Sicily
culture and conquest

21 April – 14 August 2016

Sponsored by

Julius Baer logo

In collaboration with

Regione Siciliana, Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell Identit Siciliana

The largest island in the Mediterranean. The home of Mount Etna.
A cultural centre of the ancient and medieval world.

The largest island in the Mediterranean. The home of Mount Etna. A cultural centre of the ancient and medieval world.

★★★★ 
‘a brilliant history’
The Guardian

★★★★ 
‘historically illuminating and visually stunning’
The Times

★★★★ 
‘marvel at Sicily’s outstanding past’
The Telegraph

★★★★ 
‘thrilling’
The Evening Standard


Membership

See the exhibition free as a Member


Tickets

Adults £10, under 16s free

Sicily has been shaped by waves of conquest and settlement by different peoples over 4,000 years. Since the 8th century BC, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans all settled or invaded the island, lured by its fertile lands and strategic location. Over time, this series of conquests forged a cultural identity unlike any other.

This exhibition tells Sicily’s fascinating stories – from the arrival of the Greeks and their encounters with the Phoenicians and other settlers, to the extraordinary period of enlightenment under Norman rule in the 11th to 13th centuries.

For much of its history, Sicily was admired and envied for its wealth, cultural patronage and architecture. In the exhibition, ancient Greek sculpture, architectural decorations from temples, churches and palaces, early coinage, stunning gold jewellery, and Norman mosaics and textiles demonstrate Sicily’s diversity, prosperity and significance over hundreds of years.

Discover an island with a cosmopolitan history and identity – a place where the unique mix of peoples gave rise to an extraordinary cultural flowering. The art and objects they produced are some of the most beautiful and important in the history of the Mediterranean.

Behind the scenes

Meet curators Peter Higgs and Dirk Booms as they reveal some of the fascinating stories behind the Greek and Norman objects in the exhibition.

Highlight objects

From the ancient Greeks to the Normans, discover some of the fascinating stories of Sicily through these highlight objects.

Gold libation bowl

This gold libation bowl, dating from around 600 BC, was used to pour liquid offerings to the gods as part of religious or funerary rituals. The bowl is decorated with six bulls. Bulls were the most expensive animal that could be sacrificed to the gods. Although probably the work of local craftsmen, the bowl combines Greek and Phoenician designs. This blend of influences was typical of many objects made in Sicily between 800 and 500 BC, indicating a rich mixing of cultures on the island.

Gold libation bowl decorated with bulls. From the ancient site of Sant’Angelo Muxaro Sicily, c. 600 BC.

Altar with an animal attack

Greek settlers brought artistic traditions as well as skilled craftspeople with them when they settled on Sicily, and fresh ideas arrived with each subsequent wave of newcomers. This terracotta altar, dating from the 6th century BC, shows a lion mauling a bull. A wild animal attacking a domesticated or weaker species was a recurring motif in Greek art and literature. The lion could be a symbol of royal authority, the military power of cities or heroes in epic poetry.

Terracotta altar depicting a lion attacking a bull. From Centuripe (ancient Kentoripa) Sicily, c. 550–500 BC. Museo Archeologico Regionale Paolo Orsi, Siracusa. © Regione Siciliana.

Limestone head of a god, hero or warrior

This head was originally part of a whole figure from a scene on a carved panel (metope), one of a series placed above the columns on an ancient Greek temple at Selinous in south-western Sicily. Like most of the Greek temples on Sicily, it was designed in the Doric style. The metopes showed episodes from myth which would have been familiar to all Greeks. The identity of the figure is unknown but it could possibly be the messenger god Hermes or the mythical hero Odysseus – both were represented in Greek art wearing helmets of this type.

Limestone head from a temple. Selinous, Sicily, c. 540–510 BC. Museo Archeologico Regionale Antonio Salinas, Palermo. © Regione Siciliana.

Marble relief of a charioteer and his four-horse chariot

For much of the Greek period on Sicily, the individual settlements were governed by rulers known as tyrants (tyrannoi), sometimes punctuated by a form of democracy. Chariot racing at the Pan-Hellenic (all-Greek) Games provided Sicilian tyrants with an opportunity for ostentatious displays of power. The rulers did not drive the chariots themselves, but they claimed most of the glory when their chariots were victorious. This marble relief depicts an athlete steering his four-horse chariot past a column that marks a turning point on the racecourse.

Marble relief of a charioteer. Sicily, c. 440–400 BC. Museo Archeologico Regionale ‘A Salinas’, Palermo. © Regione Siciliana.

A Roman bronze battering ram

In 241 BC, the increasingly powerful Roman Republic conquered Sicily, making the island the first of its provinces. The remains of several warships linked to the final battle have been discovered during underwater excavations off Sicily’s west coast. This battering ram (rostrum) from one of the Roman ships is decorated with an image of the goddess Victory holding a wreath.

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Bronze rostrum from a Roman warship. From the seabed near Levanzo, Sicily, c. 260–242 BC. Soprintendenza Beni Culturali e Ambientali del Mare. © Regione Siciliana.

Head of Livia

This head from an oversized marble statue depicts the Roman empress Livia (wife of Augustus) as Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. The cult of the empress as Ceres – a mother whose fertility benefited the whole empire – became widespread, as grain played such a vital role in control of such an empire. It was particularly embraced on Sicily, where Ceres’ Greek equivalent, Demeter, had been worshipped for centuries.

Head from a marble statue of the Roman empress Livia. Sicily, AD 30–50.

Gold bracelet

When the power of the Roman Empire declined in western Europe during the AD 400s, Sicily eventually became part of the Byzantine Empire, Rome’s successor in the east. The Sicilian elite of the time wore jewellery identical to that of the upper classes in the Byzantine capital Constantinople. This gold bracelet was part of a hoard containing Byzantine coins. The hoard was probably buried for safekeeping during the frequent Arab raids for slaves and booty, which started in the AD 660s. After two centuries of Arab invasions from North Africa, they fully conquered Sicily by AD 965.

Gold bracelet. Mount Pantalica, Sicily, c. AD 650. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Alastair Bradley Martin, 1952 (52.76.1). © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Falcon

The Normans were Christian descendants of the Vikings (‘north men’) who had settled in northern France. Around AD 1000, groups of Normans left France for southern Italy. Falcon ornaments like this were carried by the Normans on battle-standards during their conquest of Sicily. As non-royal newcomers, the Normans needed to legitimise their rule and used the falcon and lion as heraldic symbols. This bronze bird is a rare gerfalcon, a bird of prey kept for use only by a king.

Gilded bronze falcon. Sicily or southern Italy, AD 1200–1220. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection, 1947, (47.101.60). © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Wooden ceiling panel

The animals on this inlaid ceiling panel from the Norman palace in Palermo are all associated with the royal court, where they were kept as curiosities, pets or for hunting. Some were also used as dynastic symbols, like the eagle and falcon. The complex geometrical design creates an Islamic, eight-pointed star motif, and the whole panel reflects the mix of cultural influences in Norman Sicily.

Ceiling panel from the Norman Palace in Palermo, Sicily, c. 1130–1200. Galleria Interdisciplinare Regionale della Sicilia di Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo © Regione Siciliana.

Mosaic of the Virgin Hagiasoritissa

Norman Sicily was a centre of multiculturalism and its art reveals a unique mix of influences. The Norman kings invited Byzantine mosaicists from Constantinople to decorate their cathedrals and palaces. Spectacular golden mosaics can still be found in Roger II’s palace chapel and the cathedrals at Cefalù and Monreale. This mosaic, depicting the Virgin Mary, is all that remains of the extensive mosaics that once decorated Palermo Cathedral.

Mosaic of the Madonna from Palermo Cathedral. Sicily, AD 1130–1189. © Museo Diocesano di Palermo.

Map from al-Idrisi’s ‘Book of Roger’

This 16th-century map is a copy made from a 12th-century original by an Arab cartographer for a Norman king. It shows Sicily’s importance as the largest island in the Mediterranean. The map shows an accurate understanding of the island’s shape in relation to the tip of Italy, visible in the corner. As on most maps from the Arab world, north is at the bottom.

16th-century copy of a map of Sicily from Muhammad al-Idrisi’s 12th-century Tabula Rogeriana. Bodleian Library. University of Oxford, MS. Pococke 375, folios 187v-188r.

Tombstone for Anna

Multilingualism became one of the hallmarks of Norman Sicily. In Palermo, the messages on public monuments were frequently in two or three languages. This funerary inscription was set up by Grisandus, a Christian priest, for his mother Anna in AD 1149. Her eulogy is written in Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic written in Hebrew script) on top, Latin on the left, Greek on the right, and Arabic below.

A tombstone in four languages. Sicily, AD 1149. Soprintendenza Beni Culturali e Ambientali di Palermo. © Regione Siciliana.


Opening times

21 April – 14 August 2016
Last entry 80 minutes before closing

Full opening times


Getting here

Room 35, British Museum,
Great Russell Street, London
WC1B 3DG


Groups

Special group rates available
Bookings +44 (0)20 7323 8181

tickets@britishmuseum.org

Events

Sicily: heritage of the world

Saturday 25 June,
10.00 / Conference

Little feet: discover sunny Sicily

Tuesday 5 July,
10.30 / Workshop

Sicily under Muslim rule

Thursday 14 July,
13.30 / Lecture

All related events 

 

Lead image: Limestone head from a temple. Selinous, Sicily, c. 540–510 BC. Museo Archeologico Regionale ‘A Salinas’, Palermo.
© Regione Siciliana.