6: Otranto

Alone among all of the cathedrals of Italy, the cathedral of Otranto has an intact Norman tesselated pavement that stretches from the west door to the altar and is continued in the apse. I felt that I might have been walking on the Bayeux tapestry. A priest told me that it was the work of a monk or a priest called Pantaleone and was completed in 1160, the year when William I of Sicily died. Artistically, the pavement is decorative but crude; it is also a strange glimpse into the mind of a man who was born in the Norman-Arab-Byzantine world of southern Italy. The design begins at the west end of the nave and the two aisles with three ”trees of life” whose branches are to be found a colourful company of men, women and animals. Adam and Eve are being expelled from Eden, Noah is building the Ark, and we can recognize Cain and Abel; but the secular scenes are even more interesting. Students of the Arthurian Cycle may perhaps be surprised to know that Pantaleone was familiar with it and has decorated the pavement with a mounted ”Rex Arturus”, clean-shaven and Norman in appearance. The mythical monsters an zodiacal signs framed in medallions might have been copied from Byzantine textiles.

H. V. Morton 1969: A Traveller in Southern Italy. S. 172-3.

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