Sicily: culture and conquest @ the British Museum

I’m aware of three exhibition spaces at the British Museum: the big Sainsbury space for blockbuster exhibitions at the back of the main hall; the temporary display room 3a, immediately on the right of the main entrance; and the medium-sized space on the first floor of the Rotunda in the main hall.

This exhibition is a medium-sized one in the Rotunda: the ticket collector on the door said it would take an hour to go round and this compactness was confirmed by the lack of audio-guide.

Two eras

I was expecting a comprehensive historical overview of Sicily – the largest island in the Mediterranean, the triangular island at the foot of Italy and only 96 miles from the coast of Tunisia. In the event, the exhibition manages to be so compact because it focuses on just two key eras in the island’s long and chequered history.

1. Classical Greek

First is the classical Greek era, from the earliest colonies founded in the 730s BC, which overlapped with sporadic Phoenician settlement in later centuries, all the way through to the period of the Roman conquest, circa 200 BC. In fact the decisive battle in which Rome won the island was fought on 10 March 241 BC.

The early rooms contain fascinating artefacts from this long period, which taken together show the evolution of Greek sculptural art from abstract designs through stylised human figures and onto the astonishing realism of full classical Greek art. As an example of the earliest artefacts, there is a large stone tomb cover, decorated with a huge abstract carving – fertility symbols, some kind of religious imagery? No one knows.

Representing the middle period is a marvellously preserved terracotta altar, dating to about 500 BC, featuring the standing figures of three fertility goddesses.

Terracotta Altar with three women and a panther mauling a bull. Gela, Sicily. C.500 BC. Museo Archeologico Regionale di Gela © Regione Siciliana

Terracotta Altar with three women and a panther mauling a bull. Gela, Sicily. C.500 BC. Museo Archeologico Regionale di Gela © Regione Siciliana

There are numerous other statues, including a glass case with 10 or more foot-high figures of Cybele, goddess of fertility, festooned with her distinctive necklace of grapes, hieratic heads from temples, along with numerous coins from this, the earliest period of coin history, before you start to encounter the supremely realistic depictions of human and animal figures which are the glorious achievement of classical Greek art.

For me the outstanding example of this later period was the stunning  terracotta horse’s head from an equestrian group which surmounted a temple in Sicily, c. 480–460 BC.

The flared nostrils and the swollen veins of the horse bring it vividly to life; you can hear the whinnying, the snorting and smell the hot sweaty horse smell.

2. The Normans

Then – surprisingly – the show skips the Romans altogether, along with the reconquest by the Byzantine Empire of Justinian I (530s) and conquest by Muslim forces (820-1020), leaping over 1,000 years forward to the Norman period, starting when the Normans conquered the island in 1061 and continuing through their period of dominance to around 1300.

I found this second section the more interesting of the two, which may be a simple reflection of the fact that we have much more written evidence from this period. Normans (descendants of 9th century Vikings who had settled the area that became ‘Normandy’ in north-west France) had already established bases on mainland Italy and during the 11th century mounted raids on Sicily. Eventually in 1061 they established control over the entire island.

Marble bust of Frederick II, Italy, 1220–50 AD. Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Rome. © H. Behrens, DAI Rom

Marble bust of King Frederick II of Sicilty, 1220–50 AD. Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Rome. © H. Behrens, DAI Rom

Due to its long history, sketched above, the island was now home to a checkerboard of communities including Italians, Byzantine Greeks, Muslims, Jewish immigrants and now its Norman rulers. Sicily was ruled by a succession of Norman kings – Roger II, William I and William II – who turned it into a military power base but also created a unique hybrid, multi-cultural court. The exhibition has a room devoted to the amazing Palatine Chapel, commissioned by Roger to sit at the heart of the royal palace at Palermo, which was covered in gorgeous decoration mixing twelfth-century Byzantine-style mosaic with marble and wooden Islamic-influenced architectural decorations.

Sicilian facts

Sicily has always enjoyed an unusually fertile soil created by the regular volcanic eruptions of Mount Etna. This large sloping mountain dominates the island in every direction.

Sicily contains some of the best-preserved classical temples in the Mediterranean and a stunning ancient theatre built on a hillside overlooking a bay with Mount Etna in the background.

Speaking of stunning landscapes, probably the most striking feature of the exhibition is a number of really massive, wall-sized, colour photographs of the Sicilian landscape, along with temples and ruins, which cover many of the walls and really bring the subject to life. It’s a technique the Museum used in the Viking exhibition a few years ago, and it really helps situate the dry artefacts into a living breathing (and very sunny) environment.

My favourites

The show includes some 200 artefacts from its two chosen eras. I went with my son and we each chose our favourite objects. I liked:

Gilded falcon, dating from the early 1200s and harking back towards the winged eagles and birds of prey which formed bowsprits to Viking warships.

Gilded bronze falcon, Bronze, traces of gold, Sicily or southern Italy, 1200–1220 AD © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gilded bronze falcon, Bronze, traces of gold, Sicily or southern Italy, 1200–1220 AD © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Palatine chapel ceiling The chapel stood at the centre of the royal palace in Palermo. It was commissioned by the Norman King Roger II and consecrated on 28 April 1140. For the exhibition the extraordinary ceiling of the chapel has been recreated (admittedly the three-dimensional roof with alcoves and arches has been recreated as a flat two-dimensional photograph) and is suspended low above one of the exhibition rooms. Shame there wasn’t a mat for visitors to lie on and look up and study the highly detailed intermixing of abstract patterns, decorated with Islamic script, among which sit rosettes holding quaint medieval portraits of Christian saints and holy men – all the work of Fatimid woodworkers and painters from North Africa.

My son’s favourites

Bronze rostrum The exhibition includes a direct remnant of the battle in which the Romans conquered Sicily in 241 BC: a bronze battering ram that was fitted on the front of the Roman warships to sink enemy ships, and which was only recently excavated from the waters around the island.

Bronze rostrum from Roman warship, from the seabed near Levanzo, Sicily. c.240 BC. Soprintendenza del Mare © Regione Siciliana

Bronze rostrum from Roman warship, from the seabed near Levanzo, Sicily. c.240 BC. Soprintendenza del Mare © Regione Siciliana

Tabula Rogeriana The book of maps which King Roger II commissioned from the Arab scholar Al-Idrisi, who took 15 years creating a description of the world and world map, the first one anyone had attempted in a thousand years. The Tabula Rogeriana was completed in 1154 and the exhibition has a splendid 14th century copy of it.

14th Century copy of a map of Sicily - A double page map of Sicily from Al-Idrisi’s Treatise, Unknown, c.1300–1500AD © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

14th Century copy of a map of Sicily – A double page map of Sicily from Al-Idrisi’s Treatise, Unknown, c.1300–1500AD © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Summary

So the exhibition is far from being a complete overview of Sicilian culture. Instead it’s a collection of many wonderful artefacts from two distinct moments of European history which – along with the dazzling and enormous colour photos of various landscapes of the island – really whet your appetite to go and visit this fascinating and beautiful island.

The trailer

Related links

Reviews of other British Museum shows

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