The cultural diversity of Sicily’s pre-Italian history may come as a surprise to many people. For thousands of years, the island’s celebrated fertility and its strategic position at the centre of the Mediterranean Sea attracted successive waves of settlers and conquerors. These peoples from as far east as the Levant and as far west as France shaped a cosmopolitan identity and an astonishing cultural legacy that are unique in Europe. Two periods in Sicily's history stand out, those of the Greek settlement between the 8th and 3rd centuries BC, and of Norman rule in the 12th century AD.
During both, Sicily was ruled by rulers based on the island, which in military strength, economy, and artistic splendour equalled every larger nation surrounding the island. They created splendid courts, to which people from all over the known world flocked. In between and after those eras, however, Sicily was ruled from afar, a marginal province on the periphery of larger empires. As people were exploited by a corrupt elite, there was no more drive for artistic or scientific innovation.
The motif of three interlocked human legs is one of the oldest symbols in the world. Called a triskelion, from the Greek word meaning ‘three-legged’, in ancient Greece it represented eternity – an ever-turning wheel. During the later Greek period, and especially under Roman rule, the triskelion was adopted as the emblem of the triangular island, the three legs now representing its three points. Today it proudly features on the island's flag. The decoration of this bowl includes one of the earliest examples of the symbol’s use in Sicily.
Sicily's identity and reputation were always linked to the fact that it was an island. Hence, when the Normans made Sicily their home, they proudly revived the ancient Roman name for the island, Trinacria (meaning ‘three promontories’). This is a copy of a map made by an Arab cartographer for a Norman king. It shows an accurate understanding of the island’s shape in relation to the tip of Italy, just visible in the corner. As on most Arab maps, north is at the bottom.
The most important surviving object from Norman Sicily, King Roger II's ceremonial robe, now in Vienna, is too fragile to travel. Made of gold-embroidered silk set with pearls, enamel plaques, sapphires, garnets and a ruby, it has become a symbol for the island’s cultural diversity.
The textile was made in the Byzantine Empire and embroidered by Muslims in Sicily for their Christian ruler. An Arabic inscription running along the seam says it was made in Palermo in the year 528 in the Islamic Hijri calendar (1133–4) and lists blessings and virtues bestowed on the king. Lions triumphing over camels on either side of a Tree of Life symbolise Roger’s tolerance of his Muslim subjects as well as his dominance over them.
The ultimate reason for settlers' and conquerors' desire to take and keep the island was always the riches resulting from the fertility of the soil, fed by Etna's volcanic activities. The figures on this ancient Greek altar are goddesses of agriculture, fertility and the life cycle, possibly Demeter, Persephone and Hekate. Above them a panther with teats full of milk devours a bull. The bull’s death gives her cubs life. The style of both scenes combines Greek and Phoenician influences.
Fragrant oils and food offerings would have been burnt on the top of altars during rituals for gods and goddesses. This altar is almost complete and the colour is fairly well-preserved, so it may never have been used. The worship of Demeter and Persephone was the most important and widespread religious cult on ancient Sicily, and many sanctuaries (sacred areas) dedicated to them survive.
SETTLERS, 2500–480 BC
Since the early 1900s, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of different cultures living on Sicily before ancient Greek settlers arrived, and named them after the sites where they were first encountered. These cultures were created by peoples who played a prominent role in the Mediterranean trade network. They probably traded agricultural produce for resources not found on the island. In early times the volcanic rock obsidian was in demand for making cutting blades. Later metal ores were imported. We first hear of the early inhabitants of Sicily from the Greek historian Thucydides (about 460 to 400 BC). Like most ancient sources he is biased towards the Greeks and mixes legend with fact: ‘It is said that the earliest inhabitants...were the Cyclopes and the Laestrygonians’. After these cannibal giants mentioned Homer’s ancient Greek poem 'The Odyssey', Thucydides lists actual peoples. The Sicani from Iberia, Elymians from Troy, Sicels from Italy and Phoenicians from the eastern Mediterranean, all of whom he calls ‘barbarians’. Finally, he mentions the Greeks.
The designs on this tomb door may depict the sexual act, which is thought to represent the deceased’s return to the earth’s womb. The spirals may symbolise eyes, breasts or ovaries. Perhaps, as spirals are never-ending, they stand for the eternal soul. Concealed by a plain slab, this spellbinding design would only have been seen when a new burial, perhaps of another family member, was made in the tomb.
The bulls on this shallow dish would have represented fertility for the early farming communities on Sicily. Anyone owning a bull might have earned a high status and commanded respect. Originally from a tomb in Sant’Angelo Muxaro in southern Sicily, this rare gold offering combines Greek designs with Phoenician shapes and techniques. This blend of influences is typical of many objects made in Sicily between about 800 and 500 BC. The tombs at the site probably belonged to the wealthy elite of the settlement, which was established long before the arrival of the Phoenicians and Greeks, but continued to be inhabited after.
Two gold rings were discovered in the same location also, one in a tomb on the skeleton finger of its owner, the other by a farmer in a field nearby. This ring shows a cow suckling her calf...
... while this one shows a prowling wolf, the great enemy of the farmer. Hunting wolves and other wild threats to livestock was a dangerous pursuit and those who undertook such an endeavour might have been considered the bravest in the community, and eventually awarded respect and high status.
Two rams amble by, men hiding underneath them. The man on the right looks back at his unfortunate companion, whose face is pressed against the sheep’s rear end. The scene comes from the ancient Greek poem by Homer, 'The Odyssey'. After days at sea the Greek prince Odysseus spots the island thought by later sources to have been Sicily, and a cave full of sheep. His men feast, but at dusk the cave’s monstrous owner returns – a one-eyed giant shepherd, a Cyclops called Polyphemus. The Cyclops eats several of the men. Odysseus plies him with wine, then blinds him. This altar shows how Odysseus and his men cunningly escape from the cave.
GREEKS, 500–211 BC
Greek, Phoenician and local communities coexisted on Sicily, but there were often disputes over land and resources. Greek settlements were mostly controlled by unelected rulers called tyrannoi (tyrants), but occasionally the system of government was more democratic. Conflict sometimes united the otherwise independent Greek cities, particularly when the threat was from overseas. The combined forces of Gelon I of Syracuse and Theron of Akragas (Agrigento) defeated the Phoenician Carthaginians at the battle of Himera in 480 BC. The most significant event in Sicily’s history was between 415 to 413 BC, when the Athenians attempted to invade the wealthy city of Syracuse and suffered a catastrophic defeat. After this the Carthaginians returned again, destroying Akragas, Gela, Selinous (Selinunte) and other major Greek cities. But the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysios I, defeated Carthage in about 396 BC, securing his city’s political supremacy within Sicily. Hieron II of Syracuse (ruled 270 to 215 BC) made a significant step towards unifying all of Greek Sicily. He also shrewdly allied himself with the conquering Romans to negotiate a degree of independence for Sicily.
Like many surviving single Greek sculptures, this stumbling warrior would originally have been part of a larger narrative composition, either high on a temple or at eye level. Combat figures reminded the ancient Greeks of their legendary past and of the ever-present threat of war. This statue was found at Akragas (modern Agrigento) on Sicily’s southern coast. There were no natural reserves of usable marble on Sicily, so sculptors usually used terracotta, limestone or bronze. Marble statues or marble blocks ready to carve were imported from other parts of the Mediterranean for important buildings and lavish dedications. This sculpture was found near the temple of Zeus, one of the largest Greek temples ever built, but it is probably too small to be part of its original decoration. Ghostly traces of painted palmettes can be detected on the warrior's helmet, which was further embellished with a crest and visor, probably added in metal.
Might this head represent Hermes, the messenger god, the hero Odysseus from Homer’s epic tale or an unknown warrior? This head formed part of a scene carved on a metope, from Temple C at Selinous in south-western Sicily. All the metopes showed episodes from legends of gods, heroes and monsters. Stories and artistic conventions probably spread across the Mediterranean through portable objects like pottery and metal panels decorating wooden furniture and boxes.
Wearing the long, belted garment typical of charioteers, this athlete steers his four-horse chariot past a column that marks a turning point on the racecourse. Between 490 to 468 BC, Sicilian tyrants won no fewer than 17 victories in horse-racing competitions, the most famous of which were at Olympia and Delphi. Monumental sculptures of chariot groups, portrait statues and trophies were produced to celebrate these victories, and placed in sanctuaries with inscriptions praising the tyrants and honouring the gods. The rulers did not ride the horses or steer the chariots themselves, but they claimed most of the glory.
From 478 to 467 BC Hieron I ruled the Greek settlements on Sicily from a magnificent court at Syracuse. In 474 BC he led the fleets of Cumae and Syracuse to defeat the Etruscans from central Italy and Carthaginians in a battle at Cumae, near Naples. Hieron dedicated this inscribed Etruscan helmet to Zeus at Olympia, to remind all Greeks of the victory. The inscription reads ‘Hieron, son of Deinomenes, and the Syracusans [dedicated] to Zeus Etruscan [spoils] from Cumae.’
With wide, staring eyes, bulbous nose and lolling tongue, the gorgon’s shocking face appeared prominently on many of the early, Greek-style buildings on Sicily. The mask-like faces could be on a massive scale. Perched high up, they glared down at unwanted intruders, the equivalent of medieval gargoyles. As well as serving to ward off evil, gorgons were also linked to the cycle of life and fertility.
This coin shows a four-horse chariot and Arethusa, the goddess associated with Syracuse. Sicily is renowned for its beautiful coin designs, skillfully engraved into a die that is struck into metal.
Unusually, this coin bears the engravers’ names – ‘Kimon’ on Arethusa’s headband and ‘Euainetos’ under her neck. Outside Syracuse, Euainetos’ design was widely copied on other coins, silver cups, and pottery.
This coin shows Hieron II’s wife Philistis. The idea of putting images of living rulers on Greek coins only developed from about 400 BC onwards. Before then they usually showed gods, generic scenes like chariot racing, or images from the natural world. The coin of Philistis is the earliest portrait of a named Sicilian woman.
CONQUERORS: 1,300 YEARS, SIX PEOPLES, 241
Despite attempts to unify Greek Sicily, the island was vulnerable from centuries of war between the Carthaginians and the Greeks, and amongst the Greeks themselves. It was unable to form a unified defence against Rome, the new conquering power in the Mediterranean. When Roman power declined in Western Europe during the AD 400s, Sicily was briefly ruled by northern tribes, the Goths and Vandals. They were in turn defeated by the Byzantine Roman Empire, Rome’s successor in the East. After two centuries of subsequent Muslim invasions from North Africa, the Arabs had conquered most of Sicily by AD 902. Each of these outside forces imposed their own culture on Sicily, and the island produced little art that was distinctly Sicilian.
The Byzantines never gave up trying to reconquer the island. However, it was mercenaries from northern France, the Normans, who exploited a period of internal strife to invade in AD 1061. Within 30 years, they controlled the entire island.
Since 2004, the remains of several warships have been discovered during underwater excavations around Sicily. These include remnants from a decisive naval battle – weapons, helmets and battering rams that were fitted to the front of ships (rostra).
A clash between the Romans and Carthaginians had become inevitable. Between 264 and 241 BC, these two Mediterranean superpowers fought the first of three long wars called the Punic Wars. Its final battle took place on 10 March near the Egadi Islands, off Sicily’s west coast. The Romans won, and Sicily was theirs. This rostrum, from one of the Roman war ships, is decorated with an image of the goddess Victory holding a wreath...
.... It is also inscribed with the names of the two magistrates who commissioned the building of the fleet.
During the Byzantine period, the Sicilian elite wore jewellery identical to that of the upper classes in the Byzantine capital Constantinople. The gold bracelet was part of a hoard containing coins dating from AD 600 to 800. Found in the southern part of Sicily, it was probably buried for safekeeping during the frequent Arab raids for slaves and booty, which started in the AD 660s.
Muslim potters from Islamic North Africa settled on the island in the first decades of the AD 900s and introduced new glazing techniques. Their most significant innovation was the use of lead glaze, as seen on this bowl. The potters fired the vessel, painted it with green, yellow and brown pigments, then fired it again. Animals became popular motifs on pottery. The bird on this pottery fragment may be a peahen or a lapwing, common birds on Sicily.
Confusing and inaccurate, this map of Sicily accompanied a text based on the earlier travel accounts of Ibn Hawqal, an Arab traveller. The city of Palermo, represented by its gated walls and the two castles guarding its harbour, takes up most of the island. Furthermore, the entire southern coastline between Sciacca and Syracuse is missing, so that Mount Etna and its surrounding cities are shown in the south-west of the island. The map's inaccuracies reflect the often negative view that Muslims from other parts of the Islamic world had of Sicily.
Falcon ornaments like this one 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. Falconry was a pastime reserved for medieval nobility. This bronze represents a rare gerfalcon, a bird of prey kept for use by the king only. This particular falcon ornament was made 150 years after the Norman invasion.
THE NORMANS, AD
Many Normans, Christian descendants of the Vikings, left France for Southern Italy around AD 1000. Pilgrims and mercenaries soon became conquerors and rulers. The Norman mercenary Count Roger de Hauteville founded a dynasty that reigned over Sicily for just one century. During that century, the island became a prosperous and influential Mediterranean superpower.
Under Roger’s son, Roger II, Sicily was characterised by an unusual, but fragile, religious tolerance. Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Greek Byzantines, Christian Normans and Italians lived together in one multi-ethnic kingdom. King Roger II welcomed scholars of all races and faiths to his court. A new art and architecture emerged from the mixture of influences, centred on the king’s court at the Norman Palace in Palermo.
The island continued to increase in power and importance under Roger II’s son William I (ruled 1154 to 1166) and grandson William II (ruled 1166 to 1189). During this period, as Sicily’s celebrated religious pluralism gradually gave way to Christianity, Byzantine Greeks and Muslims became marginalised from society.
Eager to establish his superpower credentials and to show he was equal to other rulers, Roger II based his official image on that of the Byzantine emperors. On this plaque Roger holds Byzantine regalia – an orb and a banner with the cross. However, he deliberately introduced small changes to the Byzantine model. The names of King Roger and his protector St Nicolas are written in Latin, not Greek, and Roger’s Frankish roots are demonstrated by his long hair and the fleur-de-lis on his dress.
The diversity of peoples, religions and artistic traditions co-existing in Sicily under Norman rule are embodied in this ivory casket, a typical Sicilian product of the Norman period. It was made by Muslim artisans working at the court of a Christian Norman king. They depict foliage, animals and musicians in a style from contemporary Islamic Cairo, but also two Christian saints identified by haloes, bishops’ staffs and bibles. Caskets like these became prestigious objects during the Middle Ages, and they spread to church and palace treasuries throughout Europe, and more than a hundred survive today.
The animals on this inlaid ceiling panel are all associated with the royal court, where they were kept as curiosities, as pets or for hunting. The complex geometrical design creates an Islamic, eight-pointed star motif. It is in the skillfully executed and inventive carving style that flourished under the opulent Fatimid court in Cairo.
As well as Fatimid craftsmen from Egypt, the Norman kings invited Byzantine mosaicists from Constantinople to Sicily to decorate their cathedrals and palaces. They created spectacular, Byzantine-style golden mosaics that can still be found in, among others, Roger II’s palace and Cefalù Cathedral, and William II’s Monreale Cathedral. This mosaic shows a Byzantine image, the Virgin Mary as Advocate, arms raised as she intercedes with Christ on behalf of the human race. It is all that remains of the extensive mosaic decor made in Palermo Cathedral during the reigns of Roger II and William II. The cathedral was later rebuilt in a lavish, Baroque style.
Under Arab rule, Sicily had been famous for the high-quality embroidery of imported weaves. Under Roger II, Byzantine and European influences also reached the royal textile workshops. While the gold-threading technique on this fragment of the funerary robe is still Islamic-style, the type of weave and the horizontal repetition of motifs are from north-western Europe. The garment was buried with Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, King of Sicily from 1194 to 1197 and husband of Roger II’s daughter Costanza.
World map from The Book of Roger (1300/1500)British Museum
AN ENLIGHTENED KINGDOM, 1130–1250
The coexistence of Western,
Islamic and Byzantine cultures on Sicily created what was probably the most
progressive court in Europe. A climate of multicultural collaboration and
tolerance led to a remarkable period of scientific innovation, and the kings
themselves were not only patrons but active participants. Sicily became an
important destination for scholars from both Europe and the Muslim world. At
the same time, Sicily’s ties to other European courts grew stronger, especially
with the Normans in England.
After William II’s death in
1189, Sicily was governed by various regents until Frederick II, the grandson
and last legitimate heir of Roger II, came of age in 1208. He became one of the
most enlightened rulers of the medieval period. Constantly travelling around
his vast empire, which encompassed most of central Europe, he created an
itinerant court with Palermo as the capital. The continued flourishing of the
arts and sciences under his direct patronage led Europe into a period of
cultural achievement, foreshadowing the Renaissance.
In 1138, Roger II asked the Arab scholar al-Idrisi to create a new map of the world. The only existing maps at this time were almost 1,000 years old, made by Roman geographers. Roger’s motives were economic as well as scientific, as accurate maps helped trade. Al-Idrisi and his team spent 15 years collecting information from travellers and merchants. The resulting Book of Roger remained the standard geographical treatise for centuries. This is one of the oldest surviving copies. In addition to the world map, the original contained 70 regional maps accompanied by descriptions of peoples and their cultures.
Roger II was instrumental in spreading the numerals that eventually evolved into the numbers that we use today. The date on this coin is written in early Arabic numerals, which were introduced to Spain and Sicily from India during the Arab conquests.
The coin was made in AD 1138, but dated 533 following the Islamic Hijri calendar. It is the oldest known use of the new numerals for a date.
Queen Margaret, wife of King William I of Sicily and mother of King William II, corresponded with the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket and gave refuge to his relatives. After Becket’s murder by followers of the English king Henry II in 1170, he was worshipped as a martyr across Europe and canonised by Pope Alexander III. Especially on Sicily, his cult became prominent, and his effigy was placed in the main apse of Monreale Cathedral, built by William II, This reliquary pendant depicting Queen Margaret originally held fragments of Becket’s blood-stained cloak, belt, hood, shoe and shirt.
A contemporary Arab chronicler described Frederick as short-sighted, ‘covered with red hair ... [and] bald ... Had he been a slave, he would not have fetched 200 dirhams.’ If the account is true, this was not a good propaganda image. By contrast Frederick is portrayed here in a classical-style bust that suggests he is a direct successor to the ancient Roman emperors. The image is idealised, carefully conveying youth, intelligence and authority. Growing up in multicultural Palermo, Frederick was fluent in Arabic, Latin, Greek, German, French and Sicilian. He corresponded with the greatest scholars of the time, both in Christian Europe and the Islamic world.
In 1231, Frederick II introduced a new gold coin, the augustalis. The first high value and stable gold coinage in Europe since Roman times, it would be 200 years before anything of its quality or elegance appeared again. Both a powerful propaganda device and a sign of Frederick’s desire to re-found the Roman Empire, the augustalis clearly imitates the gold coinage of the emperor Augustus.
On one side Frederick II is shown in a classical-style bust, the other side shows the Roman imperial eagle.
THE END OF AN ERA
When Frederick died in 1250, none of his heirs were able to keep the kingdom safe from external interference. The next centuries saw Sicily relive periods of oppression under Angevin (1266 to 1282), Aragonese (1282 to 1479), Habsburg (1479 to 1734) and Bourbon rulers (1734 to 1860).
Sicily’s unique multicultural milieu, shaped by tolerant rulers who were also philosophers and scientists, poets and academics, disappeared before the start of the Italian Renaissance, around 1300s to 1500s. From then on Sicily followed rather than led cultural innovations. The island produced some exceptional artists, but they were working in a style that originated elsewhere. It was nevertheless home to one of the most influential artists of the time, Antonello da Messina, and generated its own exaggerated version of the Baroque. Nothing, however, would equal Sicily’s achievements under Greek and Norman rule.
This exhibition is based on Sicily: conquest and culture at the British Museum until 14 August 2016.
Sponsored by Julius Baer.
In collaboration with Regione Siciliana.
More information about the exhibition can be found on the British Museum website.
Created by curators Dirk Booms and Peter Higgs, department of Greece and Rome.