Sicily: Heritage of the World

Review by Antonio Battagliotti

Sicily has been a crossroads of different cultures with a history that is about three thousand years long. During antiquity, Sicily was the stepping stone between Europe and Africa as well as the gateway between the East and the West. Its strategic position in the Mediterranean, along with its benevolent weather and fertile lands, made it a destination of choice for the great ancient civilisation, such as the Phoenicians, the Greeks, and the Romans. A few centuries following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the island had a vital role for the Byzantines in their several attempts at recapturing the Italian peninsula, and later enjoyed a flourishing period under the Arabs first and then the Normans. This book, which accompanies the 2016 exhibition Sicily: culture and conquest on display at the British Museum, is the result of the combined efforts of scholars from Sicily and fellow academics from prestigious European and North American institutions.

The outcome of this cooperation is a volume comprising eighteen papers that provide the latest archaeological finds on ancient and medieval Sicily, the two main parts of the book. Accordingly, the first part deals with ancient Sicily from the Iron Age to the late Roman period with a focus on the Hellenistic era. The second part is entirely devoted to medieval Sicily, with a focus on the two and a half centuries of Arab rule and the following Norman reign of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The overarching theme of the book is the process of cultural fusion that occurred in the periods under scrutiny. Accordingly, this was a process of cultural accommodation whereby the locals renegotiated their identities when they met the new settlers during antiquity and the middle ages. To show how this process came about, the authors have re-examined old materials and textual data in light of new findings. Part 1: Ancient Sicily The main thread of the first part of the book is crosscultural encounters. This theme highlights the process whereby the local indigenous culture was transformed but also preserved in the wake of the contacts with Phoenician and Greek settlers. The process of cultural fusion occurred through progressive stages of negotiation rather than mere adherence to the hegemonic culture of the newcomers.

Accordingly, the authors of the first paper discuss recent excavations conducted at Monte Iato in north-western Sicily to show how local communities reacted to new cultural and economic stimuli when they met nearby Phoenician and Greek settlers. These contacts gave rise to new cultic practices which were later embedded into the identity of the indigenous population. In equal fashion, the second paper compares Hellenised Sicily to Greece to indicate how Sicily tailored its own role as an organic part of the Greek world rather than as a mere colony. The same idea is further discussed in the third paper which shows how cross-cultural encounters between locals and Greek and Phoenician settlers fostered distinct funerary or artistic practices within the same settlement, a sign that two different cohabiting populations have influenced each other while also retaining their own traditions. This is brilliantly shown in the case study of the Sanctuary of Polizello. The theme is explored in a rather original way in the fourth paper on The Grand Designs in Ancient Greece, as a part of a research project conducted by the University of Liverpool. The project aims to integrate archaeological and historical findings of the Greek world, including Sicily between 750—400 BCE, into the national curriculum in English primary schools. In practice, this cross-curricular project draws on the idea of learning history by playing it and shows how research on Greek Sicily can enhance the history curriculum by offering creative ways to develop children’s knowledge, skills and understanding.

This approach adopts the building of LEGO models to encourage schoolchildren to engage with ancient cultures. In addition to providing a cutting-edge approach with enormous cultural value, this paper offers a way to include the history of ancient Sicily in English primary schools, which would otherwise be absent. The following four papers explore material remains and reconsider previous discoveries in light of new research techniques. Accordingly, the authors of the fifth paper demonstrate how closer cooperation and exchange between institutions may help rectify mistakes, reassess previously overlooked details and foster new research avenues. This happened when the Sant’Angelo Muxaro golden bowl from the British Museum was re-examined alongside similar golden items found in the tombs at Sant’Angelo Muxaro. The re-examination of old finds alongside new ones is an equally central theme in the sixth paper where the author relies on mythology and historiography to offer new interpretations of well-known sculptures. Her interpretation provides a new context to the famous Motya Youth statue. While originally found in a Phoenician setting on the island of Motya, the author demonstrates how the statue may in fact relate to architectural materials unearthed in the Hellenic city of Selinous.

The interpretation of sculptural remains is central in the next three papers, as is the idea that cooperation between institutions is crucial in contextualising scattered remains. In particular, the seventh and the eighth papers remind us that marble sculptures that are kept in different museums were originally part of a whole piece. It is only when we re-combine them that we can understand their original purpose. A good example is the marble warrior from Agrigento discussed in the seventh paper which is part of the same group of marble statues from the Duke of Devonshire’s collection held at Chatsworth House, described in the eighth paper. The consequences of a lack of contextualisation are delineated in the ninth paper about the terracotta head of Hades. In particular, the author complains how illegal excavations in Sicily and other southern Italian regions have made it hard to contextualise the Hades head as it is virtually impossible to tell how it relates to similar sculptures unearthed throughout southern Italy. The final two papers in the first part of the volume are entirely devoted to Roman rule in Sicily from its inception in 227 BCE to late antiquity. In the tenth paper, Jonathan Prag from the University of Oxford analyses epigraphic evidence to determine the level of cultural interaction between the Phoenician, Oscan, Greek and Roman peoples. Finally, the authors of the closing paper of the first part discuss their finds of a Roman villa discovered at Gerace in central Sicily. The investigation is particularly insightful as it gauges the levels of wealth generated by Roman landowners in late antiquity.

Part 2: Medieval Sicily

The second part of the volume deals with, respectively, the Muslim and Norman periods. The authors discuss how cross-cultural encounters contributed to the process of cultural fusion, focussing on the creation of mixed identities and the establishment of a Norman legacy. Before the Norman conquest, Sicily had been under Muslim rule for two and a half centuries. During the Emirate period, the arrival of new settlers, such as North African Berbers, Persians and Arabs inevitably altered the fabric of the Sicilian society. There were mixed reactions to Arab rule. In some areas, cross-cultural interactions were commonplace as people took on new customs and names; in others, resistance to Muslim rule was so fierce as to require military intervention. There were also mixed feelings about Arab rule among the Muslim newcomers. As the authors suggest, the constant absence of rulers from the island created dissatisfaction even among the Muslim community, who eventually sided with the Normans during the invasion of Sicily. These different reactions have brought scholars to reconsider the traditional view of the Norman conquest as a small-scale Christian crusade. Accordingly, the authors try to strike a balance between old and new interpretations to map the levels of cultural, social, and linguistic fusion which ultimately led to the emergence of a Sicilian culture. The theme of mixed identities is discussed from the perspective of historiography in the first paper of this part (the twelfth paper in the volume). The author, Alex Metcalfe, considers what it meant to be a native Sicilian under Arab rule. His argument considers the differences between rural villages and metropolitan areas to show that inhabitants were differentiated in terms of language and beliefs rather than ethnicity, thus revealing a cosmopolitan and virtually colour-blind society. For instance, some locals adopted Arab names while retaining their Christian religion.

Marriages between locals and Arabs were also commonplace. Thus, the society that the Normans found when they conquered the island was one in constant religious, linguistic, cultural, and ethnic flux. The impact of Muslim rule on local people is further explored from an archaeological perspective in the following paper which considers how political changes affected the lives of farmers, artisans, and merchants between the 6th and 13th centuries AD. The scientific analysis conducted in this paper complements, but also supports, the conclusions reached in the previous one: Sicily was a changing community in perpetual evolution. The authors of this thirteenth paper conduct their investigation by combining data gained from field surveys and excavations with scientific analyses from animal bones, plant remains, human remains and material evidence such as pottery and vessels. The next paper, co-authored by Metcalfe, explores the Norman era. The question of identity here is connected to the Historia Sicula, a mid-twelfth century chronicle written in Latin prose which provides an almost-contemporary perspective on the Norman Conquest. Aspinwall and Metcalfe consider the extent to which Historia Sicula can serve as a marker of the level of Norman identity. Interestingly, Norman identity seemed to have been lost within a few generations following the inception of Norman rule. While the co-authors do not seem to offer a final answer, they liken the loss of Norman identity to the continual evolution of the Sicilian society. The following paper turns to the last decade of Frederick II’s rule (reigned AD 1198—1250) and provides further evidence for the polyethnic fabric of the island. Accordingly, the authors analyse a 1242 Latin-Arabic charter kept in the archives of the Agrigento cathedral. This manuscript is the only Arabic charter since the reigns of William II (reigned AD 1164—89) and Constance I (reigned AD 1197—8), more than 40 years earlier. As the authors remind us, soon after conquering the island, the Norman leaders recruited some of the Arabic scribes who had worked in the administration of the Emirate to ensure continuity in the transition of power.

When the Arabic scribes retired, the Norman administration ceased to issue documents in Arabic, as reflected by the absence of any Arabic administrative documents between 1111 and 1132. However, this changed after the coronation of Roger II in 1130 when he put his chief minister George of Antioch in charge of reviving the Arabic dīwān (the administration). To that purpose, George employed scribes from the chancery of Fāṭimid in Cairo, who introduced new bureaucratic codes and offices. These new Fāṭimid imports were integrated into elements dating from the Arabic administration under Roger I (reigned AD 1071-1101) and resulted in a distinctively Sicilian dīwān. Accordingly, the authors Nadia Jamil and Jeremy Johns from the University of Oxford, focus on the career of Obbertus Fallamonacha, the head of the royal treasury under Frederick II, to explain how the sudden reappearance of a Latin-Arab charter in 1242 may indicate a second attempt at reviving Arabic as the language of the administration. The last three papers consider the legacy of the Norman period in terms of the architectural revival in Sicily during the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

All three papers look at the Norman period as the golden era of Sicily, followed by much decline and ultimately culminating in sheer exploitation under the Bourbon kings. It was especially under the Bourbon kings that the island was once again ruled from afar just as it had been under the Romans and the Byzantines. As the Bourbon kings ruled out of Naples, Sicily became increasingly marginalised and the lack of a central government fostered the conditions for social inequalities, pitting a rich elite against a poor population. In some ways, the problems that still plague the island today, such as poverty and organised crime, originated during the Bourbon era. In the sixteenth paper, the author Pierfrancesco Palazzotto discusses the Gothic revival in eighteenth-century Palermo. The revival of Norman architecture was fostered by a sentiment of nostalgia for the glorious Norman past and can be considered as part of the movement of independence from Bourbon rule. However, the appropriation of Norman symbolism could also tell a whole different story depending on how one wants to look at it. As the rulers of Sicily, the Bourbon kings had used Norman legacy as legitimacy for their rule, placing themselves as the legitimate heirs to the Norman kings, to whom they were even distantly related. From the perspective of the popular and aristocratic liberalist forces advocating the independence of Sicily, Norman legacy was evidence that Sicily had indeed been distinct from the Kingdom of Naples (the Bourbon power base) and should therefore be autonomous. However, what makes Palazzotto’s research stand out is that the renovation of the Palermo cathedral initiated a string of imitations of the new Gothic style, both in public monuments and in private residences, putting Palermo at the forefront of the neo-medieval architectural style that later spread throughout Europe. This revival, however brief, gave Sicily that cultural centrality it had held under the Normans. The seventeenth paper considers the renovations of the Norman tombs in the Palermo Cathedral, in particular, those of Roger II, Constance I, Henry VI and Frederick II.

According to the author of the paper, the renovations, which took place in 1781, sparked wider interest in the Norman past. The final paper focuses on medieval Norman architecture used for funerary chapels. Conclusion This book is an outstanding work which does full justice to the magnificent island of Sicily. Perfectly illustrated with maps, photographs and charts, this volume is the outcome of thorough research by a team of professionals who have a deep appreciation for the cultural heritage of the Mediterranean island. In analysing old findings alongside new ones, the authors have delivered on their promise to place the history of the island in its correct place. They have achieved this by challenging the traditional assumption that Sicilian history was unilaterally influenced by external forces. The fact that the Sicilian society was in a constant flux indicates that cross-cultural encounters were catalysts for the development of unique local identities. If this process of negotiation and re-invention had not occurred, we would probably have known a different Sicilian society today. I highly recommend this book to historians who are interested in the Mediterranean civilisations. The only downside I could think of is that this book may not be an easy read without some background knowledge of Sicilian history.

PublisherBritish Museum Press
ISBN No0861592220
Date Published2020