7 May 2015 at 12.00pm | Comment on this article
Around the same time as the Norman Conquest of England (1066 and all that), another Norman conquest was taking place – in southern Italy and Sicily. The kingdom that emerged there in the year 1130 was like no other before it, and its first king – Roger – was one of the outstanding rulers of pre-modern Europe. At its height, his realm comprised most of Italy to the south of Rome, the islands of Sicily and Malta and a large tract of North Africa centred on what is now Tunisia.
Roger’s capital was the old Muslim metropolis of Palermo, then the largest and wealthiest city in Europe. Its population was mainly Muslim, but like the rest of Sicily it had large contingents of Arabic- and Greek-speaking Christians. And, also like the rest of Sicily, it was increasingly home to economic migrants from around Italy and beyond the Alps heading for an island famed for its riches and resources.
The kingdom’s overlapping political and cultural spheres gave it an unusual sense of plurality and diversity. The dynamics of power and political thought that lay behind Roger’s unique rulership were precisely a function of this and they drew inspiration from the Byzantine East, the Muslim South and the Latin West. For a king who aspired to be master of the world’s peoples, the realm’s multi-lingual, multi-faith, multi-cultural population was an asset, not a burden.
It is remarkable how indebted Roger’s kingdom was to the Islamic world, often revealing a cultural and intellectual interplay across frontiers more usually separated by politics and religion. After all, this was an age of holy war, jihād and the Crusades. In Sicily, Roger’s patronage of scholars fostered a translation movement of texts into Latin. This helped the recovery of Greek works by Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy and others that had been translated into Arabic and studied in the Islamic world since the 800s, but were lost in the Latin West. The transmission of classical learning back into Europe inspired the so-called Twelfth-Century Renaissance, and Sicily was a seminal point in the diffusion of scholarship that had a basis in empirical scientific knowledge, rather than that of Holy Scripture.
The royal geographer, Muhammad al-Idrīsī [adapted by Szymanowski as Roger’s adviser Edrisi], tells us much of the king’s thirst for knowledge. A cartographer from North Africa, his masterpiece was the Tabula Rogeriana (Book of Roger). Apart from Europe and the Middle East, there were entries for sub-Saharan Africa and the regions towards Russia, India and China. They knew that Britain was an island of darkness and perpetual winter. Scotland was 500 miles of deserted wilderness. In Ireland, where there were three towns, feuds were never-ending. Back in the warmth and sophistication of Palermo, Roger indulged his penchant for gadgetry by asking Idrīsī to make a huge planisphere model of the night sky out of solid silver. Roger was partial to clocks too, a master of time as well as space, and had a contraption made that dropped balls into a tin at regular intervals.
Roger died on 26 February 1154, aged 58. His sarcophagus in Palermo Cathedral is within spitting distance of that of another great Sicilian ruler – the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen, who died in 1250. Frederick posthumously confirmed Roger’s worst fear – that the Germans would one day take over. The Norman kingdom of Sicily did not last long, but the kingdom as a political entity survived more or less intact until the modern era of nation-building, when the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was cobbled together with the kingdoms of the north, the papal states and various duchies to form a new united kingdom – Italy – in 1861.
This is an extract from Alex Metcalf’s article ‘The Real Król Roger’ in The Royal Opera’s programme book, available during performances and from the ROH Shop.
Król Roger runs until 19 May 2015. Tickets are still available.
The production is generously supported by The Monument Trust, The Danish Research Foundation, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute as part of the Polska Music Programme, The Taylor Family Foundation, Hamish and Sophie Forsyth, David Hancock, Michael Hartnall, Susan and John Singer and the Connoisseurs’ Series.