Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Cappella Palatina muqarnas

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The Cappella Palatina muqarnas

EDIT: I’ve made some scans and have adjusted the images as best as possible. Wish I could have copied these in glorious color, but sometimes you have to work with what you can get.

On Thursday, I braved the holiday tourist crowds and took the train from Trenton to New York City. My destination: The Stephen A. Schwarzman building of the New York Public Library. My reason: The library had this set of books and they had kindly reserved them for me in the arts and architecture reading room.

One book of this four-volume set was my holy grail of Norman Sicily research. Before going to Sicily in November 2006, I had read several mentions of a fantastic wooden painted stalactite muqarnas ceiling in the Cappella Palatina of the Norman Palace – the ceiling allegedly had scores of Islamic paintings of courtiers, musicians, dancers, and drinkers, done in the 1130s-1140s. I could not WAIT to see this ceiling for myself, in real life. So, imagine my disappointment when we reached the Cappella Palatina with our tour group … to look up at the nave ceiling and see nothing but netting. Yes, the chapel was in the process of being restored and the ceiling was being worked on. The rest of our time in Palermo, I scoured stores trying to find a book of photographs of the chapel. I did find one book which had great photos of the mosaics, but just one small, rather blurry photo of the entire nave ceiling.

After getting home, I started to run down the references to the Cappella Palatina ceiling, and found that they led to one book published in 1950 by the Italian historian Ugo Monneret de Villard, “Le pitture musulmane al soffitto della Cappella Palatina in Palermo.” A search on Abebooks yielded one copy, for about $85, with shipping. I ordered it and waited (it was coming from Italy). Once it arrived, I was a little disappointed. It’s wonderful, but it’s in black and white, and contains only a small number of the paintings. Still, it was better than nothing.

Last year, there was news that the chapel restoration was finished and there would be a lavish four-volume edition by the Italian publisher Franco Cosimo Panini, and one of the books would contain full-color photos of the muqarnas alone. As you can see from the previous link, this would not be something I would be able to purchase, and I looked for a nearby university library that would allow me to access the books. The closest in distance to me is the Firestone Library at Princeton University. Not only would it cost me more than $200 a year for access to the books, it seemed that since the books arrived in the fall, they were nonstop checked out by professors and students in the university’s medieval studies department. Bless you, New York Public Library. Once I found out that they had the books, they reserved them for me. For free. I would just have to get my butt up to New York.

So, I did. And made a stack of photocopies as well.

What I found out:

Admittedly, I was a bit focused on the types of images I paid attention to. I was specifically looking at the ladies – the dancers and the musicians. And the new photos did not disappoint.

One of the seven musicians playing goblet drums that I found in the muquarnas images.

The musicians played a variety of instruments – ouds, rebabs, end-blown flutes, psalteries, tanburs, and drums. The most common type of drums portrayed, surprisingly, were small goblet drums, the head played with right hand while the left hand gripped the instrument at the bottom or the throat. Unlike a Persian tanbur, a Turkish darbuka, or an Egyptian doumbek, the drums were shaped symmetrically; the bottom was as large as the top, and the throat very small, with a molded ring around it. I counted seven representations of goblet drums, played by female and male musicians, as opposed to four paintings where the ladies were playing frame drums (two round and two square drums – no jingles on them, unlike riqs). Three ladies were playing wooden clappers – sticks held in the hands. One female and one male musician were playing oval drums that were held on the lap and struck with a stick held in one hand. There were absolutely NO portrayals of finger cymbals of any kind.

The dancers were a revelation. Some of them held short scarves in their hands; one had thick golden bangles on her wrists; some of them danced as they played their instruments. What I had thought, in this photo,  was a long single scarf whipping around her was actually the very long ends of her ‘isaba (head scarf), trailing from the large knot on the right side of her head. Most of the ladies, dancers and musicians, wore these very long ‘isabas wrapped around her takiya (also called taquiyah), a sort of bulbous head cap (more about the takiya can be found here, in the “First Encyclopedia of Islam: 1913 to 1936”).  The fringe of their hair could clearly be seen on their foreheads, peeking out from their headgear, as well as their curled side locks on their cheeks. Many of them had a dot between the brows, and three small dots low on the cheek. Some of the male musicians had them as well, as well as the male nadim, or drinking courtiers. I theorize this was makeup and tattoos (especially as the Berber ladies of North Africa tattooed their faces well into the early 20th century, and Sicily had a lively trade with Fatimid Egypt – which included slaves).

(You can see a color picture of the scarf dancer and some of the other figures, very briefly, in a photo montage, at the Fondazione Federico II Website.)

The ladies not wearing the ‘isaba/takiya/taquiyah head gear wear what look surprisingly like large crowns. They in fact bear a very strong resemblance to the Persian headgear worn by Duchess Roxane Farabi, but there is no center cap visible nor a spinel, and they seem to have the ends of a long scarf trailing from them. These may be the original form of the taj (crown) worn by traditional Tunisian brides and the headdresses worn by classical Andalusian musicians of Morocco, and probably derived from Persia.

The scarf dancer and her attending musicians. Note the taj-like headdresses the musicians are wearing.

The tunics were painted in shades of pale blue, pale green, red, and yellow. Some were plain, some were patterned, with with a floral scroll or geometric, regular designs (and in two cases with patterns representing large white daisies). Interestingly, the pants worn under the tunics do not seem to resemble the sirwals popular in the SCA, using Uncle Rashid’s pattern. For one thing, they seemed to scrunch at the ankle; admittedly this effect could be achieved if the pants were long and bunched up. The legs also seemed straighter, but again, the pattern can be modified to provide this effect

Fortunately for us, on page 526 of the volume, a woman is depicted with the front of her tunic hiked up at the center through her belt, clearly showing her drawers. These seem to have soft, loose legs, ending in the ankle scrunches. They are definitely not the crazy Michelin Man-pants worn by the 16th century Morisco women of Spain.”Our Lady of the Underpants” is flanked by two musicians,  a lady playing a fipple flute and another playing a goblet drum. Perhaps she is getting ready to cut a rug and needed to get her robe out of the way?

Thank you, “Our Lady of the Underpants,” for flashing your drawers at us. Generations of medieval Islamic costumers will be grateful. On a more serious note, check out the taj-like headdresses of her musician attendants.

Very few of the ladies seemed to wear any sort of belt – and the ones who did were musicians, not dancers. One seated musician has a golden belt with three golden balls hanging at the front. I have no idea how this belt was constructed, and the painting is not detailed enough to make a guess. The belt of “Our Lady of the Underpants” is a simple band.

Note this frame drummer’s instrument has a word in Arabic on its surface. If you can read it, please let me know what it says!

What does this all mean for my garb? It’s back to the drawing board for my ‘isaba. It will have to be a lot longer than I had originally thought, and the ends will have to be tapered. I will try using a soft, fine white silk – possibly silk broadcloth, if I can find it, but a heavier-weight habotai may have to do.

The blue silk tunic I constructed for Bhakail Yule and future events still needs its brocade hem. My red tunic with the golden dot pattern needs its shoulder/upper arm bands.

Most of all, I need proper pants. Next step – play with Master Rashid’s pattern.

Oh, and I need a proper taqiyah. My original cap pattern needs to be redrafted, yet again.

I have a lot of work in front of me.

Life is sweets …

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I have been very negligent of the blog as of late, but as work has been crazy and it’s been the holidays, those are my excuses. Plus, I was involved in an Andalusian dance and music project that was performed at a local barony’s Yule celebration. Al-Andalus and Muslim Sicily had many ties, so doing research for the project was very worthwhile.

Anyway, Christmastime means on Christmas Eve, I will be stuffing myself silly on the fish feast at my aunt’s house. In the true Sicilian/Italian way, she strives to have 12 fishes on the table. Even a little dish of anchovies counts.

My non-Italian mom, however, provides the desserts. This is due to the shocking fact that my Sicilian/Calabrian aunts, while amazing cooks, cannot bake worth a damn. And considering that Sicily is known for its pastries, gelati, and sweets, this is quite sad. My Sicilian grandmother would make what she called “sfinj,” little fried balls of dough that she would pile into pyramids on paper plates, pour honey syrup over, and dust with red and green sprinkles. My cousins reported that when hot and fresh, they were actually quite good, but by the time my sister and I saw them a week later, at family dinner, they were stale and totally stuck to each other and the plate. Yecchh.

Sicily’s sweet tooth was cultivated by the Arabs, who started the island’s sugar plantations. But before there was sugar, there was honey – gathered from the bees who swarmed the heathered plains around Mount Etna. Honey production in Sicily is very associated with the Hyblaean Mountains in southeastern Sicily. Here is the page of a honey producer in Sicily today, Apicoltura Iblea.

Here’s an interesting little article about the use of, and types of honey, in Sicily. Although Roberta Gangi is quite correct about the low use of honey in Sicilian desserts, there is a more concerted use of it on the “Greek” eastern half of the island, particularly the towns clustered on the slopes of Mount Etna. And there is one Sicilian sweet with an Arab name – cubbaita, or qubbayta, derived from the word qubbayt – that uses honey. Traditionally, it’s honey and sesame seeds and toasted almonds, a sort of nutty brittle. There are no egg whites in it, and traditionally no sugar, as in torrone.

In my paper on Sicilian food, I erroneously cite al Idrisi as mentioning the existence of qubbayta (he did mention the manufacture of pasta). I will be correcting this paper with new information and reloading it to the blog.

So, as to the origin of cubbaita/qubbayta on the island – there is a Greek honey and sesame seed candy called “pasteli,” which is for all intents and purposes the Sicilian cubbaita. This blogger attributes the introduction of what became to be called cubbaita to the Byzantines who held the island before the Arabs invaded. I think the blogger is a little off when he/she says the food contributions of the Byzantines/Greeks were minimal; I think they were just absorbed into the Arab cooking traditions, as the Arabs absorbed Persian food traditions.

After the Arabs invaded, there were a lot of half-hearted conversions by islanders; ibn Hawqal disparaged the rural populations for their base, mumbled Arabic, and intimated that Christian women who married Muslims were allowed to raise daughters as Christians. Before the Normans invaded, Christian=Byzantine Greek. And I think this is how a Greek candy came to be called “qubbayt” – as the Christian women of these “half-Muslims” continued to make this sweet as they always did, and passed the tradition on, in an area where honey was more available than sugar. As the area was also full of almond and pistachio trees, these things also went to cubbaita, though the most common is the sesame seed version.

I wanted to look up more Arab and medieval candy recipes, and some half-remembered thought caused me to go to Duke Cariadoc’s “Miscellany,” where he has a translated recipe from the “Mappae Clavicula.” The recipe is titled, “The recipe for sesame candy.” It’s made from honey and sesame seeds, but is pulled like a taffy.

Not familiar with the “Mappae Clavicula,” I went looking for some information about it and about this recipe. Fortunately, there was a discussion about sesame candy from the Known World Cook’s list that was captured in Stefan’s Florilegium, in which Cariadoc (David Friedman) explains that this recipe comes from is the 12th century edition of the “Mappae Clavicula.” I am curious if the origin of this particular recipe was Italian, but will have to find out more about the manuscript

As for the original, Arab qubbayt? I found a few citations in “The best divisions for the knowledge of the regions,” a 10th century geography book by Muhammad ibn Ahmad Muqqaddasi (translated by Basil Anthony Collins) that the city of Harran, now in modern-day Turkey, exported qubbayt, “preserves of locust-fruit and nuts.” We’re talking carob here, not bug parts. The author also cites qubbayt made in Palestine, and on page 184, says in al-Ramla, “They make from the locust tree a sweetmeat from the locust tree called qubbayt; that which they make from sugar they call natif.” Cariadoc has a translated recipe for natif, or what is known today as hulwa or halva, a nougat confection.

So, in Sicily, the name became applied to a previous Greek sweet. But carob is grown in Sicily, and has been for centuries. Here is a great blog post about the Sicilian carob harvest in eastern Sicily. I can find no signs of carob actually used in the ancient Harran, qubbayt way – though carob flour from the seeds is used today in certain cookies or cakes, and there is a modern-day carob candy.

I also found cubbaita is sometimes called giugiulena – which actually is Sicilian for sesame seeds, and derives from the Arabic word for sesame, juljulan. Giugiulena can also be sesame seed cookies, so I prefer to use “cubbaita” to describe the candy.