me at the British Museum on a sunny Sunday afternoon
On my second visit I was on my own - I find that if I go to exhibitions with others, no matter how well informed they are, I tend to concentrate on socialising and I do not notice things as much as I do when I am alone.
The exhibition, which focuses almost exclusively on two periods of Sicilian history, the Greek period and the Norman conquest, is one of the last overseen by Neil MacGregor prior to his move to Berlin. It is very interesting in terms of its political significance - a glorification of multiculturalism, MacGregor's hobbyhorse, as this TED talk reveals - but it remains a little disappointing, at least in terms of its size and also, as will be clear from this post, in terms of the narrative it weaves around the Norman conquest. Some of the objects on display, borrowed from Sicilian museums and sites, are quite outstanding, though, and worth paying the £10 required to see them.
CatalogueThe exhibition also comprised objects from the permanent display in Room 73 (Greeks in Italy), which I checked out separately to see how many artefacts had been moved from there. As you know, entry to the Museum is free, but exhibitions have to be paid for. One would feel a little shortchanged if a ticketed exhibition only contained objects moved from a permanent display to the exhibition area - which was pretty much the case with the one about the Greeks, last year, also sponsored by Julius Bär. Incidentally on the way to room 73 one has to pass through a display sponsored by CitiBank, about money in the ancient world. Mercifully, that small exhibition is free...
The Sicily exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue edited by Dirk Booms and Peter Higgs, a volume with essays and photographs of the objects, providing information that is missing from the exhibition itself eg the great Archimedes of Syracuse is only mentioned in passing, the catalogue has however a write up about him and his famous Eureka moment. If you had no catalogue you would learn nothing about Archimedes - here I am thinking of the many children who visit and who are being catered for by special labels which ask very basic questions, some even mention selfies (I assume they are aimed at children). Also without catalogue and background essays you would come out of the exhibition with a rather lopsided view of Sicily. The exhibition is big on photographs, I would say, but a bit lacking in content and some of the statements made are rather contentious. The catalogue too is not immune to partial views (and some mispellings too eg 'meanad' for 'maenad') but it does the job of providing more detailed historical information and it does describe the objects.
Palermo's CathedralThe exhibition's rationale was immediately evident. An anonymous reviewer for The Economist writes "As the Mediterranean struggles to decide how to share its future, understanding its shared history is more important than ever". Nothing wrong with that.
My problem is the fact that Norman presence in Sicily is so overpraised to the point of stating that Sicily began its decline soon after Norman rule collapsed. Well, surely that is a tad one sided? Ending the exhibition by saying that after the Normans Sicily just became a province of mainland Italy and everything artistic thereby produced was derivative is pretty disturbing - I am speaking here as a southern Italian of distant Spanish and French descent thrown into the mix. Moreover, I was in Sicily less than a fortnight ago, as a visitor. What about Palermo's beautiful post-Norman churches and that amazing Cathedral that blends Norman period architecture with later one, with grand baroque additions and which is so breathtaking that one is genuinely moved by its awesomeness? The view that the French Anjous, and later the Spaniards, were evil, and brought in destruction, is a bit overrated, as the edited volume The Spanish presence in 16th century Italy (2015) clarifies.
Labels in the exhibition seem to have been written rather hurriedly. Thus it is stated that the wife of Roger, the first Norman ruler, the noblewoman Adelasia, a fifteen year old from Liguria when Roger married her (he was about sixty), later in charge as regent when he died (love her name, would gladly change mine for it) wrote a famous bilingual decree, one of the very first issued on paper in the whole of Europe. With due respect, she did not write anything at all, she probably could not write, more likely she was advised to issue the order that the message of the decree should be written in Greek and Arabic, which she would not have spoken, so that all the people on the island would understand.
Palermo. San Cataldo.Then there is the label that says (I am quoting more or less verbatim) "a large number of English scholars and clerics made the trip South to Italy to be at the Norman court, resulting in the exchange of artistic and political ideas. William II married Joan Plantagenet, Frederick II married Isabella, daughter of John. The weddings made the bonds between the two islands even stronger".
Norman England and Norman Sicily, together they stood. When the Normans had to give way to the Anjous (those upstarts!) it spelled the end of Sicily.
I am not persuaded by this 'Rule Britannia' rhetoric that underpins it all. MacGregor has stated in an interview that the Germans confront their past, the English are selective in the way they remember it. In this rather potted history of Sicily, the Greeks are held in the highest esteem, the Romans are more or less vilified, presented as plunderers, the Byzantines hurriedly mentioned almost in one breath with the Arabs, the conquering Normans (still arriving uninvited, being conquerors) depicted as harbinger of a splendid multicultural civilization (seriously, multiculturalism? a modern, liberal concept now used with reference to the 11th-12th century, when society was quintessentially feudal, yes, even under the Normans!) and in close dialogue with Norman England, please note this fact. Whatever happened after Norman demise is depicted as just a sorry tale of woe. This is very selective memory indeed. Enough to make Etna grumble rather loudly.
History, one would say, is definitely a matter of opinion. Especially when recounted through blockbuster exhibitions sponsored by Julius Bär.
Mount Etna grumbling. Photo by anonymous
(in an earlier version of this post there was a factual error re the decree of Adelasia, which I have now amended)