Sicily: British Museum's Culture and Conquest exhibition paints colourful portrait of 4,000 years on an island

By Rachel Teskey | 26 April 2016

Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Goths, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans: the history of Sicily’s conquerors reads as a roll call of the great ancient civilisations

A photo of a limestone head as part of the British Museum's Sicily exhibition
Limestone head from a temple. Selinous, Sicily, (circa 540–510 BC). Museo Archeologico Regionale A Salinas, Palermo© Regione Siciliana
The British Museum’s new exhibition, Sicily: Culture and Conquest, takes in 4,000 years of the island’s history and the many peoples who have laid claim to it. It begins with the arrival of the Greeks, who first colonised Sicily in 734 BCE. For them, Sicily was a place of otherworldly beauty, where myth merged with reality and real people rubbed shoulders with monsters.

Sicily was believed to be the site of many of Odysseus’s misadventures, and to be the place where Persephone was kidnapped by Hades, God of the Underworld. The Greeks dominated Sicily for around 500 years. Art, science and architecture flourished during this time. Marble sculptures and terracotta ornaments from Sicily’s great temples, alongside representations of episodes from the island’s mythical history, are just some of the treasures on display.

What follows is a fascinating - if somewhat sanitised - gallop though 13 turbulent centuries, during which Sicily was conquered again and again. A bronze battering ram from a Roman warship that took part in Rome’s conquest of the island on 10 March 241 BCE is an astonishing survival. However, it is one of the exhibition’s only hints at the many conflicts that engulfed Sicily and its people.

A photo of a stone bust of an Italian king as part of the British Museum's Sicily exhibition
Marble bust of Frederick II, Italy (1220–50 AD). Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Rome© H. Behrens, DAI Rom
Otherwise, the relentless invasions of the island are presented more as a series of cultural exchanges, culminating in the arrival of the Normans in 1061. This little-known period of Sicily’s history is an intriguing one.

Under the Norman kings Roger II, William I and William II, Sicily was undoubtedly a place of unusual tolerance, with many cultures, religions and languages existing side-by-side. But you can’t help but feel that part of the story is missing – a time of such repeated upheaval cannot all have been such plain sailing.

Nevertheless, the exhibition offers an appealing interpretation of multicultural Sicily under the Normans, illustrated by a series of impressive objects. Some appear unassuming at first but have immense significance, such a letter written in Greek and Arabic by the mother of King Roger II. This now-tattered letter is remarkable not only for its bilingualism, or its content – instructing Muslim soldiers to protect a Greek abbey on the island – but also as the oldest paper document in Europe, dating from 1109.

A gilded bronze falcon as part of the British Museum's Sicily exhibition
Gilded bronze falcon, Bronze, traces of gold, Sicily or southern Italy (1200–1220 AD)© The Metropolitan Museum of Art
And there is no shortage of wow-factor pieces either – a stunning wooden honeycomb ceiling crammed with intricate Islamic designs, commissioned by Roger II to be placed alongside the Byzantine-inspired architecture of his Christian royal chapel is a particular highlight.

Under Roger and his successors, Sicily flourished as a place of culture and learning, where influences from far and wide shaped unique forms of art and architecture. The objects displayed here are a rich testament to this distinctive fusion of cultures. While the exhibition may skim over the darker aspects of Sicily’s history, it also paints a colourful portrait of an island that managed to turn being conquered into an artform.

  • Sicily: culture and conquest is in room 35 of the British Museum until August 14 2016. Tickets £5-£10 (free for under-16s), book online.

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A photo of a green section of an old warship as part of the British Museum's Sicily exhibition
Bronze rostrum from Roman warship, from the seabed near Levanzo, Sicily (circa 240 BC). Soprintendenza del Mare© Regione Siciliana
A photo of a gold bowl from ancient Italy as part of the British Museum's Sicily exhibition
Gold libation bowl decorated with six bulls, Sant’ Angelo Muxaro (circa 600 BC)© The Trustees of the British Museum
A photo of a section of henry the sixth's robe as part of the British Museum's Sicily exhibition
Fragments of the funerary robe of Henry VI, red-and-gold lampas silk, tomb of Henry VI, Palermo, Sicily (1197 AD)© The Trustees of the British Museum
A photo of an ancient decorated Italian bowl as part of the British Museum's Sicily exhibition
Ceramic dinos with triskelion, Fired clay, Palma di Montechiaro, Sicily (circa 650–600 BC). Museo Archeologico Regionale Di Agrigento© Regione Siciliana
A photo of a square tombstone decorated with words and symbols as part of the British Museum's Sicily exhibition
A tombstone in four languages, Marble, Palermo, Sicily (1149 AD). Soprintendenza di Palermo© Regione Siciliana
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