Castle La Cuba
Top Sites to see in Palermo

Palermo’s royal residence Castle La Cuba is an example of 12th century Sicilian architecture combining Romanesque and Arabic-Fatimid styles….

        The castle La Cuba was built in 1180 at the request of King William 2nd. Together with the castle La Zisa it was part of the chain of royal recreational residences raised outside of the walled city. 

       Although seemingly simple when seen from the outside, the castle La Cuba is a great example of then dominant Sicilian architectural style skillfully combining Norman’s Romanesque forms with Islamic lines of “Fatimid” flavor and elements of Byzantine decorative art.

At those times the influence of Islamic art and architecture was still quite alive in Sicily. Due to the politics of tolerance even 100 years after the conquest of Sicily by Normans, Arabs had still strong position and respect in Sicilian society. In fact in the Medieval Mediterranean Europe, Moors were leading in almost all areas of art, architecture, poetry and science (mathematics, astronomy, medical science….). It was only in mid-13th century when King Frederic 2nd under the pressure from Rome changed this friendly (and truly “Christian”) policy of tolerance starting massive repressions.

Castle La Cuba (or rather remains of its original glory)

Islamic Muquarnas

Strong presence of Islamic art is still visible

       To keep it short- the significant part of Cuba’s design, construction works and decoration was carried out by Arabs. As the result the castle La Cuba (similarly as the Zisa) has strong oriental features. Even its name Cuba (Kuba) came from the Arabic words – either “Ka’aba” defining “cuboid” (square-shaped) structure or “Qubba” (Quba) – referring to “dome” (or vault, arch). In fact the word Kaaba is well “describing” the shape of the castle so most scholars are leaning towards this hypothesis. Others believe that original structure was actually topped by the large dome (as seen on some drawings presenting artistic visions of Cuba at its best times.  

Not surprisingly, Norman kings were tremendously enjoying Mediterranean climate (BTW - who from the northern Europe wouldn’t!). That is why the royal recreational residences while built as defensive structures were “tuned” mostly towards enjoyment, comfort and leisure…. 

la Cuba - exterior walls even after more than 800 years are still impressive....

Dis-proportionally tall walls seem to be reaching the sky.... (probably that's what you expect in the Paradise)

Well, maybe La Cuba was really close to what we think is the Paradise (here an artistic vision of La Cuba based on historical data)

      La Cuba - serving as the summer retreat most likely was located in the middle of an artificial lake surrounded by the large park Geonardo established during Arabs’ domination. The name “Geonardo” is derived from the Arabic word “Jannat-al-ard” meaning “Heaven (Paradise) on Earth”. It seems that Norman kings were quickly learning from their Arab predecessors that “austerity” is not the best prescription for the earthly life . 

       Unfortunately there is not much information surviving from those times. The Arabic inscription found in the ruins points to the year of construction (1180) and the funder (King William 2nd).  But architectural details from the early years of the castle are lost (did the castle have roof and cupola or not is just the speculation). Similarly as Zisa, La Cuba lost its importance and splendor with the fall of Norman dynasty in 14th century. The castle was changing hands between private owners and the Spanish crown. During the plagues striking the island in 16th and 17th century, the castle served as “quarantine” quarters and hospital. Then under the Bourbons, the castle was used as barracks for cavalry. Evidently neither of these assignments helped to keep the structure in good and original shape.

     The interior was heavily transformed by addition of rooms; to make it worse new structures mushroomed on the outside completely changing the silhouette of the medieval castle. In 1921, the castle was transferred to the regional government marking the point of return from the oblivion. In 1980’s, under the supervision of the architect Francesco Valenti started the process of recovery. All internal and external additions were demolished, walls, vaults and arches either restored or protected from further degradation.

La Cuba - view from the outside

Not much survived from the Courtyard

La Cuba: interior (today it is just an empty space)

Element of Norman architecture - vault ceiling

      But the fact is that today, the castle La Cuba is still an “empty walled space” …. From the outside, the massive and seemingly “disproportionally” tall stone walls with blinded arches containing niches and small windows (surprisingly at the lower level), strengthened on each side by towers are quite impressive. The largest tower includes the main entrance. Due to this well preserved cubic shape the castle in its current form clearly supports its name La Cuba. But unfortunately inside the walls very little survived from the Norman times. Scholars seem to agree that the original castle was rather deprived of private apartments – there were only three large, interconnected rooms to provide accommodations for the king. The focal point of the castle was the large courtyard clearly indicating that the castle was designed for leisure rather than royal duties…. 

        May be the best testimony of castle’s past greatness is an Arabic adornment in a form of “Muqarnas” (architectural forms resembling stalactites, typically used as decorative elements covering spherical ceilings). But for example the remains of a marble fountain in the central courtyard are visible only to an “aware” visitor. Some artifacts recovered from the ruins of the castle including precious Arabic inscriptions in Kufic script are displayed in the nearby shelter. Collection also includes drawings presenting “artistic visions” of the castle. 

Fragment of kufic scripts

Kufic scripts

Surviving elements (above) and ruins (below)....

      What may help to feed visitor’s imagination is the fact that in 1320’s Boccaccio used La Cuba settings as the “background” for one of Decameron’s novels. It was here where in one of the rooms the King Ferdinand 2nd of Aragon kept locked a young girl Restituta separating her from her lover Gianni di Procidia. To keep the story short - Gianni and Restituta secretly spent a night together, then when it was revealed to the king, the lovers were condemned to death by burning in the fire (do not worry, at the end they were saved by powerful friends)…. 

That's how the castle La Cuba most likely looked at the time of its glory (model made based on today's knowledge)

More artistic visions....

Knowing that the “love story” needs romantic settings and enchanting atmosphere may help us to visualize the “Heavens on the Earth” with the castle La Cuba “floating” in the center of the lake….. 

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