Sicily culture and conquest – exhibition at the British Museum

Sicily fills the mind with vivid images: Al Pacino on a dusty hillside, shotgun over his shoulder, in “The Godfather”, or Burt Lancaster, “The Leopard” himself, pronouncing “Everything must change so that everything can stay the same.” But things have never stayed the same in Sicily, as a new exhibition at the British Museum shows. “Sicily: Culture and Conquest”, one of the legacies of Neil MacGregor, the former director, looks beyond Sicily’s recent tribulations to the many reinventions of an island that has been part of every important civilisation of the Mediterranean.

The journey begins with the vibrant pre-Greek cultures, notably the Phoenicians, who also founded Carthage. Their craftsmanship is evident in a delicate beaten-gold bowl (600BC) decorated with six slender bullocks, identical down to their minuscule ribs. Onwards through Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans to the polymathic Hohenstaufen King Frederick II, known as stupor mundi, the wonder of the world, during whose reign (1198-1250) sonnets were first written.

This exhibition focuses almost exclusively on the two periods of the richest material culture, the Greek (700-250BC) and the brief but astoundingly productive Norman (1061-1189AD). The legacies of both are largely architectural, posing a challenge to any curator, but this exhibition does a superb job of evoking Sicilian buildings and the landscape itself. Visitors enter a deep-blue space, with ceiling-high photographs of Etna smoking and the perfect Greek temples at Agrigento and Segesta. Given a context, fragments of statues regain some of their former grandeur.

But it is the Norman period that is the glory of Sicily, and of this show. Roger II (1112-54) ruled a court where Norman, Byzantine and Arab cultures found a unique hybrid expression in art and architecture. Greek marble gives way to the intricately decorated interiors of Arab-Norman palaces, where Byzantine mosaics (pictured) are juxtaposed with carved wooden ceilings. In 2015 nine Arab-Norman buildings in Palermo were designated Sicily’s seventh UNESCO world-heritage site.

On display is a coin that is the earliest example in Europe of recording a year in Arabic numerals. Stamped with the figure of Christ Pantocrator, it is dedicated in Arabic to Roger and dated 533 by the Islamic calendar (1138). There is also the oldest surviving paper document in Europe, an injunction in Arabic and Greek from a Norman Catholic queen to Muslim guards-men, to protect a Greek-rite monastery.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Roger’s court is an atlas of the world created by an Arab scholar-geographer, Muhammad al-Idrisi. No originals survive, but two of the oldest copies are on show. Sadly, the maps, the greatest empirical project of the age, are poorly displayed. The two pages shown do not convey the significance of the complete work. A quick search online yields a montage of the 70 double-page spreads of the original as a single, astonishingly accurate view of the globe. There was wall-space enough for views of Etna—so why not for this?

The gaps in the narrative reflect the island’s history. Roman Sicily was too pre-occupied with producing grain for the empire (or rebelling against it) to make many beautiful things. The one big Roman exhibit—a thrillingly spiky battering-ram from the decisive naval defeat of Carthage in 241BC—is followed by nothing much until some Byzantine jewellery of 500-700AD. This 1,000-year gap is oddly unexplained, as if the curators, who have chosen their exhibits well, were afraid of overwhelming visitors with information.

The past 600 years that have shaped modern Sicily are also glossed over, so this is not an exhibition of evolution but of transience, of even the greatest cultures and conquerors. Everything changes. But there is continuity too. Ultimately the show demonstrates the creative potential of encounters between cultures. And it keeps one eye on current affairs. Running alongside are events about Sicilian music, cinema and food, as well as a debate on European migration through history. As the Mediterranean struggles to decide how to share its future, understanding its shared history is more important than ever.

Sicily: culture and conquest continues at the British Museum until 14 August 2016.

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New Book: Greek Fire and its contribution to Byzantine might

greek fire

We have all heard of Greek Fire. We know of the contribution that it made to certain naval victories for the Byzantines, wreaking terrible destruction on those on the receiving end. Little however is known about the weapon. How was it made? When and where was it best deployed?

In his new book, Konstantinos Karatolios explore these ideas and brings together all the ideas and research in one short and fascinating book: Greek Fire: and its contribution to Byzantine might: Volume 1 (History)

The wonder of the thousand-year Byzantine Empire could not have been achieved without its armed forces, allowing it to maintain its power in the face of constant challenges from external enemies that differed significantly in their nature. In this context, what had been inherited from the Romans was just as important as the adoption of new weapons and tactics in battle.

“Greek fire”, if not the most important of these weapons, was certainly the one that achieved the greatest fame. It was used throughout the course of the Byzantine Empire and granted resounding victories to its navy. This terrifying weapon was legendary, yet almost all we know about it and its use is clouded by the vagueness of contemporary accounts.

In this work Konstantinos Karatolios attempts to answer a number of questions concerning Greek Fire: What was the formula? How effective was it? Who was its true inventor? How was it used in battles on land and at sea? This book aims not only  to provide an overview of the current state of research that can be easily read by non-specialists, but also to make is own  contribution to the study of the subject, respecting academic research methods.

Buy Greek Fire: and its contribution to Byzantine might: Volume 1 (History)

Konstantinos Karatolios was born in Athens, Greece, in 1982. He holds a postgraduate degree in Byzantine Studies at the Department of History and Archaeology at the University of Crete (with a scholarship from the State Scholarships Foundation of Greece). He is also a graduate of the Department of Primary Education at the University of Crete and the Department of Social Anthropology and History at the University of the Aegean. Ηe is the author of three books so far. His latest “Byzantine Imperial Ideology. Mirrors of Princes of the Middle Byzantine Period” was just published in Greek. His book “Greek Fire and its Contribution to the Byzantine Might” is the first to be translated in English. He is also a regular contributor to Greek and international History magazines and websites.

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Monks’ Secret: Asbestos Lurking Beneath Byzantine Wall Paintings

The researchers analyzed some of the paintings on site using various techniques, including infrared, ultraviolet and X-ray fluorescence imaging. Here, UCLA archaeologist Ioanna Kakoulli examines a painting in the monastery under UV light. Credit: Ioanna Kakoulli, UCLA

The researchers analyzed some of the paintings on site using various techniques, including infrared, ultraviolet and X-ray fluorescence imaging. Here, UCLA archaeologist Ioanna Kakoulli examines a painting in the monastery under UV light.
Credit: Ioanna Kakoulli, UCLA

Hundreds of years before asbestos became ubiquitous in the construction industry, Byzantine monks used the fibrous material in plaster coatings underlying their wall paintings during the late 1100s, new research shows.

By Joseph Castro

First published in Live Science, April 2014.

Asbestos is a type of natural, rock-forming mineral known for its ability to separate into long, flexible fibers. It has long been thought that asbestos fibers, which are corrosion- and combustion-resistant, were first integrated into such things as plaster, finish coatings and floors after the Industrial Revolution.

But while investigating the 12th-century paintings in the Byzantine monastery Enkleistra of St. Neophytos in Cyprus, UCLA researchers discovered the magnesium silicate mineral, chrysotile (white asbestos), in the finish coating of the plaster underneath a portion of a wall painting. The chrysotile provided a smooth layer with a mirrorlike surface for the painting.

“[The monks] probably wanted to give more shine and different properties to this layer,” said UCLA archaeological scientist Ioanna Kakoulli, lead author of the new study, published online last month in the Journal of Archaeological Science. “It definitely wasn’t a casual decision — they must have understood the properties of the material.”

Though all six asbestos minerals are now known to be carcinogenic, people have taken advantage of the fibrous materials’ unique properties for millennia. About 4,500 years ago, artisans mixed asbestos minerals with clay to produce stronger pottery. And 2,000 years ago, asbestos fibers were woven into textiles to make fireproof napkins (that were “washed” by tossing them into fire), or to make a special fabric that could separate human ashes from funeral pyre material during cremations, Kakoulli said. “It was considered to have magical powers,” she told Live Science.

In the late 19th century, people used asbestos in industrial products — including cements, wall plasters, joint (drywall) compounds, fire-retardant coatings and roofing, among other things — to increase their durability, insulation and weathering protection.

Given this history, Kakoulli and her colleagues weren’t expecting to find asbestos on the walls of Enkleistra of St. Neophytos. They initially set out to see if there was any change in the materials used to create the monastery’s numerous wall paintings over time.

“We wanted to see how the technological part of making these paintings follows or reveals anything of what we see in their iconography and style,” Kakoulli said.

The researchers analyzed some of the paintings on site using various techniques, including infrared, ultraviolet and X-ray fluorescence imaging. They also collected micro-samples of the paintings and further analyzed their molecular and elemental makeup with powerful scanning electron microscopes and other methods.

One of the paintings they inspected depicted the “Enthroned Christ” holding a book with a red frame. When they analyzed the red frame, they found an asbestos-rich layer that was applied as a finish coating between a red paint layer and a plaster layer made up mostly of plant fibers. “So far, we’ve only found it in relation to those red pigments,” Kakoulli said.

They found an asbestos-rich layer in the painting “Enthroned Christ,” which would’ve been applied as a finish coating between a red paint layer and a plaster layer made up mostly of plant fibers.They found an asbestos-rich layer in the painting “Enthroned Christ,” which would’ve been applied as a finish coating between a red paint layer and a plaster layer made up mostly of plant fibers.

Interestingly, the main deposits of asbestos in Cyprus come from a high-elevation area approximately 38 miles (60 km) from the monastery, which is near the coast. This location suggests the monks may have been involved in a kind of interregional trade for the asbestos.

The discovery raises many questions, such as why the asbestos was used in this context (and only for the red frame in the painting). It’s also curious why the fibrous material apparently wasn’t used again in coatings until the 19th century.

The scientists are now searching for answers. They plan to return to Cyprus to characterize more of the paintings at Enkleistra of St. Neophytos. Kakoulli also hopes to revisit other wall paintings she’s previously studied in Cyprus, to see if they also contained asbestos.

“I have a feeling that it’s something that can be easily missed,” Kakoulli said. “This was quite an accidental discovery.”

See more images here.

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Early Music America Reviews Good Friday in Jerusalem

Good Friday In Jerusalem: Medieval Byzantine Chant from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Donald Rosenberg reviews Capella Romana’s Good Friday In Jerusalem recording in Early Music America Magazine.

Here Cappella Romana travels back to the roots of Byzantine chant to recreate a Good Friday service through the music of the 8th and 9th centuries. The recording shot to the top of Amazon and Billboard charts when released, and it takes only a few seconds to understand why listeners have been mesmerized. From the moment the ensemble’s cavernous basses intone drones that anchor extended, contemplative chants, you won’t be able to tear yourself away from your speakers or earbuds. … The disc, the ensemble’s 20th, was recorded in Stanford University’s Memorial Church, a space of subtle resonance that allows the music to float on a halo of sound without ever becoming hazy. The singers of Cappella Romana…sustain the long phrases with remarkable finesse and breath control, including those intrepid basses, who appear to possess endless reserves of air. Along with tonal beauty, the ensemble brings utmost clarity to texts that inspired music of ecstatic and penetrating splendor. The soloists, the Greek-born Stelios Kontakiotis and Portland native John Michael Boyer, are eloquent champions of chant.” —Donald Rosenberg, Early Music America

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Exhibition of monoprint photographs based on Byzantine structures

Wonderful to be contacted by Joelle Imamoglu about an upcoming exhibition of monoprint photographs based on Byzantine structures to be held at Khas Gallery, Istanbul, between January 7th and March 4th. The photographer is Erhun Serbetci, the exhibition is curated by Prof. Hasan Bulent Kahraman and a 52-page booklet including an essay by the curator accompanies the exhibition.

The address is:

Khas Galeri
Kadir Has University
Kadir Has Caddesi Cibali, İstanbul 34083
Tel: +90 (212) 533 65 32

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When Brothers Dwell in Unity: Byzantine Christianity and Homosexuality

This book was brought to my attention recently and I thought that it deserved to be shared with a wider audience. Same sex relationships are not an area that I feel at all confident commenting on, but what we all do know is the importance of them in Greek and Byzantine society, with many emperors having openly gay relationships.

“When Brothers Dwell in Unity”: Byzantine Christianity and Homosexuality was witten by Stephen Morris and published by McFarland. Reviews have been positive

“I found the book refreshing and courageous. It puts the status of homosexuality within the Byzantine tradition carefully in context. A sound piece of historical writing. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down. Morris engages the topic with objectivity, courage and grace. Fearless in dealing with sensitive subjects, its pastoral conclusions are insightful and helpful for discussion of the subject within all Christian churches, not just Orthodox Christianity.” —Wendy Mayer, Australian Catholic University

“Advocacy, autobiography, and scholarship combine in this a fascinating study of homoeroticism in the Byzantine and Orthodox worlds. Morris also sheds welcome further light on the adelphopoiesis or “brother-making” same-sex unions in premodern Europe.” — Mathew Kuefler, author of The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity

“Original and significant… [Morris argues] that the Orthodox Church can recognize the adelphopoiesis rite known from Byzantine times as a recognition of same-sex civil marriage and supports [his] argument convincingly throughout the book by drawing on the parallel of ecclesiastical recognition for second and third marriages, with historical antecedents that reach back to the 9th century.” — Claudia Rapp, Professor of Byzantine Studies (University of Vienna); author of Brother-Making in Late Antiquity: Monks, Laymen and Christian Ritual (Oxford, 2016)

You can buy the book on Amazon UK here: “When Brothers Dwell in Unity”: Byzantine Christianity and Homosexuality

Further information on the author, Stephen Morris’ website and the McFarland site.

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Power couples and princesses in purple: coinage of Byzantine empresses

In the Byzantine empire power was technically vested in the emperor. Nevertheless, a number of empresses played an important part in government and even took control… Most commonly empresses came to power as regents for young sons, implying a fixed period of caretaker government until the young emperor came of age, usually at sixteen. But not all regents were ready to step aside… Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses 1999.

Like most traditional societies, the Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) Empire (491-1453 AD) was a man’s world. Elite women were generally expected to bear children, weave, sew, and remain modestly secluded at home. Some imperial women, however, rose to political power and some issued coins, either in their own names or with partners. A peculiarity of Byzantine history is that the same few female personal names occur repeatedly, while family names did not come into general use until after the ninth century, so when we say “Theodora” or “Eudokia” we must often add “wife of…” or “mother of…” to avoid confusion.

Many of these coins are highly collectible and in strong demand from growing numbers of collectors[1]. This article takes a closer look at these remarkable women and their coins.

By Mike Markowitz.

First published in Coinweek.

Read more here.

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