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The town of Cefalu

woman in cefalu

The town of Cefalu, near Palermo, is literally one of the pearls of Mediterraneum. Nestled on the north coast of Sicily, the town of Cefalù offers unique views to tourists who very often decide to return.

History of Cefalu

Traces of frequentation of the site date back to prehistoric times, in particular in two caves that open on the northern side of the promontory on which the city was built. A pre-Hellenic settlement refers to the megalithic-type walls, dated at the end of the 5th century BC, which surrounds the current historical center and is still largely preserved, and the contemporary Temple of Diana, a sanctuary consisting of a megalithic building, covered with stone slabs of the dolmenic type that houses a previous older cistern (IX century BC).

Cefalu at sunset with glimpses of the City Wall

Greeks and Syracusans in Cefalu

In the fourth century BC the Greeks gave the indigenous center the name of Κεφαλοίδιον (Kefaloidion), from the Greek kefa or kefalé, or “head, head”; probably referred to its promontory. However, we can not exclude the phonetic resumption from Aramaic (a Canaanite language closely related to the Phoenician) kephas (“stone, rock”), therefore always referring to the promontory.

In 307 BC it was conquered by the Syracusans and in 254 BC from the Romans, who gave it the name Cephaloedium in Latin. The Hellenistic-Roman city had a regular urban structure, formed by secondary roads that converged on the main road axis and closed in a ring by a road that follows the perimeter of the city walls.

Cefalu – Middle Ages

In the period of the Byzantine domination the village moved from the plain to the fortress and traces of fortifications of this era remain (crenellated walls), as well as churches, barracks, water cisterns and ovens). However, the old city was not completely abandoned, as evidenced by the recent discovery of a building of Christian worship, with a polychrome mosaic floor dating back to the 6th century.

In 858, after a long siege, it was conquered by the Arabs, who gave it the name of Gafludi, and was part of the emirate of Palermo. Of this period, however, we have little and fragmentary news and also lack monumental testimonies.

Aerial view of Cefalu

In 1063 it was conquered by the Normans of Roger I and, in 1131, thanks to Roger II, was reoccupied the ancient village on the coast, respecting the pre-existing urban structure: to this period date back many of the city’s monuments, such as:

  • The church of San Giorgio and the wash-house in via Vittorio Emanuele
  • The cloister of the Duomo and the Palazzo Maria (the fourteenth-century headquarters of the then Palazzo Comunale) located in Piazza del Duomo.
  • The Osterio Magno on the Corso Ruggero, the headquarters of the Ventimiglia family in Cefalù.
  • Precisely in 1131 the cathedral basilica is particularly dated.

Between the mid-thirteenth century and 1451 it passed under the dominion of several feudal lords and finally became a possession of the bishop of Cefalù.

The Cathedral of Cefalu

The cathedral of Cefalù, name with which the Basilica of the Transfiguration is known, is a minor basilica located in Cefalù, in the metropolitan city of Palermo, and cathedral of the homonymous diocese.

According to legend, it would have arisen following the vote to the Most Holy Savior by Roger II, who escaped a storm and landed on the beaches of the town. The real motivation seems rather political-military, given its character of fortitude.

Cathedral of Cefalu

The constructive events were complex and was finally completed in the Swabian age. An ambulatory obtained in the thickness of the wall and the same roof, consisting of three roofs, of different epoch and construction techniques, testify to the changes occurred in the project. The monument has a Romanesque style with Byzantine features.

National Monument since 1941, from 3 July 2015 is part of the World Heritage Site within the Arab-Norman Route of Palermo, Cefalù and Monreale.

The Church

The architecture of the Cathedral of Cefalù follows the model of the great Benedictine basilicas of Cluniac origin; with a Romanic style linked to northern Europe enriched by Arab influences.

The façade is framed by two mighty Norman towers, lightened by elegant mullioned windows and single-lancet windows and surmounted by pyramidal cusps added in the fifteenth century and different from one another: a square-shaped and with flame-shaped merlons, which would symbolize papal miter and the power of the Church, while the other, with an octagonal plan and Ghibelline merlons, the royal crown and temporal power. The fifteenth-century portico precedes the façade, with three arches (two pointed and one round) supported by four columns and cross vaults. Under the portico is the Porta Regum, embellished with a finely decorated marble portal, and with paintings on the sides.

The apses, in particular the central one, must have had an even greater momentum. The two sides are decorated on the upper side with crossed arches and carved corbels: datable between 1215 and 1223, depicting masks, animal heads and human figures in contorted positions. The corbels of the central apse are more recent and are arranged randomly both above and below the cornice. The central apse originally had three large windows, which were closed for the construction of the apsidal mosaic, and a larger one with an ogival arch. Two more pairs of circular windows are at the end of the transept. Other battlements can also be found on one of the sides.

The Cloister of Cefalu Cathedral

The cloister attached to the Norman cathedral is one of the most significant artistic testimonies of the Sicilian Middle Ages. It highlights the exceptional value of the cycle of figured capitals that surmount the twin columns, one of the most remarkable in the panorama of European medieval art. With a rectangular plan, the cloister is located near the north side of the cathedral at a lower level of 3.40 m from the floor of the transept. From the original structure the east lane was destroyed by a fire and the north lane, whose accommodation is awaited, has been preserved, and the south and west lanes are already in place. However, on this last side the elegant masonry arches are the result of an evident stylistic reconstruction of the early twentieth century. Finished with restoration in 2003 by the Regional Province of Palermo, it is now accessible to visitors.

The Mosaics

The mosaic of the presbytery

The mosaic decoration, perhaps planned for the entire interior, was built only in the presbytery and currently covers the apse and about half of the side walls. The mosaics cover an area of over 600 m² and were built by 1148 (first phase) and then probably between 1154 and 1166. The oldest ones are those of the apse and the cruise and were probably begun in 1145; for their realization, Roger II called the Byzantine masters of Constantinople, who adapted to an architectural space for them anomalous, of Nordic tradition, decorative cycles of oriental origin.

The dominant figure is that of Christ Pantocrator (Omnipotent) that from the apse shows its Christological attributes: on the right raised index and middle united indicate the two natures of Christ, divine and human, while thumb, little finger and ring finger indicate the mystery of the Trinity; the left holds the open Gospel on whose pages we read, in Greek and Latin: “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not wander in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8, 12).

Christ Pantokrator

Below is the Madonna in prayer, with hands raised and feet on a royal pillow, flanked by the four archangels Raffaele, Michele, Gabriele and Uriele. In the third band, at the sides of the window, are depicted the saints Peter and Paul and the evangelists Mark, Matthew, John and Luke. In the lower range there are the apostles Filippo, Giacomo, Andrea, Simone, Bartolomeo and Tommaso. Each figure is accompanied by a writing with the name (titulus) in Latin and in Greek, which allows its exact identification.

They accompany these figures, all on a golden background, stylized geometric or plant motifs. Also the intrados of the window and the adjacent columns (in some cases only their capitals) are covered with mosaics.

Two inscriptions complete the whole: one of a more theological nature, next to Christ, and another of a more historical nature, which informs us about the commissioner of the mosaics (King Roger II of Sicily) and their date (1148).

The mosaics of the cruise illustrate cherubs and seraphim, while those of the walls, which are historically the last, represent prophets and saints. The mosaics of the walls were restored with heavy modifications around 1860; a general restoration, with modern criteria of attention to the original forms, was conducted more recently, in 2001.

Paleobizine mosaic

The explorations conducted in the cathedral brought to light a fragment of polychrome Byzantine mosaic assignable to the sixth century: a central field of which some figures are preserved, framed by a motive of ogive and scales in red, white and black, and at least on a side, from a row of diagonal squares with central rosette. The decorative repertoire finds comparisons in Sicily. The mosaic is to be related to a wall structure and with three burials and was probably pertinent to a Byzantine basilica, of which it is not possible to reconstruct the plan because of the presence of the overhanging structures of the cathedral. The materials found in the polls attest to frequentation in the area at least until the eighth century, when Cefalù was already an Episcopal seat.

Civil architectures of Cefalu


Founded on Via Mandralisca in 1703 by the bishop Matteo Muscella. It has a gray stone façade, with baroque lumachella portal. On the second floor are still preserved the eighteenth-century furnishings and a safe that served to keep the most precious items deposited.

Medieval wash house

In Via Vittorio Emanuele there is the public wash house known as the medieval Lavatoio, near the late Renaissance Palazzo Martino. In 1514 it was demolished and rebuilt in a more backward position than the city walls and the river that flowed in the open air was covered in the seventeenth century. In the summer of 1991 the restoration work was completed.

The wash house has a lava stone and lumachella staircase leading to a smoothed paving with time and a series of pools that are filled with the waters that flow from twenty-two cast-iron mouths (of which fifteen leonine heads) arranged along the walls dominated by low times. Through a small cave, the water reaches the sea. In the tanks the supports that were used to rub the clothes are evident.

Municipal Theater

Located in Via Spinuzza, owned by the barons of Bordonaro, has had a troubled history: closed and reopened several times, was even used as a hospital for a plague epidemic. Since the 1920s it has also been used as a cinema. It was abandoned in the eighties and passed into the ownership of the Municipality which started its recently completed restoration works. It is now named after Maestro Salvatore Cicero, musician and 1st violin of the Sicilian Symphony Orchestra.

The hall has three tiers of boxes. It preserves a pictorial decoration of 1885 by Rosario Spagnolo (ceiling canvas, backdrops and curtain).

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