicilian cities. For the most part, the Normans didn’t drive the Arabs out of Sicily or persecute them for their religion or traditions. Their tolerant rule led to a unique synthesis of cultures that allowed Palermo to thrive as the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily and become one of the wealthiest cities in Europe. The Normans accepted and even adapted some of the Islamic customs and traditions in their art and architecture, as seen in some of Palermo’s famous architectural landmarks such as the Palatine Chapel where dazzling Byzantine mosaics co-exist with Islamic architectural motifs like the muqranas vaulted ceiling. 


    courtyard surrounded by three-story colonnade. people line up on second story.

    Figure 26. People lined up to enter the Palatine Chapel within the Norman Palace complex.

    view up into apses and dome covered in Byzantine mosaics

    apse with Byzantine mosaics and image of Christ Pantocrator

    Figure 27–28. Byzantine mosaics in the Palatine Chapel dating to the 1140s.

    muqranas wood ceiling

    Figure 29. Muqranas wood ceiling in the Palatine Chapel.

    detail of opus sectile mosaics

    Figure 30. Example of the opus sectile mosaics decorating the walls and floors of Palatine Chapel.

    Examples of this multi-layered architecture from the Arab-Norman period are seen all over Palermo. One of my favorite buildings is the church of San Cataldo with its three distinguished red domes, combining a rectilinear church layout on the inside with Islamic domes and arches on the outside. It is not until I arrived in Sicily and visited the Palatine Chapel, Monreale Cathedral, and Cefalu Cathedral that I’ve seen such complete, well-preserved and elegant Byzantine mosaics, juxtaposed with opus sectile decorated floors and walls, arranged in star-shaped polygons typical of Islamic ornamentation. 

    view from water of buildings lining coast with mountains in background

    Figure 31. Cefalu, Sicily.

    view from steps leading up to cathedral

    Figure 32. Cefalu Cathedral dating back to the 12th century.

    woman walk through arched stone doorway with wooden doors

    Figure 33. Entry portal of the Cefalu Cathedral.

    view from nave looking toward the altar

    apse with Christ Pantocrator and Byzantine mosaics

    Figure 34–35. View towards the mosaic-covered apse portraying Chirst Pantokrator.

    view looking toward apse from nave

    view of altar and apse with Byzantine mosaics

    Figure 36-37. Byzantine mosaics in Monreale Cathedral, Palermo.

    grassy courtyard with arched colonnade

    view of arched colonnade and dome

    Figure 38–39. Benedictine Cloister at Monreale Cathedral from 1200. Pointed arches display diaper work and sit on marble columns decorated with mosaics.

    My Airbnb host left me many tourist pamphlets for what to see and do in Palermo and it is precisely this prosperous period of the island’s history under the Normans that is emphasized the most. But between the end of the Norman rule and Italy’s unification in 1870, Sicily experienced more foreign invasions, ending with the Spanish Bourbons who exploited the rich agricultural lands around Palermo and invested their returns in extensive building of Baroque buildings in the city center after destroying much of its medieval architecture.9 Greek, Roman, and Baroque architecture permeates Sicily but it is its Norman legacy that is the most romanticized and connected to a Sicilian national identity. Starting in early 19th century, restoration of buildings in Sicily focused on returning buildings to their Norman image by removing later additions to reveal the “true” Norman form and sometimes reconstructing elements that had long been gone. 10 

    people walk in sunken plaza with building in background

    view looking up at brickwork of three domes

    view looking up at apse and brickwork arches

    brickwork interior of church with Corinthian columns and arches

    decorative mosaics inlaid in floor

    Figure 40–45. Church of San Cataldo in Palermo, a unique example of Arab-Norman architecture from 12th-century Sicily.

    Before World War II, theories guiding the historic preservation of buildings and monuments in Europe began to form in the 1930s as were determined in the Athens Conference of 1931. The principles of preservation that were discussed and promoted for adaptation during the conference were based on minimal alteration of historic buildings and where modifications were required, a conservative and scientific approach informed by data analysis of existing elements were to be implemented. Additions were to be stylistically differentiated from the original.11 The massive damage to cities that was made possible by the evolution of aerial warfare technology during World War II posed unprecedented challenges to the previously accepted theories of historic preservation. In Italy, like the rest of Europe, the strict and conservative preservation rules that were established before the war were thwarted for the sake of saving national heritage. Post-war restoration of historic buildings in Palermo continued the pre-war approach of freeing Arab-Norman buildings of their unwanted pasts.12 The destruction caused by the bombs cleared what stood in the way to further disencumber the authentic heritage of the city. When war destroys a city's history, reconstruction has the potential to re-write it.


    1 Peter Robb, Midnight in Sicily (New York: Picador, 2007).

    2 Vincenzo Scalia, “The Production of the Mafioso Space. A Spatial Analysis of the Sack of Palermo,” Trends in Organized Crime 24, no. 2 (2020): pp. 189–208, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12117-020-09395-7.

    3 Peter Robb, Midnight in Sicily (New York: Picador, 2007).

    4 Ibid, p.9.

    5 Vincenzo Scalia, “The Production of the Mafioso Space. A Spatial Analysis of the Sack of Palermo,” Trends in Organized Crime 24, no. 2 (2020): pp. 189–208, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12117-020-09395-7.

    6 Ibid

    7 Jane Schneider and Peter T. Schneider, Reversible Destiny Mafia, Antimafia, and the Struggle for Palermo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

    8 Peter Robb, Midnight in Sicily (New York: Picador, 2007), p.13.

    9 Jane Schneider and Peter T. Schneider, Reversible Destiny Mafia, Antimafia, and the Struggle for Palermo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

    10 Giuseppe Scaturro, Danni Di Guerra e Restauro Dei Monumenti. Palermo 1943–1955 (Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II, 2006).

    11 Ibid.

    12 Ibid.

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