Sicily the superpower: British Museum revisits island's golden ages

In 1066 the Normans were not just conquering grey, cold England. They were also in sunny, fertile Sicily creating what became one of the most enlightened cultures in Europe.

The little known story of the other Norman conquest is to be told in an exhibition exploring 4,000 years of history on the island of Sicily, the British Museum announced on Thursday.

More than 200 objects will be brought together to prove there is a lot more to Sicily than lemons and the mafia. The show’s main focus will be on two major eras: Greek rule after the 7th century BC and Norman rule from the end of the 11th century.

“We are trying to show periods of history which we think the larger public does not really know about,” said the co-curator Dirk Booms. “Very few people know that the Normans went to Sicily in 1061, before they conquered England, and by 1091 the whole island is theirs.”

A 16th-century copy of a map of Sicily by Muhammad al-Idrisi
A 16th-century copy of a map of Sicily from Muhammad al-Idrisi’s 12th-century map of the world, Tabula Rogeriana. Photograph: The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford


The island, then a melting pot of Norman, Islamic and Byzantine cultures, was lucky to have as its ruler King Roger II, who set about making Sicily into a great European power.

Booms said the inquisitive, multilingual Roger developed into one of the most important kings of his era, who set about “artificially creating a culture which becomes the most flourishing, the most enlightened culture of the time”. He added: “People looked to Sicily for inspiration, they see them as a superpower.”

A remarkable Arab/Norman-style architecture emerged under Roger and the exhibition will include architectural decorations and a wonderful 12th-century Byzantine-style mosaic of the Virgin Mary from Palermo cathedral.

Roger also welcomed scholars of all races and faiths to his court and took a genuine interest in scientific innovation. One highlight of the show will be one of the oldest surviving copies of a new world map commissioned by Roger from the Arab cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi.

A terracotta roof ornament with the head of a Gorgon
A terracotta roof ornament with the head of a Gorgon from Gela, Sicily, circa 500BC. Photograph: Stephan Eckardt/Regione Siciliana


Sicily continued to flourish and was later ruled by Roger’s grandson Frederick II, who was also Holy Roman Emperor but based his court in Palermo. After his death, the island’s star began to fade.

Its other great period was under the Greeks and curators said they are particularly pleased to be showing a terracotta roof ornament from about 500BC showing a Gorgon, the famous female Greek monster with snakes for hair.

One of the most enlightened rulers was Hieron II, a patron of poets, writers and scientists such as the Syracuse-born Archimedes, who had his eureka moment on the island.

Booms said there was a reason Sicily flourished under Greek and Norman rule. “It is clear that these two periods happened when Sicily was ruled by someone on the island, a king who had a court on the island, who wanted the best for his people.

A bronze rostrum from a Roman warship
A bronze rostrum from a Roman warship dated to about 240BC that was found on the seabed near Levanzo, Sicily. Photograph: Regione Siciliana


“When it is in the Roman, Byzantine and Arab periods, they were ruled from elsewhere and they did not care about Sicily … they wanted it for its richness.”

Many of the objects will be coming to the UK for the first time, including a direct remnant of a famous battle that took place in 241BC, when the Romans finally conquered Sicily: a bronze battering ram that was fitted on the front of Roman warships and was only recently excavated from the sea.

Sicily: Culture and Conquest will be at the British Museum from 21 April-14 August, sponsored by Julius Baer