For thousands of years, Sicily has been at the intersection of Europe; a nexus for peoples from every corner of the globe. The island’s rich natural resources, glorious climate and central Mediterranean location have long made it a target of foreign invasion: as a result, its identity is made up of a cultural hodgepodge. Sicily: Culture and Culture and Conquest excavates the islands pre-Italian identity – in fact, Sicily’s cultural connection with Italy is a comparatively recent development.
The Ancient Greeks feature heavily in this exhibition. They arrived in 735 BC, and brought their rich wisdom over with them. Sicily, with its fertile landscape and wild coastline, is understandably the setting of some of Ancient Greece’s most alluring myths. It was where the Cyclopes and cannibalistic Laestrygonians lived, not to mention the gruesome Medusa. We were thrilled to see a magnificent, wildly grinning Gorgon at the show, once perched top a South-Eastern Sicilian temple. We loved the Greek terracotta altar from 500 BC, topped with lions and a trifecta of fertility goddesses.
We tend to associate the Normans with muddy battlefields and drizzly northern France, but, as one of its two main focuses, this exhibition showcases Sicily’s eleventh-century flourishing under the Norman king Roger II, who ruled a Mediterranean superpower of Italian states from his court at Palermo. He oversaw a thriving culture of exchange between the Christian and Muslim worlds and on display is an early copy of the Tabula Rogeriana, a highly-accurate world map commissioned by the king in the 1130s from Muhammad al-Idrisi, the internationally pre-eminent geographer of the time. We also loved the quadrilingual tombstone, which highlights the period's multicultural spirit.
There is so much here to treasure: busts, enamelled panels, oil lamps used by Sicilian women in their clandestine, somewhat Sapphic-sounding worship of fertility goddess Demeter. The problem with this show is that the museum has made them hard to love. The exhibition design is drab: dark blue walls and stark white wall displays give the impression of wandering through an A-level history text book from the early 90s. The projected postcard photographs on the walls failed to give an adequate impression of Sicily’s landscape – which, in reality, is nothing short of sublime. And you can only peer down at so many glass cabinets without growing short-tempered. The museum need only look at the V&A’s outstanding new European galleries to see how innovative displays can make a collection sing.
Nevertheless, this is a fine, if deeply historical, look at a forgotten superpower. We know where we'll be spending our summer.
|What||The British Museum, Sicily: Culture and Conquest review|
|Where||British Museum, Great Russell St, London, WC1B 3DG | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Holborn (underground)|
21 Apr 16 – 14 Aug 16, Fri, till 20:30
|Price||£10.00, Members & children under 16 free|
|Website||Click here to book via the British Museum website|