Sunday, 12 June 2016

'Sicily: Culture and Conquest' at the British Museum

One of the new exhibitions at the British Museum is all about the island of Sicily, the people that have lived there over the millennia and their cultures. Most interesting is how those cultures have meshed to become unique until relatively recent times. It's one of those exhibitions where it feels like there's more to read on the walls than look at in display cases but that may be because I know so little about the island so felt the need to read the display captions and larger signs to understand what I was looking at.

I found the exhibition oddly fascinating, a description of the cross-roads in the Mediterranean for so many wayfarers over the years and so many cultures. The poster for the exhibition suggests we'll be looking at ancient stuff and that's what I expected. There was loads of old stuff - amphorae, statues, chipped busts and all sorts - and that was all very welcome (particularly the Medusa heads) but the part of the exhibition that sparked my imagination were the exhibits from the last thousand years. For some obscure reason Sicily was invaded by the Normans after they invaded Britain and that changed the society there forever. What is it with those Normans? Didn't they like France at all?

So, after the Greeks, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Germanic tribes, the Muslims and even the Vikings (I kid you not) we have the Norman dynasties and what do Normans do? They build. The exhibition includes pieces from the castles and churches, some quite delicate Byzantine mosaics and, in one part, a reproduction of the ceiling of the cathedral in Palermo. It's really odd wandering through separate segments of the exhibition dedicated to the various invaders and rulers to end up back with Byzantine glories leading to early Renaissance paintings. It all comes round.

The beauty of Sicily is that for centuries it managed to create it's own culture, it's mix of religions and peoples that created tolerance, understanding and learning. A real melting pot that proved a melting pot could work. We clearly have so much to learn from these ancient peoples. With the current arguments of whether to stay in Europe or not, it seems incredibly timely for this exhibition to so clearly demonstrate that countries can survive and prosper with a multicultural population. If they want to.

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