Sicily: The Conqueror Conquered
The lure of Sicily comes partly from nature—a temperate climate, abundant crops and a bounty of seafood—and partly from its strategic importance. Situated in the Mediterranean at the crossroads of Greece, Italy and North Africa, the island has attracted settlers and opportunists since antiquity. Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and Spanish have all left their mark. The final result is not a chronology of imposed styles but a unique multicultural civilization. That diversity remains palpable today. In Palermo, for example, you can wander through the souk-like Vuccira market and slip into a tiny oratory covered by Giacomo Serpotta’s stucco figures, an exuberant example of Sicilian Baroque. The archaeological museum contains sculptural fragments from the island’s temples, a taste of the finest architecture of Magna Graecia. When you visit the Capella Palatina, commissioned by the Norman king Roger II, or, just outside the city, the Cathedral of Monreale, where the mosaics are measured in acres, not feet, you are enveloped in glittering splendor. The two interiors inspired W.B. Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.”
The history of Sicily might be summed up in the epigram “the conqueror conquered.” The Getty Museum’s exhibition “Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome” follows that theme to a crucial period in the formation of Sicilian identity, from the fifth to the third centuries bc. The Greeks arrived around 734 bc, established settlements and began calling themselves Sikeliotes (Sicilian Greeks). They found the island an edenic New World and flourished there. As a model of colonization, ancient Sicily has more in common with the beginnings of the United States than with, for example, the crude exploitation of Africa in the nineteenth century. Sicily was never a backwater. Syracuse was one of the great cities of the ancient world, the home of the genius inventor Archimedes and the poet Theokrites, progenitor of the pastoral genre.
The exhibition’s sampling of that culture, largely drawn from Sicilian museums, includes fascinating artifacts and several masterpieces. The statue of a youth, known as The Mozia Charioteer (470–460 bc), testifies to the stone-carving prowess of the sculptor. The easy stance of the athlete, probably an Olympic competitor, suggests that mix of realism and idealism we think of as classical humanism. The pleating of the thin linen over the muscular limbs is virtuosic. While the Charioteer exemplifies the elegant serenity of classicism, a statue of Priapos has a frank eroticism that expresses the vital sensuality that was an equally important aspect of antiquity.
In ancient times as today, Sicilians have not been known for their restraint. A spectacular religious offering dish, made of two and a half pounds of gold, known as a phiale mesophalos (325–275 bc) crystallizes the wealth and opulence of both art and nature, with a design featuring concentric bands of beechnuts, acorns, bees and blossoms. Sicilian coin makers were so celebrated that they signed their miniature bas-reliefs in tiny script. Sicilians take their everyday pleasures seriously, especially the food, a trait that Plato denounced. The first celebrity cookbook authors were Sicilians from the late fifth century bc: Herakleides of Syracuse and Mithaikos. A red figured bell krater (380–370 bc) in the exhibition depicts an intense conversation between a fishmonger and his customer over a handsome tuna. The culinary obsession is still part of the island’s heritage, as evidenced by the witty crime novels of Andrea Camilleri, whose protagonist, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, devotes equal attention to his cases and elaborate seafood meals at his favorite restaurant.
The principal works of antiquity, however, arise from religion. The exhibition presents a metope with Zeus and Hera (460–450 bc) and an altar with Eros and Kephalos (early fifth century bc), both from the temples at Selinunte and on loan from the archaeological museum in Palermo. Less grand but perhaps more touching are the many votive objects dedicated to Demeter and her daughter, Kore or Persephone. Of all the Greek deities, the divine mother and daughter took root most definitively in Sicily, appropriately for a goddess of agriculture and the seasons. By the fifth century bc, it had become canonical that Persephone had been abducted by Hades near Enna, in the meadows, fragrant with wildflowers, around Lake Perusa.
In establishing a timeline, the exhibition curators choose 480 bc, with the Sikeliotes’ victory over Carthage, as a starting point and 212 bc, with the Roman conquest of Syracuse, as an end. But Sicily’s role as a vital cultural conduit in the ancient world is more far-reaching and pervasive that those dates suggest. Rome absorbed Greek art and thought through Sicily in many ways, as we see in Cicero’s career. When Cicero was quaestor of Sicily in 75 bc, he restored a monument to Archimedes, a tribute depicted, rather rhetorically, in Benjamin West’s painting Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes (1804). In 70 bc, the orator made his reputation by arguing the case of his Sicilian clients in the corruption trial of Gaius Verres, a former governor accused of despoiling the temples. These incidents point up the complexities of the Roman record of acquisition, with its mix of homage, connoisseurship and looting. The conqueror is conquered once again. “Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome” is on view April 3–August 19, 2013, at the Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades, California. Getty.edu.