Its name in Greek, Hebrew and Arabic means ‘middle sea’. The Romans knew it as the sea in ‘the middle of the land’, and it is from Latin that its modern name derives. Because, right up until the discovery of the Americas, the Mediterranean sea was the centre of the known world. And slap bang in the middle of the middle sea, at very centre of the world, was the island of Sicily.
Not only was it located at a crossroads between the trade routes that linked Europe, North Africa and the Orient, but Sicily’s rich, fertile soil and warm climate made it an incredibly productive food factory. And so it is not exactly surprising how highly sought after it was by a succession of different civilisations and empires through the ages, and how much of a strategically and economically important possession it became to each of them.
There are reminders throughout the British Museum’s Sicily: Culture & Conquest exhibition of the price that was paid by so many people each time the island changed hands, such as the Greek warrior’s helmet, the bronze battering ram once attached to the front of a Roman ship that sent scores of enemy sailors to watery graves, and the photograph of a recently uncovered line of skeletons, the remains of soldiers butchered at the battle of Himera in 480 B.C. Yet despite all the blood that was spilled over the millennia, and the violence that inevitably came with the booting out of one set of rulers by another, elements of the language, the art, the culture and the customs of each of the different peoples that came to Sicily – Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and more – would endure long after their last army had been defeated in battle. As the history of practically anywhere in the world that has been conquered several times demonstrates, no new culture ever fully succeeds in completely eradicating the old. But what this exhibition illustrates so clearly is that the multicultural, multilingual and multi-faith society that Sicily had become by the later middle ages – the island’s golden age – was quite unlike anywhere else in Europe.
Take the Normans, for instance, whose 200-year rule of Sicily forms the second of the exhibition’s two main sections. Decedents from Vikings who had settled in northern France, they are without doubt the most surprising of the island’s conquerers. In fact, it was they and they alone who succeeded in creating a single, independent state of Sicily. While William, Duke of Normandy was busy invading England – Hastings, the Domesday Book, and all that – an army under the command of Richard and Roger de Hauteville, two brothers from a minor noble family, spent more than thirty years desperately wrestling control of the island from its Arab masters. The former emirate became a Christian kingdom in 1130 when Roger’s son, Count Roger II, was proclaimed King Roger II of Sicily by the Pope. Yet the inscription on his red and gold robe – one of the most beautiful of all the items in this exhibition – is in Arabic, and records the year of his coronation as 528 in the Islamic calendar. The Tabula Rogeriana (or ‘book of Roger’), meanwhile, the finest collection of maps in the world at the time, was made for Roger II by Arab cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi (who amusingly describes Britain as having ‘brave, active and enterprising‘ inhabitants, but being ‘set in the Sea of Darkness‘ and ‘in the grip of perpetual winter‘). And the king’s magnificent palace and adjoining chapel were decorated in a glorious fusion of Islamic, Byzantine and Classical styles. Roger II did not just tolerate a multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-faith society, but enthusiastically embraced it. Among his courtiers, and among the artists and architects he employed, were Muslims, Jews, Catholics and Orthodox Christians. And all this while Crusading armies were waging war some twelve-hundred miles to the east, and the mother of all conflicts between the Christian and Islamic worlds played out in the holy land.
There is perhaps no better encapsulation of this remarkable cultural melting pot in a single object than a tombstone crowned with mosaics and coloured stones that contains inscriptions in no less than four languages (Latin, Greek, Arabic and Judeo-Arabic), while the date of the person’s death is recorded in four different calendars. And it is apt that the oldest surviving paper document in Europe – a deed written by Roger II’s mother in 1109 – is written in both Greek and Arabic, since paper was an Arab import which at that time had yet to reach the rest of the continent.
Pieces of wooden ceiling decoration and fragments of mosaics clearly don’t look as dazzling in an exhibition space as they do on the walls and ceilings of King Roger’s grand buildings. But they illustrate perfectly how different artistic styles and traditions, far from unconsciously or subtly seeping into their work, were mixed together by Sicilian artists in a clearly very deliberate, almost celebratory fashion. I came away with the feeling that, if I were an artist, sculptor or architect in the later middle ages, King Roger II of Sicily is the the kind of patron I would have wanted. And while his colourful and cosmopolitan court marks a high water mark for Sicilian art, the exhibition’s preceding sections demonstrate that Sicily had been a cultural melting pot long before even north African Arabs had landed on its shores.
The oldest artefacts in the exhibition are some four-thousand years old, relics from the mysterious early settlers of Sicily. The huge limestone slab, probably used as a tombstone, is a highlight, with lines and spirals that some have suggested symbolise the sexual act, and others the cycle of life and death. The first great civilization to settle in Sicily, and the first to incorporate it into a trade network that spanned the entire Mediterranean, were the great seafarers the Phoenicians. But barely had they set foot on Sicily and began establishing trading posts on its western shores, and they were clashing with early Greek settlers, whose influence on the island would be far more permanent.
It is Greek Sicily that comprises most of the first half of the exhibition. Like the rest of ancient Greece, Sicily was neither part of a single state nor a state in its own right, but instead comprised a series of autonomous city states. The power and wealth of their rulers, known as tyrants, was reflected in the magnificent palaces and temples that they built. The enormous photograph of the temple of Concordia in Akgragas (modern-day Agrigento), one of the best preserved ancient Greek temples, and the beautiful landscape that surrounds it, that covers an entire wall of the exhibition, was almost enough to make me book a flight to Sicily right there and then! Syracuse, meanwhile, became a seat of learning and culture that rivalled Athens, and was home to the legendary mathematician Archimedes.
A great number of the objects in this section, such as the magnificent horse’s head with its bulging veins and sparkling eyes and the wonderful altarpiece showing a lion wrestling a bear, are instantly recognisable as having come from ancient Greece. Many others, however, while still recognisably Greek, have something a little bit different about them. The tomb, for example, complete with columns and pediment, looking like a miniature model of a Greek temple, is one of several that have been found in Sicily, but nowhere else in ancient Greece. While the ceiling decoration depicting a grinning Medusa, with mischievous eyes and tongue sticking out, looked at first glance simply too quirky to have been made by the ancient Greeks, reminding me of a gargoyle in a medieval gothic church. It seems that in Sicily, artists, sculptors and architects possessed a certain flair and eagerness to experiment that would endure for many more centuries to come.
If Greek Sicily created art that was not quite typical of Greek art, then Roman Sicily certainly did not end up as a typical Roman colony. By the middle of the third century B.C., the power of the tyrants had waned, and Sicily become the first province of the infant Roman empire. And despite it being less than three hundred miles from Rome, and directly governed by it for more than six hundred years, Sicily retained a distinctly Greek culture throughout. Indeed, the Greek language was still widely spoken as late as the reign of King Roger II, one and a half millennia after the Romans arrived. The spelling and grammar errors made in both Greek and Latin by an engraver on a small stone tablet advertising his services suggest that while neither was his first language, they were the languages spoken by the kind of wealthy clientele whose business he wanted.
It is perhaps understandable, given Sicily’s complex chronology, that the timeline of the exhibition is a little stop-start. The Carthaginians, the Goths, and the Vandals are all briefly mentioned, but not explored in any detail. Indeed, with the story of Sicily coming to a somewhat abrupt end with the start of the Italian Renaissance, I was left a little disappointed that several fascinating chapters of Sicily’s later history were neglected. But the exhibition justifies the exclusion of this period by pointing out that, once it started getting absorbed into various European states and empires (the Kingdom of Aragon, the Spanish Empire, the Duchy of Savoy and eventually modern Italy), Sicily began to lose its distinct cultural and artistic identity, and it is this distinctiveness that underpins the whole narrative, and that the objects in the exhibition bare testimony to. The fact that the painter Antonello da Messina, whose painting of the Madonna and Child comes right at the very end of the exhibition, was born in Sicily but made his name in Naples and then Venice – introducing oil painting to Italy in the process – serves as a symbol of this shift of importance away from Sicily to the Italian mainland.
You know an exhibition is a good exhibition when it leaves you wanting more, and I certainly felt that way by the time I reached Messina’s painting. But I could not help feeling that this one could have been a little longer, and had a more even, linear chronology. But perhaps I am missing the point. For Sicilian history is anything but neat and tidy.
Sicily: Culture & Conquest runs at the British Museum until 14th August 2016. Tickets cost £10 and can be booked here.