Sicily: Culture and Conquest

A British Museum exhibition shows the artistic wonders of multiculturalism, writes John Westbrooke

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This show could give the Normans a good name. The ones who conquered England in 1066 kept the locals down with brute force and cruelty. Their kinsmen who took over Sicily at the same time did just the opposite. Conscious of being a minority in their new domain, they set out deliberately to create an inclusive culture, reflected in art and architecture drawing on the traditions of all its inhabitants – Christian Normans, Orthodox Byzantine Greeks, Muslims and Jews.

And it was a huge success. For a century, Sicily became one of the great powers of the Mediterranean.

The island had been there before. The exhibition concentrates on two eras in its crowded past: the ancient Greeks as well as the Normans.

The Greeks, who set up a colony about 735BC, fancied its location, right in the middle of the Mediterranean, and its rich volcanic soil, different from the rocky hillsides they were used to at home – this is the island of Mt Etna, which still steams away under your feet as you climb it. They thought of it as triangular and sometimes represented it with the three-legged circle that appears on the Isle of Man flag today.

It was already home to a variety of local tribes including the Sicels and, according to Homer, the one-eyed Cyclops, and there were Phoenicians arriving at the same time. The new society that formed became strong enough to repulse attacks by both Greeks from Athens and Phoenicians from Carthage.

The exhibition includes statues and artefacts that show influences from a mix of cultures, but the captions are disappointingly vague about what these actually are. There’s a striking altar featuring three goddesses, and a panther eating a bull, but what’s Phoenician about it? It doesn’t say. The most helpful explanations are about purely Greek objects, such as the impressively ugly gorgon roof ornament warding off evil.

The Normans are better illustrated, though, despite the difficulty of putting architecture on display. By now the island had been ruled by Byzantines and Arabs and the new rulers consciously sought to stress cultural continuity and convergence.

The highlight is literally that: an image, projected above visitors’ heads, of the ornate ceiling of the Cappella Palatina, built by Roger II in Palermo about 1140. Look up or you’ll miss it. Look down and you’ll see works in glass and ivory, precious metals and wood.

Coinage remained unchanged – almost: a Muslim inscription on one side, a T on the other, representing the Christian cross. Roger II took care to hire craftsmen from everywhere; a plaque depicting his coronation shows him with Byzantine regalia, Norman costume, and Latin lettering. A tombstone in the exhibition bears an inscription in four languages – Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Arabic in Hebrew script – with the date adjusted according to the calendar of each religion.

A Byzantine-style mosaic of the Madonna comes from the Norman cathedral, long since replaced by a comparatively dull baroque building. Of the Norman structures which survive, nine were recently placed on the Unesco world heritage list, including the Cappella Palatina and the cathedral of Monreale with its magnificent mosaics, just outside the capital; but to see those you’ll have to go to Sicily.

The peak of Sicily’s cultural and political strength came under Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Sicily, Stupor Mundi (wonder of the world), who moved his court to Palermo in 1220.

He was one of the great free-thinking rulers of history. He invited poets, princes and philosophers to banquets. He debated eternity, kept a harem, wrote a book on ornithology, spoke six languages, reformed the law, promoted science and mathematics, founded a university, and wrote love songs in Italian (a first). He even solved the problem of the Crusades: when he went on one in 1228, he arranged a treaty with the Saracen leader under which the Christians took control of Jerusalem – what every crusader had ever wanted, and without shedding pagan blood. The pope was furious.

Frederick is represented here by a marble bust that makes him look like an ancient Roman emperor. (Really, a contemporary said, he was short-sighted, bald and covered with red hair.)

That was the end of the glory years. As had happened after the Greek period, Sicily was taken over by the powers of mainland Europe – Rome followed Greece; France, Spain and Italy followed the Normans. Christianity asserted itself; tolerance of others faded; the island’s individuality and influence dwindled.

The exhibition organisers point to the wonders achieved under Sicily’s multicultural regimes (while acknowledging that tolerance didn’t mean equality or integration). There’s a lesson for us here. But there’s another one, derived from the intervening eras, which goes unmentioned: don’t let your country get taken over by European superpowers or you’ll lose your soul. I wonder if that was intended?

Sicily: culture and conquest, at the British Museum until August 14. £10; free under 16.