Friday, April 22, 2016

'Sicily: Culture and Conquest' at British Museum explores 4000 yrs of multicultural history

The Sicily: Culture and Conquest exhibition, which opened yesterday at the British Museum and runs until 14 August, is the first major exhibition in the UK to explore more than 4000 years of history of the largest island in the Mediterranean. The show, sponsored by Julius Baer, brings together more than 200 objects, many of which have never been displayed outside Sicily. They reveal the richness of Sicily's architectural, archaeological and artistic heritage, shaped by numerous peoples and cultures.

 a double-page map of Sicily from A copy of Muhammad al-Idrisi's Kitab nuzhat al-mushtaq c 1300-1500 AD © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

"We want to show a Sicily that is different from the stereotypes that people have" said co-curator Dirk Booms at the press view of the exhibition on Tuesday. "Sicily is not just beaches, lemons, oranges, sunshine and Mafia -  it's much more, and we want to show that unknown history to a much larger public."  Booms is a British Museum curator of Roman archaeology; his co-curator Peter Higgs is from the museum's Department of Greece and Rome

Terracotta altar with three women, and a panther mauling a bull. Gela, Sicily, c 500BC ©Regione Siciliana

The exhibition is an eye-opener, illuminating the fascinating history of Sicily and its character as a multicultural society where different cultures and styles fused intriguingly. Over a period of four millennia Sicily was the target of waves of conquest and settlement by different peoples. From the 8th century BC, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans settled or invaded the island. They were lured by Sicily's strategic position and its fertile volcanic soils bestowed by Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe and one of the world's most active volcanoes. Over time, this series of conquests forged a unique cultural identity and made Sicily a cultural centre of the ancient and medieval worlds.

 ceramic dinos with triskelion, fired clay, c.650-600 BC ©Regione Siciliana

Sicily: Culture and Conquest highlights two key eras in Sicily's history. The first began with the arrival of the Greeks from the latter half of the 7th century BC and their encounters with earlier settlers and the Phoenicians. The second is the extraordinary period of enlightenment in the Middle Ages under Norman rule, between about AD 1100 and 1250. The exhibition also includes a small bridging section between these two periods.

The Greek Era

When the Greeks made their first official colony at Naxos on the east coast of Sicily in about 735 BC they imported new ideas and forged cultural and trading links with earlier indigenous settlers. At the press view Peter Higgs said: "There's this old-fashioned view that the Greeks went around civilising everybody and everyone was Barbarians before that, and most people that said that in antiquity were Greeks themselves. But we wanted to start the exhibition with a very small section about prehistoric Sicily and the wonderful sophisticated cultures that archaeologists have been turning up over the last 100 years or so." Such discoveries show that before the Greeks and the Phoenicians arrived on the island "there were thriving communities, hierarchies were taking place, the island was really the hub of the trade network of the Mediterranean from very early periods".

The Phoenicians set up trading colonies in western Sicily from the 9th century BC, and from the eighth century BC the Greeks arrived from different towns, city states and kingdoms all over the Greek world. They set up individual isolated communities on the island which then interacted with the Phoenicians and the people that were there earlier. "The Greeks though started to establish a different political system and one of the most famous systems of government was the Tyrants of Sicily who became notorious, particularly in Roman and later traditions, as being amongst the most cruel of all the Greek rulers in the Mediterranean," Higgs noted.
terracotta roof ornament with head of a gorgon, Gela, Sicily, c500 BC ©Regione Siciliana

"Luckily, they don't show much of this cruelty on their objects: alongside some of these alleged terror incidents they built great temples, some of the largest Greek-style temples anywhere in the Mediterranean. They didn't have their own marble source, they didn't have metal sources, so that any marble, gold or silver that came onto the island was extremely important. But what they did is decorate some of their wonderful temples with terracotta architectural sculptures which soften those harsh lines that you see on those wonderful stone buildings on the island today.

"They were famous, these Tyrants, for taking part in the Olympic and Pythian Games on a world stage where they could show in equestrian events, particularly the daredevil chariot racing in which they themselves they didn't drive the chariots -  they got someone else to do that - but they took all the glory and set up monuments in the mainland of Greece and also back home in Sicily."

The poet Pindar was commissioned to write victory odes for the Tyrants, "so they go down in different ways in history. But they created these extremely cultural courts, very rich, very vibrant, attracting famous names like Sappho, Pindar, Aeschylus, Plato, and it was the birthplace of Archimedes the famous mathematician and scientist. And it's this richness that attracted different people over time to come to Sicily. Some invaders, the Carthaginians had their eye on it, the Athenians tried to invade - but most unsuccessfully- in the 5th century BC.

 marble statue of warrior, Akragas, Sicily, c 470 BC ©Regione Siciliana

"By the 3rd century BC Syracuse became the most important Greek city on the island and Hieron II the Tyrant there was the first Tyrant to have his image on coins - Sicilian coins, fortunately for all those visitors to museums, are among the biggest and best of all ancient Mediterranean coins. He became very wealthy and set out a huge boat around the Mediterranean designed by Archimedes that was going to take the Sicilian treasures - all the wonderful riches and the textiles and agricultural produce - around the world to show off, but the only port that could take it was Alexandria, so he had a very good relationship with the Ptolemaic rulers there. And finally of course Sicily attracted the attention of the next great superpower, and that was to be Rome, and the Carthaginians and some of the Greeks united against this new threat."

gold libation bowl decorated with six bulls, Sant'Angelo Muxaro c 600 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum

Dirk Booms added that " in the 3rd century BC no one was safe anymore from the Romans who were becoming this new Mediterranean superpower. After having conquered the rest of Italy after their own region around Rome what better than to go immediately to your direct neighbours - which were of course in Sicily at just that tip of the foot of Italy." In the exhibition "we show that moment of conquest, - we are very fortunate because Rome won a decisive battle on 10 March 241 BC and conquered, slaughtered,  the Carthaginian fleet by the Egadi islands off the west coast of Sicily. And we show that in this one bronze battering ram that was put on the prow of a ship to sink your enemy ships, and this particular one is actually from that battle. It's an important object that symbolises that moment.

bronze rostrum (battering ram) and detail from Roman warship from the seabed near Levanzo, c 240 BC
©Regione Siciliana

"The rest of the section that bridges our Greek and Norman periods tells the same story over and over again - we have Romans, we have Vandals and Goths, we have Byzantines, we have Arabs. Sicily keeps its richness because it's still fertile and there are still people working the land  but it is ruled by the debauched elite on the island and by foreign powers outside - the Emperor in Rome, the Emperor in Constantinople, the Caliph in Egypt -and they don't care about the island as long as that richness keeps coming. So there is very little drive for innovation, little drive for art, and that's why this section is deliberately, and naturally, poorly represented in the records."

The Norman Period 

The Normans were the Christian descendants of Vikings that settled in France "and then there were just too many of them. So they start moving elsewhere: in 1066 they came here. Before that they had gone to Italy and  from around the year 1000  they start dominating the south of Italy. And again it's just one logical step from there to the island of Sicily, which was at that point in turmoil because the ruling Arab dynasties were battling each other. The Normans took that moment of opportunity to conquer, and in just 30 years the entire island was theirs," Booms said. 

Very quickly Roger I and his son Roger II - who  figures prominently in Sicily: Culture and Conquest -  "realised that in order to make his kingdom work he should not marginalise the other peoples on this island but should include them in society. Of course he was thinking that because  80 per cent of the population was still Muslim," Booms said. "And so we see a deliberate policy of Roger to incorporate elements from the big kingdoms around him - who also happened to be the people inhabiting his island - including them in  in art, in architecture, in daily life, in society."

In his prestige architectural project all these influences can be seen. "Fatimid craftsmen from North Africa built the woodwork, the wooden ceilings of his churches, of his palaces. Italian craftsmen working in the tradition of the Roman Empire have all the inlaid marble for their walls. And he had Byzantine mosaicists from Constantinople come to lay all those golden mosaics you can still admire today in Monreale, in Palermo, in Messina. It's a deliberate policy."

 Quadrilingual tombstone in 4 languages , marble, Palermo 1149 AD ©Regione Siciliana

One  object that highlights the period is a quadrilingual tombstone in four languages - Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, Greek, and Latin - which "really shows Roger's policy of including all the peoples on his island, not just Latin-speaking Christians but Greek-speaking Orthodox Byzantines and Arabic-speaking Arabs and Muslim,  Berbers were there as well, but also the Jewish community, barely recorded in the archaeological record but still on this tombstone in the Judeo-Arabic dialect that they spoke."

"The exhibition shows Roger's  interest in sciences, in new techniques coming ino the land, and the exhibition finishes with the legacy of both the Romans and Frederick II. Frederick II maybe more than Roger on the world scale was an enlightened ruler in the Middle Ages because as well as being grandson of Roger II he was  the grandson of Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor, making him basically ruler of most of France, Germany, Italy and Sicily. He also became King of Jerusalem; he went on a crusade, the only peacefully negotiated surrender of Jerusalem was that of Frederick II."

 marble bust of Frederick II, Italy, 1220-50 AD ©Deutsches Archaologisches Institut, Rome

"But his story was more than just Sicily - he was rarely ever there - his Kingdom, his Empire, is much bigger. And so we finish with his period because it's still a splendorous period on Sicily but it's just a continuation of what  the Normans already did before him," Booms said. "Unfortunately at his death the Pope sees it as his time to finally get his hands on Sicily, something he had tried to do for centuries, and there was no heir of Frederick that could hold onto the island."

 lid of a casket with peacock decoration, Enamel, gold, copper, probably Sicily, c1250-1300 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Culturally, this is a cyclical event. "We go back to what happened in the Roman period,  the Byzantine and Arab period, it's ruled from afar, firstly the French, then the Spanish,  different Spanish dynasties -  the Habsburgs, the Bourbons - and the people become again impoverished, illiterate, and that's also how they were meant to feel by these rulers from far away," Booms said.

"But that didn't prevent the island from still being full of amazing artists, artistic styles and architecture, following European trends rather than leading them. We show that by ending with a painting by Antonello da Messina, perhaps the most important painter of the Renaissance, born on Sicily. He moves away to train elsewhere but goes back to Sicily."

 Salting Madonna by Antonello da Messina c 1460s
© National Gallery, London

Arab-Norman Palermo a World Heritage Site

In 2015 UNESCO elected  nine civil and religious buildings in Arab-Norman Palermo as a World Heritage Site. Located on the northern coast of Sicily, the buildings comprise two palaces, three churches, a cathedral and a bridge, as well as the cathedrals of CefalĂș and Monreale. UNESCO said: "Collectively, they are an example of a social-cultural syncretism between Western, Islamic and Byzantine cultures on the island which gave rise to new concepts of space, structure and decoration. They also bear testimony to the fruitful coexistence of people of different origins and religions (Muslim, Byzantine, Latin, Jewish, Lombard and French)."
Monreale Cathedral © CRICD

Sicily: Culture and Conquest includes objects loaned from some of these  nine buildings. They include a 12th century Byzantine-style mosaic showing the Virgin as Advocate for the Human Race, originally from Palermo Cathedral and held at the Museo Diocesano di Palermo. 

12th century Byzantine-style mosaic  c 1130-1180 AD (on display only from 14 June)

The British Museum is holding a programme of events to complement the exhibition. There is a Music of Sicily concert on 20 May, and on 20 June the Channel Four news presenter Jon Snow chairs a discussion, Crossing borders: European Migration Throughout History. On 22 July there is Sicilian Splendour, described by the Museum as "a free, multisensory evening celebrating the soul of Sicily, past and present - including music, drama, workshops and poetry performances." Sicilian food and drink will be on sale, and the evening includes a wine tasting and a flower mosaic workshop.

Three evening lectures will be held: John Julius Norwich on The Normans in Sicily, on 29 April; author Helena Attleee on Sicily: The Land Where Lemons Grow, on 6 May, and on 24 June Michael Scott of Warwick University talks on Sicily: A Force to be Reckoned With in the Ancient World. 

There is also a series of lunchtime lectures and talks, which are free but for which booking is essential. The curators of Sicily: Culture and Conquest  Dirk Booms and Peter Higgs give a 45-minute illustrated introduction to the exhibition at 13.30 on 28 April, 26 May, 11 June and 15 July.

Other lunchtime lectures and talks are on Athens' Sicilian Adventure (12 May); The Greeks in southern Italy and Sicily (27 May); Multicultural Sicily (3 June); Greeks in Sicily (4 June); Sicilian coins and their stories (14 June); Multiculturalism in Norman and Hohenstaufen Sicily (16 June); An Archaeological detective story in early Byzantine Sicily (27 June); Storms, war and shipwrecks: treasures from the Sicilian seas (8 July); and Sicily under Muslim Rule (14 July).

The exhibition is also accompanied by a season of films, presented in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute: The Leopard (21 May); Cinema Paradiso (27 May); A Bigger Splash (4 June), and Nuovomondo (28 July). 
report by Susannah Tarbush, London 

gilded falcon, bronze, traces of gold, Sicily or southern Italy 1200-1220 AD
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art


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