Not Just Mafia Cliches: Sicily Exhibition at the British Museum

Last Sunday (17th April), Millman Street Community Centre members were privileged to attend a preview of the British Museum’s Sicily: Culture and Conquest exhibition.

This reporter’s ignorance of Sicily, perhaps shaped by the media portrayal of the island, had made it synonymous with the mafia (with a little bit of knowledge of Sicily’s pivotal role in the allied invasion of mainland Italy during WWII).  But this exhibition helped to rectify such cliched impressions.  The Mediterranean’s largest island has a rich and varied history, shaped by various conquests over the last 4000 years.  Phonecians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Normans have all occupied Sicily, and all have left their mark.

The exhibition featured a cornucopia of pottery fragments, masks, friezes and marble statues.  There were fragments of a Norman throne, a wooden ceiling section and a series of surprisingly tiny coins.  Other highlights included the Plaque of St Nicholas Crowning Roger II, from circa 1140 AD, and mosaics featuring mythological animals and exotic creatures.  There was also a mosaic of The Madonna as Advocate from the 12th century.

Also on display were a wooden ‘honeycomb’ ceiling of the Palatine Chapel (much admired by HCA volunteer Sam), created by Fatimid craftsmen, and painted with scenes of Roger II’s court.  A letter from the monarch’s mother, also on display, is the oldest surviving paper document in Europe, dating to 1109 AD.

In other displays were pendants and caskets that once belonged to Thomas Becket, a bust of Frederick II (dating from circa 1200-1250 AD) and several portraits on the walls.  One, Antonella de Messina’s Virgin and Child (1460-1469 AD), almost came to grief at the hands – literally – of a pair of boisterous kids, who unthinkingly slapped the canvas whilst playing.  Fortunately, they rushed off before causing any damage.

Jean Usher found the exhibition, “Very interesting.  Well worth the visit.  It makes you realise how clever people were in ancient times.”  Jean liked the carvings and mosaic floor, and the colours the artisans had used.

Tom had been to the British Museum many times before, and found the Culture and Conquest exhibition”Very intriguing,” adding,  “I didn’t realise that so many groups [of people] had ruled Sicily.  Such a mixture!”

Quite.  Unfortunately, the taking of photographs was prohibited for the preview, but the Sicily: Culture and Conquest exhibition runs until 14th August.  Please contact the British Museum for further details:

Holborn Community Association would like to thank the British Museum for allowing our members to attend the preview free of charge.

Report by Notes Smudger

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