Exhibition Reviews: Sicily – Culture and Conquest

Usually the British Museum puts on exhibitions with punchy titles –  ‘Vikings,’ ‘Celts’,  ‘Aztecs’ etc. so when I first heard about this exhibition I was happily surprised. Most people probably only know of Sicily from the rhyme ‘Big boot Italy kicked little Sicily right into the middle of the Mediterranean sea.’ Sicily however has been fairly high on my travel bucket-list ever since I saw pictures of the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo where the skeletons of the dead are placed in niches and the atmospheric conditions mean their clothing has survived, resulting in the pictures of the site being incredibly eerie.

12th century tombstone from Palermo

So why pay to see an exhibition on a “minor” European island off Italy when it’s not a BM blockbuster exhibition? If you’re interested in the Greeks, Romans, Byzantium or the Islamic world – this exhibition has a little bit of everything. The island’s position in the middle of the Mediterranean meant it was effectively a melting pot of cultures and religions over time. The tombstone above encapsulates the “multiculturalism” or syncretism of cultures that occurred with Greek, Latin, Arabic and Judeo-Arabic all crammed in on the one headstone.

Terracotta antefix in the form of a Gorgon from Gela, Sicily

And Sicily’s Greek and Roman artefacts are definitely not those of a cultural backwater as is often the case of Romano-British art with compared to that in Rome. This gorgon roof decoration (effectively a drain-pipe cover) shows the high quality (and in this case hilarity) of some of the artefacts. They really don’t make them like they used to.

Perhaps somewhat awkwardly my favourite exhibit wasn’t even an original but a replica. But then perhaps removing an intricately carved geometric masterpiece that happens to be the original Byzantine roof of Palermo’s Palatine chapel was a bit of a tall order! And this was what made the exhibition so enjoyable – one that didn’t just look at one historical group but the whole history of a place, with its changes in artistic style from rock carvings to classical sculpture, shimmering medieval mosaics and Renaissance paintings that are what make history, archaeology and travel so interesting. And it looks like this exhibition nudged Sicily further up that bucket-list!

Actual ceiling of Palermo’s Palatine Chapel

I’d advise heading to this exhibition on a weekday if possible because a lot of the exhibits are crammed in corners meaning seeing the artefacts in detail can be a bit of a battle at the weekend, but the fact people were fighting to see the exhibits is a testament to their interest.

Rating: 4.5/5

P.S. – the British Museum has another seemingly interesting exhibition coming up about underwater cities with an interesting article in the Telegraph over the weekend: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/what-to-see/sunken-cities-the-man-who-found-atlantis/ Thonis Heracleon, pharaohs called Nectanebo I – I want to know more.




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