Sicily: Culture and Conquest review – gods, monsters and multiculturalism
Source:theguardian Author:Jonathan Jones Date: 2016-04-25 Size:
The Normans, those lean invaders in scaly chain mail who slew and conquered their way into Britain in the embroidered……

‘The Normans sponsored the most liberal culture of the middle ages’ … tombstone in four languages, Palermo, Sicily, AD1149.

The Normans, those lean invaders in scaly chain mail who slew and conquered their way into Britain in the embroidered scenes of the Bayeux tapestry, have a harsh reputation. Even though the English language, laws and politics owe so much to these warriors of Norse descent, who transformed the British isles after 1066, they have been vilified in history and myth, from the Robin Hood legend to today.

The British Museum’s latest stimulating survey of world history shows why we should rediscover these feudal fighters as heroes of multiculturalism. Far from a simple hymn to the lovely landscapes and ruins of Sicily, this exhibition invites you to rethink Britain’s own history and heritage. The Normans, it shows, creatively blended religion and art and in Sicily sponsored the most liberal culture of the middle ages.

Portrait of a colossus … bust of Frederick II. Italy, AD1220–50.

A huge marble head of Frederick II glares at you with fearsome authority, a colossal portrait that conveys why contemporaries called this medieval titan stupor mundi – Latin for “wonder of the world”. Frederick was both king of Sicily and Holy Roman emperor and so, during his 13th-century reign, Sicily was the political centre of Europe, floating out into the Mediterranean from Italy’s toe, towards modern Tunisia.

Frederick’s court was the culmination of a Renaissance before the Renaissance, which fused the antagonistic beliefs of the Mediterranean world. His gigantic stone portrait emulates ancient Roman art, as do fabulous cameo jewels and gold coins identifying him with the Roman emperor Augustus. Yet these classical echoes mix with eastern borrowings. Books written on paper – an Arab innovation still unknown at the time in mainland Europe – juxtapose texts in Latin, Greek and Arabic. Like his Norman ancestors, who first invaded Sicily in 1061, Frederick not only tolerated but gladly learned from Islam and Byzantium.

Map of Sicily from the Book of Curiosities, Egypt, about AD1200.

At the heart of this exhibition is a fine recreation of the Cappella Palatina in the Sicilian capital of Palermo. Its intricate and heavenly ceiling is projected overhead, while impressive fragments of artfully shaped stone, wood and even medieval fabrics explore its rich aesthetic below. An Arabic inscription comes not from a mosque, but from Palermo’s Norman Palace, while complex panelling mixes the star-like symmetries of Islamic art with the curves of Byzantine decoration. A mosaic of the Virgin Mary from Palermo Cathedral is the only surviving relic of its medieval opulence before it was given a baroque makeover.

Byzantine-style mosaic showing the Virgin as Advocate for the Human Race, from Palermo Cathedral, circa AD1130-1180.

Sicily is an island of layers, like the layers of lava that flow from Mount Etna on its east coast. Visit Palermo today and the magnificent multicultural splendour of the Cappella Palatina and Monreale Cathedral are just one part of that flow, which also includes baroque stucco and a stolen Caravaggio, grand opera and crowded beaches. In this exhibition, too, the golden age of the Normans is only one phase in a brilliant history.

The first inhabitants of Sicily – before 2000BC – left no words to tell who they were, just enigmatic stone carvings, which could have been strange animals or simply abstract doodles. Then came the ancient Greeks and Phoenicians.

Sicily is the setting of some of the most haunting of Greek myths. A terracotta image of Odysseus and his men escaping the Cyclops by hiding under some sheep is a reminder that in Homer’s Odyssey, the one-eyed giant who tried to eat them lives on Etna. Tributes to Demeter, goddess of the harvest, were left at cult sites by ancient women, because it was on Sicily that Demeter’s daughter Persephone was forced to marry Hades, god of the underworld, and spend half of the year dead.

Ancient Greek Sicily was a land of tyrants. Like the Cyclops, the tyrants of Syracuse, Agrigento and other cities whose temples endure roofless under the island’s blue sky imposed their power ruthlessly. This was not the Greece famous for inventing democracy. Yet its art rivalled that of democratic Athens. An athletically curving statue of a warrior shows the moment when the classical revolution hit Sicily. A grinning, primitive mask of the Medusa is just as compelling.

Gorgon antefix terracotta roof ornament with head of a gorgon, Gela, Sicily, circa 500BC.

The most famous Sicilian Greek is the scientist Archimedes, who helped to defend Syracuse from the Romans by inventing machines to sink and burn their ships. The cultural mixtures and riches this exhibition celebrates are all the fruits of bitter war. An ancient warship’s bronze prow testifies to when the sea was bloody with conflict, when Romans fought Carthaginians, Normans fought Arabs, and – sometimes – the people even fought their overlords.

While the ancient Greeks admired only their own art – to them, others were “barbarians” – the Normans knew they were a bit barbaric themselves and approached other beliefs and traditions with an open mind. So, today, when the Mediterranean is once again a crossing point of peoples, there is much to learn from the truly global art of Norman Sicily.

• At the British Museum, London, 21 April to 14 August. Box office: 020-7323 8181.

[Editor] 张艳