The British Museum’s Sicily: culture and conquest exhibition reveals the historic story of a thriving and dynamic province
Syracuse was once described, by Cicero no less, as the greatest and most beautiful of all Greek cities. From Sicilian shores sprung mythology, its straits guarded by Scylla and home to Cyclops and Persephone; Muslim conquerors, here, established a silk trade; and Norman rule brought forth a ruler who was known simultaneously as Antichrist and ‘Wonder of the World’. Dubbed ‘Rome’s Granary’, Sicily became their first province and lay privy to the final battle of the Punic Wars. A distinctive triangular coastline, with a wealth of culture and conquest.
The British Museum has chosen this year to give some screen time to Sicily – to the drama and warfare, the constant change and multiple civilisations that created the Sicily we know today. Or rather, that we don’t know. Seen largely as a mass of tourist clichés off mainland Italy, much of the ethnic and cultural differences emerging in its convoluted history are little known in popular culture.
Set out in winding displays, much of the exhibition focuses on two eras: the period of Greek rule, from 734 BC, and the Norman conquest, from 1091. A comprehensive timeline starts your journey, and it is followed almost chronologically, with focus given to the Phoenician, Islamic, North African, Roman and modern Renaissance Italian reigns bridging and superseding the two main eras. This gives it something of a dynamic element, skipping between conquests and treasures. Although not a large exhibition, it has the feel of exclusive knowledge and forgotten treasures that only cool, darkened corridors of museums can give you. To traverse it is delightful, moving from civilisation to conquest, guided by captions and quotes painted on the walls.
The feel is also that of a miniature treasure island. Exquisite Renaissance artwork has been brought in from Palermo; from Agrigento we have marble figurines and horses, and a wealth of sculptures, Phoenician and Greek, marble and terracotta. Mythology is given centre stage – Ceres, Dionysus, ode to the cult of Demeter and Persephone. The thematic mix of civilisations is pushed through even in the exhibited treasures, including the jewellery on display, which indicates the mesh of cultures within Sicily. Gold pendants containing garnets only readily available in India and Afghanistan show Greek influence in Asia.
Most striking are the sections from Norman thrones and the Byzantine chapel of Roger, set alongside beautifully preserved tapestries and mosaics. Sicily’s reputation as a gateway of knowledge is indicated in forgotten Greek texts by Plato which survived in Arabic, and details on coins depicting hunting dogs and sheaves of wheat are an insight into the preoccupations of everyday Sicilian life. Most enjoyable is the overarching message: that Sicily was a picture of globalisation and multiculturalism.
There’s a gentle realisation as you near the end that you’ve travelled through Greek, Islamic, Roman and Norman rule and seen each build on the previous theme. There’s a realisation that the country was a crossroads of civilisations for over 3000 years, the majority of which, as seen through rose tinted glasses of museum exhibitions, accepted religious and ethnic differences to create an ever-growing multicultural patchwork. You reach the end bathed in love for your neighbour and despondent that this is a system difficult to emulate in a modern day world which professes devotion to multicultural living and illusion of tolerance, amid increasing marginalisation of refugee and migrant communities. Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but despite expected religious tension and less mellow stories of Carthagian bloodshed on Roman soil, ancient Sicily’s unique tolerance and multiculturalism is beautifully encapsulated in the exhibit.
The Renaissance brought with it a reliance on Italian development and great deal of loss of identity for Sicily. There was a gradual loss of cultural distinction as the region increasingly looked to Europe for inspiration. Sicily’s intellectual contribution to Italy has, of course, continued, with many writers in particular originating from there, including Nobel winner Luigi Pirandello. The make-up and diversity of the population today reflects the successive invasions of different cultures and ethnic groups, yet it sadly now remains on the periphery of globalisation.
The exhibition ends with the illuminating rule of Frederick II, whose pursuit of truth based on science and reason rather than superstition was ground-breaking at the time. As his rule ended, so did much of the innovation and significant development of the previous millennia. And so, you are guided into a gift shop crowded with lemon shortbread and orange blossom aftershave, somewhat disappointed to end such a delightful journey through the rise of Sicily with what is once again a mass of tourist clichés.
The British Museum exhibition, Sicily: culture and conquest, continues until 14 August 2016.
Photo Credit: The Bodlein Libraries, University of Oxford
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