Following my recent trip to the British Museum to see their exhibiton on Egyptian underwater archaeology, yesterday I had another trip to see their second current exhibition, ‘Sicily: Culture and Conquest‘. This focuses on two periods of Sicily’s history: the period of Greek and Phoenician settlement on the island (from around the 8th century BCE to the Roman conquest in the 3rd century) and the period of Norman rule in the 11th and 12th centuries CE. The exhibition’s premise is that these two ostensibly quite different periods both feature particularly creative interactions between the many different cultures which made up the population of Sicily, whether between Greeks, Phoenicians, and native inhabitants, or between Normans, Greeks, and Arabs.I thought the section dealing with the Norman period illustrated these multicultural interactions particularly well, showing how the Christian, French-and-Latin-speaking Normans combined elements of their own culture with features of the Byzantine and Arab Muslim cultures they encountered on arriving in Sicily – so that cathedrals built by the Norman rulers, for instance, featured Byzantine-style mosaics and carved wooden ceilings produced by Arab craftspeople, while at lower levels of society the level of cross-cultural and cross-linguistic interaction was such that a Christian priest, setting up a tombstone for his mother Anna in Palermo in 1149, included four different versions of the inscription – Arabic, Juadeo-Arabic (written in Hebrew characters), Greek, and Latin. I particularly liked a display of coins, showing how the first Norman issues of coins followed the previous Arab designs so closely that they still included the Muslim shahada (profession of faith) on one sign – although with the words jumbled up since apparently whoever was producing the coins at that point couldn’t read Arabic. Incidentally, this is an excellent exhibition for linguists in particular – other exciting objects include the oldest surviving paper document from Europe, a letter written in Greek and Arabic by [or on behalf of] Adelasia, mother of King Roger II, in 1109, and a bilingual Latin/Greek inscription advertising a sign-carving workshop (which a colleague has already blogged about).
By contrast, I came away from the first half of the exhibiton feeling that it had given much more of a sense of how Greeks in Sicily expressed their Greekness than of how they interacted with other cultures on the island – there were plenty of very nice objects to see (especial favourite: the architectural elements from temples with coloured paint still preserved!), but by far the majority of the displays were focused largely or entirely on Greeks, including cases dealing with themes like the Sicilian Greeks’ interactions with Greece via the Olympic Games. I’d have liked to see more about the Phoenicians and the pre-Greek/Phoenician peoples (who got about one case each), and more examples of the cultural hybridity in art, architecture, etc, which was so well-illustrated by the Norman section. The transition between the two halves also felt pretty abrupt – a couple of cases to cover more than a thousand years and three different periods of Sicilian history (Roman, Byzantine, and Arab) – but that was fairly inevitable given the size of the exhibition (which is in the smaller exhibition space above the Reading Room): I’m sure the space could have easily been filled by an exhibition on just one of the two periods this one covered.
All that said, though, this was still a really excellent exhibition – probably one of the best I’ve seen at the BM lately – with some stunning objects on display, and I’d really encourage readers to go see it before it closes on August 14th. Or if you’ve already seen it, I’d very much like to hear your views in the comments!