Cross-cultural amity, written in stone
Photo show at Beit Beirut explores Sicily’s Arab-Norman past through architecture
BEIRUT: “Mediterranean Encounters,” an exhibition of photos by Francesco Ferla, aims to promote cultural dialogue today by looking at the harmonious Arab-Norman past of Sicily.
On show at Beit Beirut, and supported by the Italian Cultural Institute and the Italian Embassy, his 25 photos capture nine civil and religious structures in Palermo.
All these works of Arab-Norman architecture – two palaces, three churches, three cathedrals (including those of Cefalu and Monreale) and a bridge – date from 11301194, when Normans ruled Sicily.
“In Sicily there is a multiethnic, interracial cultural society with a liberty of religion,” Ferla told The Daily Star. “In Palermo there is amazing syncretism, there are churches with mosaics that are Greek Orthodox but the architectural structure is Arabic, with Arabic Kufic [calligraphy] designs, which is incredible.
“In Sicily it is normal to have a church with mouqarnas [an elaborately adorned interior surface of a dome],” he said. “It’s quite a political message, because in Italy the problem is [was] in Rome with the power of the Vatican but in Sicily it is different because it’s Norman Catholic.”
The photos are all dramatically lit, with high-contrast skies framing the detailed monuments, or angled perspectives of the interiors. The blending of faiths and cultures can be seen in the buildings’ stones, with churches decorated with arabesque arches and eight-pointed star patterns.
“All the gloomy, black-and-white bits are to illustrate the intolerance of the Roman Church,” Ferla said, “which was different than the church of Frederick II [king of Italy and holy Roman emperor from 1220-1250], who was open-minded and even spoke Arabic.
“All the colored parts are a symbol of his tolerance, his will to establish dialogue and exchange,” the photographer added. “The black-and-white [parts] are about how the Roman Church came to Sicily and tried to obliterate this Arabic part of Sicily.”
Ferla used a combination of unadulterated photography and digital postproduction to highlight certain aspects of the structures.
“Some of it has been repainted in digital gauche/aquarelle, such as the sky, but the buildings are left as they are,” he said. “It’s a technique I used to put in perspective and to isolate the monument from the surroundings and give it more importance.”
While most of the photos were hung on sections of the venue that have been repaired or are free of damage, a group of photos have been placed on the floor.
“I placed these prints on the floor as a gift to Islam because I wanted to replicate the idea of prayer mats in mosques,” he said. “I didn’t want to put all the photos on the wall out of the respect because the walls in Beit Beirut are a symbol of war.”
Ferla started researching Palermo’s architectural history in order to find the right buildings in 2013, and finalized his photos in 2017.
“I spent many years on the project because it’s very hard to find authentic buildings, as most of these monuments are over 1,000 years old,” he said, “and in the 20th century they created some buildings with the same style but they’re not the real thing.”
While his series in an artistic project, Ferla says his photos also hold political undertones when viewed in light of the Mediterranean’s current tension over refugees and migrants.
“I chose to look at this because we have a lot of problems in terms of relationships between Europe and the Middle East,” he explained.
“Italy is a bit different. France, Great Britain et cetera have a lot of problems, whereas Italy wants a relationship with Islam and the Arab world. It’s a cultural exhibition with a political twist,” he continued. “It is a testimony of the friendship between our two countries.”
“Mediterranean Encounters” can be seen at Beit Beirut, Sodeco, until June 4, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Palermo Cathedral. Ferla used a combination of unadulterated photography and digital postproduction to highlight certain aspects of the structures.
Palermo Cathedral – apses.