" To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.”
- Goethe, German poet
Think of going to Sicily and your mind might wander to having a coffee in a sunny square of some charming medieval town, or maybe Inspector Montalbano speeding about investigating crimes. A tranquil destination with great food, wonderful vistas and Palermo, the contrasting busy and bustling city. You could be forgiven for not thinking of Sicily as a cultural heavyweight and world power. But this is exactly what the island has been, and what the wonderful new exhibition at the British Museum explores.
Sicily: culture and conquest focusses on two periods of Sicily’s history when the tides of power swept across this largest island in the centre of the Mediterranean. It does so with clear text, storyboards and wonderfully presented artefacts including carvings, maps, coins and pottery.
When the Greeks arrived and took over the most desired areas, lured by the fertility of the land and Sicily’s position on key trading routes. Remnants of stone carvings and the bronze tip of a warship are just a few of the items presented from this time.The first period to be examined is from 734BC,
Archimedes himself was born in Syracuse in 287BC when it rivalled Athens in influence. Cicero said, "Syracuse is the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all."
The next 1300 years saw Sicilians ruled by waves of six different peoples, the Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs and finally the Normans.
The exhibition focusses then on the second, stable period in Sicilian history. The Normans arrived from wintery northern France to sunny Sicily in approximately 1091, firstly as mercenaries, and later as conquerors. This second period became surprisingly cosmopolitan for medieval times. The aspirational Norman King, Roger II, tolerated (if not actually granting equality) Muslims and Jews practising their religion in his Christian kingdom, and also people of all creeds and nationalities to contribute to his court. King Roger was keen to encourage talent to help him build a powerful nation. He succeeded - the Kingdom of Sicily extended over this period far into the boot of mainland Italy.
One of the best pieces in the exhibition from this era is the honeycomb ceiling of the 12 th century Palatine Chapel, of which photos have been illuminated overhead as if you were looking up from the chapel floor. It’s clear to see the Arabic influence in the design, reflecting the diversity of the Kingdom.
Ramblers Worldwide Holidays offers a number of holidays giving you the chance to explore the history of this island. In particular, The Treasures of Sicily holiday visits the temples in Agrigento, the Greek and Roman sites of Syracuse, the Baroque town of Noto, the Greek Theatre in Taormina and the cathedral in Monreale, one of the greatest examples of Norman architecture in the world.
For all of our holidays to Sicily please click here. Sicily: culture and conquest is at the British Museum until 14 August 2016.