In the gardens of Norman Palermo, Sicily (twelfth century A.D.)

In the gardens of Norman Palermo, Sicily (twelfth century A.D.)

By Marco Massetti

Anthropozoologica, Vol.44:2 (2009)

Abstract: This paper is aimed at verifying the significance of the zoomorphic images represented in the 12th century picture of the Genoard, the “earthly paradise”, of Palermo (Sicily) contained in an illumination in the Liber ad honorem Augusti by Pietro da Eboli, 12th century A.D. (Berne, Burgerbibliothek, Codex 120). Based on analyses of the literary and iconographic documents and of the available osteological evidence, a tentative identification of the zoological species represented is made, in relation to the Norman cultural ambit and what can be assumed about their occurrence in mediaeval Sicily. The study of the animals depicted could enhance our understanding of the specialised “but still debated” use of the Genoard, while also yielding different readings from those traditionally offered by literary and architectural criticism and/or historical and artistic texts. Hence, it offers an opportunity for meditation on the faunistic rebalancing which was implemented also in other continental and insular areas of the northern Mediterranean in the period of Arab influence and/or those immediately following. Perhaps, with certain consequences that could apparently also have involved the contemporary Norman cultural world of Great Britain.

Introduction: In the second half of the 12th century, a park for hunting and other courtly delights was created for WilliamII, just behind the royal palace of Palermo, in the southern part of the city in front of what was later called the “Conca d’Oro”. This park was called the Genoard, or Gennoardo, a name deriving from the Arabic gennat al-ard, signifying “earthly paradise”. This was not a specific name, but was shared by all theMuslim gardens of delights, which were designed to resemble the paradise of the Koran. An image of the appearance of the Genoard has survived in a 12th century illumination illustrating The city of Palermo in mourning for the death of William II, contained in the Liber ad honorem Augusti by Pietro da Eboli. This manuscript was written and illuminated in Palermo between 1195 and 1197, after the death of William II in 1189. It consists of an illuminated chronicle of the events that took place in the decade between 1189-1197.

In the miniature in which the Genoard appears it is set within the context of Palermo and is part of the same, entirely occupying one of the sectors into which the city was divided, corresponding approximately to the individual quarters. The Genoard consisted of a green area, enclosed and irrigated, considered practically a riyàd belonging to the royal palace. As Zangheri also explains, the Arab word riyàd is used to refer to a green, private space that evokes the image of the Roman peristyle. It was an uncovered area, almost always surrounded by porticoes, and featured paved paths and a system of irrigation based on basins and conduits. In view of its particular position, the Genoard must hence have appeared a space that embodied a specialised concept of the urban park. In such parks the rarest plants originating from the East were cultivated, in line with a tradition borrowed directly from the Arab world. Various precious and exotic plants are illustrated in the miniature, among which we can recognise a vine, other fruit trees and several palms. But the “earthly paradise” was also home to a special fauna which included ornithological and mammalian species, the presence of which within the park was motivated not only by aesthetic reasons but also practical ends connected with hunting.

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