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.