Saturday 7 May 2016

Sicily: Culture and Conquest #FaeVisions

Guest post by Kelda Crich

Sicily: Culture and Conquest: Multiculturalism a Thousand Years Ago
An exhibition review.

I love looking at old stuff; if it's beautiful and priceless old stuff, so much the better. Manufactured objects; the mundane and the extraordinary are slivers of culture, of history. They contain stories: real and imagined. Museum objects often inspire my writing.1 My poem in Fae Visions of the Mediterranean took inspiration from the Assyrian sculpture in the British Museum. So it seemed a happy coincidence when Fae's launch coincided with a new exhibition at the British Museum: Sicily: Culture and Conquest,2 3 examining Sicily, the Mediterranean's largest island.

With its fertile soil enriched by volcanic ash, and a strategic position in the heart of the Med, Sicily has been subject to centuries of colonisation, wave after wave of invaders. The exhibition ranges from prehistory to the medieval period, but focuses on two golden ages, the rule of the Greek Tyrants (7th Century onwards) and the rule of the Normans (12th Century onwards). Dirk Booms, the co-curator points out that both these ages occurred when the invading Kings lived on the island.4 Sicily fared less well ruled at a distance.

In the mid-11 century, at a time when the sons of Vikings were invading England, they were also turning an envious eye to Muslim ruled Sicily. A thirty years campaign finally ushered in a golden age of enlightenment where philosophers, artists and scientists from many races were invited to court. It's interesting to see the Normans portrayed as progressive rulers, rather than the vilified conquerors of popular British history. This exhibition invites the visitor to rethink Britain’s own history and heritage.

San Cataldo, Palermo, Exterior view from the side
The exhibition presents Norman Sicily as a society of multicultural harmony. It celebrates the blending of Muslim, Byzantine and Christian cultures and religious tolerance.

A remarkable Arab/Norman-style architecture emerged.

Christ Pantokrator in the apse of the Cathedral of Cefalù, Sicily.
Mosaic in Byzantine style.
Churches such as The Capella Palatina at Palermo were built with Norman Doors, Sarcenic arches. The Byzantine domes were decorated with Arabic script and Byzantine-style mosaics.

Roger II of Sicily depicted on the
muqarnas ceiling in an Arabic style.
The sons of Vikings presented themselves in the style of Muslim rulers.

The blending of cultures is quite remarkable and is testimony to the catholic Normans' embrace (or should I say appropriation?) of other cultures. One reviewer even suggests that as the Mediterranean is once again a crossing point of peoples, lessons could be learnt from the integration apparently shown in Norman Sicily.5

Yet, museum exhibitions are stories which invite a visitor to enter only one narrative dream of the past. While the very nature and limitation of space, an exhibit narrative demands simplicity, an appeal to aesthetic sensibilities rather than the presentation of the complex, myriad storied past. I can't help thinking that multicultural, harmonious Sicily is too good to be true. I would have liked the exhibit to present objects examining the culture clash that must have existed.

Still, it was thrilling to look at the beautiful stuff. The exhibition also presents well-chosen items examining the other cultures who have invaded Sicily over the centuries. There were over two hundred objects on display, many for the first time in the first time in the UK.

The exhibition is supplemented (as is common in British Museum temporary exhibits) by evocative photographic landscape and architectural vistas, and interesting written quotes displayed on the walls. I was less keen on the photographs of objects and the replicas on display. When I visit a museum, I like to see the real deal.

It's an interesting exhibition, with much finely chosen and exquisite stuff, but no one piece caught my attention particularly. There was, perhaps, an over-reliance on photographs of objects, which is not to my taste. Still, it made me reconsider the history of a conquest I had been taught as a girl. I left wanting to know more about the sons of Vikings and the people they crossed the Mediterranean to conquer nearly a thousand years ago.

1 Confessions of a Museum Bunny. Deborah Walker. SFWA Blog. 2012
2 Sicily: Culture and Conquest At the British Museum, London, 21 April to 14 August 2016.
3 Sicily: Culture and Conquest. Dirk Booms and Peter Higgs. The British Museum Press. 2016
4 Sicily the Superpower: British Museum Revisits Island's Golden Ages. The Guardian Blog 2016
5 Sicily: Culture and Conquest Review – Gods, Monsters and Multiculturalism The Guardian Blog 2016

Kelda Crich's poem “Regretful in the City of Promises” can be found in Fae Visions of the Mediterranean.

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