In 1935, the Italian intellectual Carlo Levi was banished from public life in his country for his opposition to Mussolini, an exile he underwent in the remote and undeveloped village in Lucania, the arch of the peninsula’s ‘boot.’ His account of his time there, published as the book Christ Stopped at Eboli, testifies to the enduring divide which has separated modern Italy into two halves: a prosperous north and a rustic, even primitive south, bypassed by civilisation and even, he writes, by time.
In the 12th century, however, the region had a very different reputation. At this time, Apulia and Calabria, the southernmost areas of Italy, were ruled from wealthy and cosmopolitan Sicily, and their monarchy was one of the most admired of Europe. Founded by an ambitious dynasty of Norman adventurers and funded by the seaborne trade of the Mediterranean, the Kingdom of Sicily exemplifies not only the cultural accomplishments of mediaeval kings, but also the rich legacy they endowed to subsequent rulers.
This legacy can be seen in a truly remarkable survival of the Kingdom of Sicily’s golden age–the so-called Coronation Mantle of Roger II.
Constructed of red silk, gold embroidery, and thousands of pearls, the mantle weights 11 kilos, and was finished in 1134, only a few years after Roger II was crowned King of Sicily. Its patterns reflect both the history of conquest upon which his kingdom was built, and the synthesis of cultural elements which characterised its flowering.
In the centre stands a palm tree with dangling fruit, probably symbolic of the tree of life, while lions leap upon downed camels to either side. The motifs, as well as the workmanship, is Near Eastern in origin, a fact also acknowledged by the legend in Arabic around the edge of the mantle, recording its date and place of origin. To the Christian newcomers to Sicily, however, the lions most likely symbolised the conquest of the island by the previous generation of Norman knights, and expressed the ideals of military kingship.
A further meaning may be communicated by the rosettes on the lions’ flanks and heads, which demarcate the stars forming the constellation Leo–perhaps an allusion to the celestial nature of kingship.
While the mantle’s precise symbolic significance may never be recovered entirely, however, its lavish decoration and clear use of techniques brought to Sicily by the Muslim population illustrates the magnificence of mediaeval Sicily and its wide-ranging Mediterranean influences.
The mantle, however, can no longer be found in Italy. After Roger II’s descendent, William II, died in 1189, the Kingdom of Sicily passed several years later into the hands of the Holy Roman Empire, ruled at the time by Henry VI. Royal treasures, including the mantle, were taken back to Germany and used in imperial coronations–hence its name. Now, the mantle is held as part of the Treasury in the Hofburg Kunsthistorisches Museum, where it speaks to the prestige of the Sicilian monarchs and the impressive legacy they bequeathed to their successors, despite ruling in Italy for less than a century.