I FIRST stepped on to — or, rather, slept into — Persephone’s island 35 years ago, a day later than planned. The train south from Rome had been split incorrectly in the night, leaving one carriage full of bewildered passengers next morning at Taranto in the heel, as opposed to Reggio Calabria and the sailing point for Sicily.
It took a day by the Ionian Sea (train, replacement bus service, school bus, train, and bus) to reach the hilltop city of Cosenza, where Alaric the Visigoth died after sacking Rome (AD 410). At last the Straits of Messina were now in sight. Downhill to the shore seemed easy, but the evening became soporifically hot as an unseasonal sirocco made the third-class wooden railway coaches even stuffier.
I dimly recall the breaking up of the train to fit on to the night ferry, and was heady with sleep the next morning, when we should have been nearing Palermo. Instead, it seemed that we had made only a few uncertain kilometres’ headway against a high wind, and were no distance from Messina.
The train crawled along the northern coastline, pausing whenever the vents of wind threatened from the south. At one point, we were all forced to disembark to allow the empty train to risk crossing a viaduct high above a gorge when the wind dropped. We followed, often on our hands and knees, keeping well below the line of the parapet.
Was I prepared for what I found? Scarcely, for all that the late Chris Duggan had discussed with me when we were at college. I had read John Julius Norwich, Norman Lewis, and Francis Guercio, as well as Luigi Pirandello, Leonardo Sciascia, and Giuseppe di Lampedusa — and, let’s face it, without them we would be at a loss to know where to begin. But Sicily seemingly cannot be expressed in words. It can be smelt and it can be seen, but it can be described only as a terrain of contrast.
Years later, an architect, Mario, took me one night on his motorcycle around some of the palaces that circle Palermo, using his pass keys, with which he was entrusted as a conservator. We ended up on the beach at dawn, eating freshly landed sea urchins, as he pointed out how the spiny creatures echoed some of the Baroque designs on which we had already feasted.
The disparity between the smell of musty plasterwork and the taste of tangy sea hedgehogs, sharpened by the night air, could scarcely have been greater. Eating sea urchins has long been a passion on the island and kept fishermen busy by night.
This breathtaking exhibition celebrates many of the contrasts of a multilingual and syncretic society by concentrating principally on two periods of radical change in the island’s history, brought about by successive maritime invaders who colonised and inhabited the triangular landmass at the crossroads of the Mediterranean. The Ancient Greeks further expanded on to the Italian peninsula, and the Normans reclaimed the land for Christians without forcibly expelling the Muslims, at the end of the 11th century.
But the exhibition first opens with traces of the late Palaeolithic communities to show that long before the Phoenicans and Greeks reached the island it had sheltered articulate cultures. The finely incised hooded figures from the rock chambers and caves of Addaura on Monte Pellegrino, which are said to date from 13,000 BC, were found by Allied soldiers in 1943. Long closed to the public, the caves have since suffered vandalism, but the sinuous graffiti sketches are here captured for us in a photograph. The tomb stele that is on display is a mere 4000 years old, and appears to depict the sexual act as an eternal symbol.
Settlers brought with them their own deities. The goddess Potnia Theron (“Lady of the Animals”), whom the Minoans addressed in Crete, is here depicted (twice) on a storage jar on the other side of which are two rearing stallions, one red and one grey. Painted around 650 BC, it attests to a well-founded claim that the island people raised thoroughbred horses long before the Arabs. It has been generously loaned by the Paolo Orsi Museum in Syracuse, one of Europe’s leading archaeological museums, which reopened in 2014.
Much later (the exhibition skips lightly over the late Antique world after the fall of Rome and the part played by the Church in the transitional period when the Arab conquest was reversed), Christians offered their devotions to another deified figure, the Virgin Mary, who is encountered twice here.
The first is in a rich 12th-century mosaic on a portable shrine, and depicts the Madonna as Advocate. This been loaned (only until 14 June) from the Diocesan Museum in Palermo but was once in the cathedral there. Devotion to the Madonna Avvocata remained strong in the city’s history thereafter, and, when a bridge collapsed there on 15 December 1590, the Spanish Viceroy instigated an annual feast that was observed throughout the 17th century.
The quality of the mosaic work from Norman Sicily suggests in part why, in July 2015, UNESCO listed both the cathedrals at Monreale and Cefalù as World Heritage Sites. Mosaicists from mainland Salerno seem to have played a part in reviving this classical traditional craft in the Byzantine period. which extended largely across Magna Grecia. Inlaid borders of mosaic surround a memorial to a Christian priest’s mother who was honoured in AD 1149, or the year 4909, or 6557, or 564, as recorded on the quadrilingual inscription.
The second is a much debated painting that is here attributed to Antonello da Messina (c.1430-79) without comment. The Virgin is depicted not just as the mother of Christ but as the Queen of Heaven, set against a densely black background. Two attendant angels flown in for the occasion are about to place an ornate bejewelled crown on the Virgin’s head while she demurely looks down at her son and saviour.
The Christ Child sits on his mother’s arm, holding a pomegranate as a sign of his forthcoming Passion. He is vested in a black-and-gold dalmatic with a crimson-red decorated amice. A priestly figure rather than a Lawgiver, it provides a haunting image, whether or not it is by Antonello. When it was first shown by George Salting to the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1904, it was variously thought to be Flemish, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, and even Oriental.
But by Antonello’s lifetime the domination of the island by the Normans had long passed. The Swabian dynasty came to an end when Conradin was beheaded in 1268, and the Angevins, imposed by the pope, were expelled after the rebellion known as the Sicilian Vespers, in 1282, led to the ransacking of French garrisons across the island.
Sicily’s multiculturalism ensured its survival at the crossroads of European seaways. The first map we see is from a mid-16th-century Egyptian copy of an earlier Arabic cartographer’s work. In the 12th century, Muhammad al-Idrisi (1100-65) had surveyed the known world from the equator to the Baltic for King Roger II. He provided 70 double-page spreads that, when assembled, produce an entire world map.
This copy of his Kitab nuzhat al-mushtaq shows Sicily, known to the Romans as Trinacria from its three corner promontories, with the north coast at the foot of the map (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Pococke 375, ff. 187v-188r). Mountains are rendered like so many plaits of coloured dough, and the eastern tip of the island smooches the toe of Italy, with Messina and Reggio Calabria marked as ancient cities. The surrounding sea is depicted with blue waves crossing a deeper blue black, as if to show the island’s dependence on the storm-tossed seas.
The earliest known map of the island, also on loan from Oxford, dates from the 13th century, but is copied from one drawn up in the 1080s. It is much less accurate, omitting the south coast from Sciacca to Siracusa, while Palermo occupies the central oculus of a rounded oval. All the main roads on the island lead to the capital.
Neither map marks the temples that are so characteristic of the island. It was largely the classical inheritance that drew the British on the Grand Tour in the 18th century, and there is a concurrent exhibition, “Drawn to Sicily” (to 14 July), in Room 90a, of a dozen watercolours, as well as drawings and engravings.
Charles Robert Cockerell, who visited in 1812, was a later Trustee of the British Museum, and his engravings became standard textbook illustrations. The likes of the draughtsman John Brown, who visited in 1772, and Charles Gore, travelling five years later, are scarcely household names, but their sketches were worked up by others (including J. R. Cozens and Jakob Philipp Hackert) into atmospheric pictures.
For anyone who has been caught in a violent storm on the hilltop at Segesta, the remoteness of the unfinished Doric temple there (424-416 BC) is evident in the scale used by Cozens in his watercolour (British Museum, P&D Oo.4.8). The surrounding hills west of the ancient city of Scamander suggest the loneliness of the site.
“Sicily: Culture and Conquest” is at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1, until 14 August. Phone 020 7323 8181.