Cross-cultural amity, writ­ten in stone

Photo show at Beit Beirut ex­plores Si­cily’s Arab-Nor­man past through ar­chi­tec­ture

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - ARTS & CULTURE - By Maghie Ghali

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.

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