As some readers of my travel journals may know, I visited Sicily in the spring of 2015 for an exhaustive study trip. Sicily is a ridiculously easy place to fall in love with despite her flaws. I’ve grown increasingly fascinated with the rich history of the island and I’ve been lapping up stories from her history since I returned. It’s a place of stark contrasts, irresistable food and dramatic landscapes. However, for my money the main draws are the archaeological sites. In particular, Greek colonists took their homegrown architecture and supersized it, everything seems bigger and ever so slightly flamboyant. A temple on Sicily is a Greek temple on steroids.
Come to Sicily for the temples, stay for the multi faceted history of the peoples who erected them.
Whether you have a penchant for military history, naval warfare, underwater archaeology or even (whisper it) a secret flirtation with medieval history, Sicily draws you in with a warm, lemon scented hug.
I was therefore very pleased to learn that two major museums on my home turf were to have Sicilian themed exhibitions this summer. The British Museum has an exhibition called Culture and Conquest running until August 14th and the Ashmolean has Storms, War and Shipwrecks: Treasures from the Sicilian Seas until September 25th.
I decided to visit both in two days with a lecture thrown in for good measure to fondly reminisce and hopefully see some of the pieces that I missed due to the Palermo museum closure. If only Maria Grammatico could also make the trip north my 48 hours would be complete!
And so to the British Museum (as if I ever need an excuse…) for a dose of wide eyed wonder and lots of contented sighs.
The larger exhibition space was taken up by Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds (which I’ll describe later,) and so the Sicily exhibition was rather restricted in scale.
Last year I was cursing the temporary closure of the Regional Archaeological Museum Antonio Salinas in Palermo. At every archaeological site on the western side of the island were signs declaring that the statue/frieze/metope from this temple/sanctuary/city could be found on display in Palermo. I was denied entry to an Aladdin’s cave. This London exhibition would be, I hoped, my chance to catch up on missed treasures.
Not so much…
The exhibition had large posters of Sicilian sites that made me long to return but was, for my insatiable appetite, a little light on actual exhibits. Call me greedy, but the sheer volume of artifacts in even the teeniest of provincial Sicilian museums can spoil a girl. What British museums do increasingly do well is signage. The BM had lots of large maps and info boards to give context to what was on show. Cohesion was sometimes lacking on my trip with some Italian museums preferring to group artifacts by type rather than giving a chronological narrative. I also don’t have to worry about my abysmal grasp of the Italian language…
I would have loved to take a few photos but they were forbidden. I find this policy a bit strange, there were no restrictions on the exact same pieces when they were displayed at their homes in Sicilian museums. For blogging purposes I’ll use my photos from last year.
I enjoyed seeing a few familiar friends like this marble statue of a warrior from Akragas (Agrigento.) The BM has beautifully lit this piece, (far better than Agrigento Archaeological Museum, if I’m honest…) so it was a shame not to be able to photograph him this time around, but for nostalgia purposes it was great to see him again.
The exhibition is a perfect introduction ti Sicilian history so while I didn’t learn anything new at the BM this time around, I did get to see a few nice pieces that I hadn’t managed to get to last year. In particular there were some lovely exhibits from Gela.
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This snake-headed bracelet (one of a pair) and gold ring were discovered on Sicily with hoards of gold and silver coins. All were deliberately buried by their owner, who intended to recover them but never returned. Around this time, about 330–300 BC, there was political unrest on the island and the added threat of attack from invading forces. For much of its history, Sicily was admired and envied for its wealth and fertility. In Greek Sicily, wealth was displayed through sumptuously decorated homes and gold jewellery like this. Learn more about the rise of Greek Sicily and its lasting impact in our #SicilyExhibition, until 14 August 2016. Gold bracelet and ring. Found at Avola, Sicily, about 330–300 BC. #jewellery #bracelet #Sicily #gold #ancientGreece
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These 2,000-year old terracotta figures depict the gods of #love. Scantily clad and casually poised, Aphrodite and winged Eros are typical of the terracotta and pottery workshops of the town of Centuripe in Greek Sicily. Terracotta modellers and potters in Centuripe favoured large, flamboyant, brilliantly coloured figures. Although sometimes found in graves, these may originally have been made to decorate the houses of the rich. Rivalling the most culturally dynamic Greek regions, Sicily became an arena for artists and intellectuals during this period. See these wonderful objects in our #SicilyExhibition, until 14 August 2016. Terracotta figures of the gods of love, painted after firing. Centuripe, #Sicily, about 200 BC. #Italy #history #ancientGreece
The highlight of the day instead came from the accompanying lecture given by Dr Michael Scott. I had high expectations having been so impressed with his book about Delphi (as I reviewed here) that I eagerly devoured in the weeks running up to my trip to Delphi in May 2014 (insert shameless plug for my travel journal here…) Modern historians can so easily over simplify their subject to patronise their readers/viewers (mentioning no names of course!) or conversely wrap themselves up in a dense fug of academia in an arrogant attempt to repel the casual audience members. Dr Scott mercifully does neither in his books or broadcasts.
Dr Scott chose to talk about ancient Sicily not from what they left behind them at home, but abroad. As an expert on Delphi it was not a surprise that the sanctuary featured heavily along with Olympia. Personally I was thrilled to learn of the many ways my two favourite places in the ancient world were linked.
It’s important to remember that Delphi was the centre of the world for Greeks and if Sicilian cities wanted to make an impression on the world they needed to head to Delphi to do it. One could never set foot on Sicilian soil, but by visiting Delphi they would have been able to see Sicilian art and architecture, read of the exploits of Sicilians tyrants, watch Sicilian athletes, listen to Sicilian musicians and have a chat with any Sicilians also making a pilgrimage.
I visited Delphi 12 months before Sicily, otherwise I may have noticed just how many Sicilian connections are there.
For instance, I didn’t pay that much attention to this base before and I can’t recall reading a sign about it. Even if I had, Gelon was a name that had popped up in my reading but I probably wouldn’t become well acquainted with the tyrant of Gela and Syracuse for another year.
The base once supported a bronze column topped with a statue of Nike with a tripod above her. Gelon had erected this close to the temple of Apollo within a stone’s throw of the serpent column and tripod celebrating the Greek victory over the Persian invaders at Plataia in 479BC. Gelon’s structure was a celebration over his victory at Himera over the Carthaginians. Gelon was apparently very keen for the Greek world to know that his victory over a worthy foe was just as important and deserving of respect as a victory over Persians (which was a war that Gelon coincidentally refused to contribute to…)
On the right, (which to my shame, I did not bother fitting in the frame) can be seen another base of another tripod dedicated by Gelon’s brother and successor, Hieron I. According to Dr Scott, Hieron made sure his monument was ever so slightly more impressive that of his brother, today only the slightly larger base leaves a clue.
Hieron left a greater impression on Delphi than his tripod, however. It seems a little strange that one of the highlights of the Delphi museum should be Sicilian.
Four years after defeating the Etruscans in naval combat at Cumae (initiating the decline of Etruscan dominance in Italy,) Hieron balanced his tyrant duties with being a top ranking athlete. He won the the chariot race in the Pythian Games at Delphi in 470BC, inspiring Pindar to write his 1st Pythian Ode. Hieron continued to compete at Delphi and Olympia picking up further prizes.
Hieron commissioned the bronze statue to commemorate his athletic prowess and installed it close to the temple of Apollo. It originally also featured four bronze horses along with slaves holding their reins, now sadly lost.
The lecture was fascinating and I am now pining to return to Sicily AND Delphi. I could write far more, instead I urge you to keep an eye on the Hellenic Society YouTube channel as everything was filmed.
Should anyone spot a lecture by Dr Scott, I urge you to grab a ticket. Watching anyone talk about a subject they so evidently love is always a joy to watch and Dr Scott is so effortlessly engaging it is impossible not to be swept up with him. I only wish I could persuade him to actually guide me around Sicily and Delphi instead of a lecture room in London.
Should you be brazen enough, Dr Scott was also gracious enough to chat with a few of us afterwards and was a delight to talk to. I left the museum with a spring in my step.
The following day it was the turn of the Ashmolean. I have a deep love of underwater archaeology as I find a certain romance to things being found where they were never meant to be. Little stirs my soul like a shipwreck does, so the Ashmolean exhibition called to me like a siren.
Again, no photography, again, no one in Sicily cared…
It was lovely to see part of the exhibition dedicated to the work of underwater archaeoligy pioneer Honor Frost. I’d had the pleasure of viewing the jewel of her maritime excavations when I went to Marsala to see the remains of a Carthaginian warship sunk off of the Egadi islands.
The Ashmolean exhibition added to my excitement by including several bronze rams found on the seafloor. One Carthaginian ram displayed the dents made by bashing into a Roman ship, a Roman ram still had a chunk of Carthaginian ship wedged in. It’s strange to think that had they not fallen into the sea, these rams would have been carted off to Rome to adorn the rostrum in the Forum.
The Ashmolean puts on a good show, but so far I’ve yet to see anyone (including the Underwater Archaeology Museum in Bodrum!!!) put on a better exhibition about shipwrecks than the 2014 Antikythera show at the National Archaeology Museum in Athens. I fear I’ve been spoiled for life…