A tombstone in four languages, Marble, Palermo, Sicily, 1149 AD. Soprintendenza di Palermo © Regione Siciliana, image co. British Museum, London.

David Franchi – Thursday, 1st September 2016

Sicily was presented with an interesting exhibition by The British Museum, London.

Last April, The British Museum opened in London the first exhibition in the UK spanning over the 4000 years of history of the island of Sicily.

“Sicily: culture and conquest” approached differently the exciting history of the biggest Mediterranean island, which nowadays is part of the Italian territory.

Sicily has always played an essential role in the Mediterranean area. The exhibition “Sicily: culture and conquest” focused on two extraordinary periods in the island history when its culture, political importance and military ability could challenge those of the other Mediterranean dominant populations.

Over 200 objects were brought together to London to disclose the richness of the architectural, archaeological and artistic legacies of Sicily, including many coming to the UK for the very first time.

The first flourishing period began between 800 and 700 BC: Phoenicians and then Greeks arrived in Sicily and they mixed with local cultures. The second period occurred under the rule of Normans from northern France who occupied Sicily starting from 1061, kicking off Arabs.

These two periods were chosen because, according to the organisers, the rulers of the island were from Sicily itself, wanted the wealth of the region and created a unique style. It was interesting to see the exploration of these two periods, however investigated by a Sicilian point of view which could be not objective neither impartial.

The first room of The British Museum exhibition focused on the first inhabitants of Sicily. They were excellent traders and ruled the Mediterranean Sea (2200 – 480 BC). Archaeologists found evidence of early populations of the island. However, the first acceptable report was the one from e the Greek historian Thucydides (about 460-400 BC), who mentioned both legendary figures (Cyclopes and Laestrygonians) and real populations (Sicani from Iberia, Elymians from Troy, Sicels from Italy, Phoenicians and Greeks).

When the Greeks made their first official colony at Naxos in around 735 BC, they brought new ideas and made cultural and trading links with the previous indigenous settlers. The undemocratic Tyrants and the civic governing bodies – rulers of Sicily - showed their wealth and power through their temples, sometimes of colossal dimensions, rivaling with the biggest ones in the ancient Mediterranean world.

After exploring the Greek period, “Sicily: culture and conquest” exhibition then came to a room which consider a long period spanning from the Roman conquest (241BC) to the Normans dominion (AD 1091), passing through the decline of the Greeks, the brief Vandal and Goth’s invasion and the Byzantine and Arab era.

So we arrived to the Normans period who were, many of them, Christian descendants of the Vikings.

Under the Norman King Roger II, Sicily benefited of an unusual but fragile tolerance between different religions. Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Greek Byzantines, Christian Normans and Italians lived together peacefully in one multiethnic kingdom. A new art and architecture emerged and the main hub was at the king’s court - the Norman Palace in Palermo.

The new distinctive style was a mix of influences from North Africa, Byzantine East and Roman legacy. In 2015, the unique Arab-Norman architecture of Palermo, including the cathedrals of Monreale and Cefalù, was added to the UNESCO world heritage list.

The distinctive feature of Roger II was the multilingualism. Especially in Palermo, messages of public monuments were frequently in two or three languages. At the British Museum exhibition was on display an interesting tombstone in four languages, set up by Grisandus, who was the cleric of Roger II. This plaque was part of a group of five items, two of which have been lost, which were made for the graves of Anna and Drogo, the parents of Grisandus. The text recalls in four languages (Judeo-Arabic at the top, the Latin left, Greek right, and Arabic at the bottom) the death of Anna, his first burial in the Cathedral of Palermo in 1148 and its translation, the following year , in the funeral chapel built by the son in San Michele. Proof of the diversity of the Norman Palermo cultures, the plaque became the symbol of coexistence and tolerance among peoples, because it is being written in four languages, bringing the different dating systems of calendars in use in each community, and for the final formula of invocation of mercy for those who read it.

The British Museum exhibition finished with a room dedicated to the end of the Norman period, which coincided with the death of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II (1250). He has been one of the most enlightened and famous emperors of the history, and was called “Stupor Mundi”, the Wonder of the world, for his ideas and abilities. He inherited Sicily by his grandfathers, Roger II, King of Sicily, and Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor.

The exhibition displayed objects from the British Museum’s own collection together with excellent loans from Sicily and loans from Italy, the US and the UK. Objects with outstanding cultural meaning have been carefully selected through consultation with Sicilian specialists from different museums across the island. The British Museum has worked closely with the Sicilian Ministry of Culture since 2010 on several loans, both at the British Museum and in Sicily. This exhibition presented the next collaboration between curators of the British Museum and Sicily.

“Sicily: culture contest” was sponsored by Julius Baer and was organised in collaboration with Regione Sicilia, Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana.

Opened from 21st April until 14th August 2016, the exhibition “Sicily: culture contest” was at The British Museum, Russell Square, London.