The church known most commonly as “La Martorana” is an architectural example of Sicily’s changing allegiances over the centuries. The facade alone features three different architectural styles.
The Martorana (Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio is the official name) dates back to 1141. You can no longer see the original Norman facade, but you can still see the typical Norman red dome from the exterior. Thankfully, once you’re inside the church, the original 12th century mosaics still shine in all their Byzantine glory. These mosaics are the highlight of a visit to La Martorana, and if you want to see them at their best, go first thing in the morning.
Back outside the church, you’ll notice that over the old Norman facade there is now a Baroque facade and a Romanesque bell tower. After the church was completed in the mid-12th century, it was later given to a Benedictine nun by the name of Eloisa Martorana - hence the church’s nickname - in the 1190s so she could establish a convent there. The convent flourished through the 19th century, and it was under the direction of the nuns that many of the architectural changes were made. By the early 1900s, the convent was no more - Mussolini gave the church to the Greek Orthodox in Palermo in 1935.
Browsing through the pastry shops in Palermo, you may find the name
“Martorana” on the realistically-sculpted marzipan fruits. The nuns of
La Martorana were famous for their marzipan, and the name is still used
on the marzipan treats made in Palermo.