British Museum’s Sicily show highlights two golden ages

Exhibition demonstrates sophistication and expertise of both the invaders and the conquered

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The shadow of Neil MacGregor hangs over the British Museum. One of the most important influences he exerted was to make “soft diplomacy” a priority for the museum. He used culture in its broadest sense—be it sending emergency teams of curators or training foreign staff and restoration experts (Iraq from 2003), or loans to other museums (sending the Cyrus cylinder to Tehran in 2010), or the organisation of exhibitions that brought public attention to cultures and histories that were often little known or badly misunderstood (the Hajj in 2012, Germany in 2014)—to improve understanding and to promote peace. He and his staff are much to be admired and applauded for these efforts.

Sicily: Culture and Conquest, which opened to the public yesterday, is part of this trend. It highlights two “golden ages” of the island’s long history, namely the period of Greek colonisation (750BC to around 262BC) and the period of the Norman and Hohenstaufen rule (AD1030 to around 1250). An introductory section briefly summarises recent archaeological discoveries from the prehistoric period; the stretch from the Roman conquest (242BC) to the destruction of the Arab Emirate (AD1091) is sandwiched between the two foci.

It is difficult to convey the skill with which the entire ancient and Medieval sweep is conveyed so concisely and lucidly. The collaboration of the regional government of Sicily has ensured that the objects on display are not only of the highest quality, but have been chosen to demonstrate the sophistication and expertise of the invaders and the conquered, and their mutual enrichment. Architectural features, sculptures, ceramics, jewellery, glassware, mosaics and cameos, not to mention a selection of coins, attest Sicily’s wealth and cosmopolitan connections.

In the final gallery (next to a Madonna and Child by Antonello da Messina, deemed to be the island’s last high cultural gasp), the wall text proclaims that, with the beginning of the Italian Renaissance, “Sicily’s uniquely tolerant, multicultural milieu combining elements from Western, Islamic and Byzantine cultures had disappeared”. This cosy, bien pensant vision of a liberal, open-minded, enlightened and easygoing Greek and Medieval Sicily is a 21st-century aspirational revision of history. Airbrushed out of the picture is the fact that these golden ages were also periods of vicious, bloody conquest, of suppression of the defeated and of slavery (Greek, Roman and Medieval serfdom). But history told through objects is, of necessity, a view from the top. The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer, the Swiss private banking group.

• Sicily: Culture and Conquest, British Museum, London, 21 April-14 August

• The catalogue for Sicily: culture and conquest (£30) is available from The British Museum Press

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