Construction of the Zisa Palace was commissioned by the Norman leader William I in an effort to match the grand architectural projects of his father, King Roger II. However, due to his untimely death, his son and successor William II completed the site in 1189. While built for Christian rulers, Arab designers and craftsmen worked to design this architectural gem in the North African, Fatimid tradition. Accordingly, it exhibits many distinctive Islamic features, including its name, which originates from the Arabic phrase "Dar al-Aziz", meaning the noble or splendid house, or "al-Aziza" (splendid). In addition the Zisa exemplifies the confluence of cultures so typical of the Norman period (1061-1194) in Sicily, by interweaving Muslim, Roman, and Byzantine stylistic influences, creating a unique moment in architectural history.
During this period in Palermo's urban history, vast parks for recreation encompassed the city, dotted with impressive palaces and gardens replete with decorative springs, fountains, man-made ponds and sophisticated irrigation techniques. Palazzo della Zisa is one of these royal residences. Designed expressly for the warm seasons, it included a rectangular pool at the front of its façade, which would serve to cool the hot summer air before it blew inside the palace through its tunnel-vaulted entrance chamber. Directly opposite the main door of the palace, a central enclosure composed in marble houses a shadirwan or sabil, a fountain where water flowed from a spring in the back wall down a corrugated-like incline and into a canal, which was connected to the outside fish pool through a subterranean passageway. This arrangement further chilled the air and channeled it to the private residential wings through inconspicuous openings, producing a natural air-cooling system. Three open cistern-like rooms on the palace's roof served to direct rainwater back to both the pool and the fountain through passages hidden in the interior of the building. With its two-storey, Gothic vaulted ceiling, the Fountain Hall is decorated with muqarnas niches, inlaid columns, and mosaics that extend throughout.
This rectangular stone palace exhibited a tower at the center of its two side facades. Exterior features included a cornice crowning the palace, and both single and double windows within blind-arched frames. Today the windows are rectangular, replaced during the seventeenth century. A small square building stood in the middle of the outside pool. Inside, the plan of the palace was rigidly symmetrical with spiral staircases extending three-stories on either side of the Fountain Hall. The third-floor residential suites extended out to a terrace at the back of the palace. Throughout, mosaics depicting flora and fauna and a variety of hunting scenes, join Islamic and Byzantine influences.
Palazzo della Zisa maintained its residential function being altered by different owners throughout its long history. Today its plan is much different from the first with many of the original rooms now merged into larger, grander spaces. By 1968 the regional Sicilian government had appropriated the palace. After falling into a period of disrepair, today it is in the process of being restored.
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