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
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|
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|