An architectural testimony to Sicily’s many invasions over the centuries, the church commonly known as La Martorana—officially Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio—blends a number of different architectural styles to form one of the most unique religious complexes in Sicily, and is primarily known for its sumptuous internal mosaics that are considered among the best Byzantine artworks in the world. One of the top attractions in Palermo, La Martorana is best visited with a guide as part of a walking tour of the city’s historic center to fully grasp its complex architecture and mosaic art. Most small-group or private tours of Palermo include a visit to La Martorana together with stops at the city’s other Arab-Norman churches including the Palatine Chapel and the Duomo.
Dating back to 1141, the only remaining vestiges of La Martorana’s original Norman design is its red dome, still visible from the exterior, while the facade was reworked in a Baroque style and the bell tower is Romanesque. Inside, the original 12th-century mosaics are the artistic crown jewel of the complex and cover much of the nave and apse. The complex was granted to a Benedictine nun named Eloisa Martorana—hence the church’s nickname—in the 1190s, and the convent flourished until the 1900s, when Mussolini granted the church to the Greek Orthodox community in Palermo.
Things to know before you go
- Walking tours of Palermo’s historic center include a significant amount of time outdoors; wear a hat and sunscreen in summer and choose comfortable footwear.
- You must wear modest attire that covers the knees and shoulders to enter Palermo’s churches.
- The entrance to the church is at the top of a flight of stairs in Piazza Bellini, and is not wheelchair-accessible.
- A visit to La Martorana is especially interesting to lovers of Byzantine art, and photography without flash is permitted.
How to get there
La Martorana is on Piazza Bellini in the historic center of Palermo, within walking distance of the port and train station. Palermo is a popular day trip and shore excursion destination from the nearby cities of Trapani and Taormina, and can be reached by train, ferry, or plane.
When to get there
The intricate Byzantine mosaics with their glowing gold and brightly colored tiles (tesserae) are the highlight of La Martorana; to see them at their best, visit first thing in the morning.
Sweets by the Same Name
Browsing Palermo’s many pastry shops, you may come across startlingly realistic fruit formed from marzipan called frutta di Martorana. Over the centuries, the Benedictine nuns who once occupied La Martorana’s convent became famous for their marzipan fruit, and the name is still used for these traditional treats made in Palermo.
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