This British Museum exhibition will have us all booking holidays to Sicily

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Concordia temple in Agrigento, Sicily,
Concordia temple in Agrigento, Sicily,

"The oranges of the island are like blazing fire among the emerald boughs,” wrote the 12th-century Sicilian-Arab poet Abd ar-Rahman of Trapani, who served at the court of Roger II, one of the Norman kings of Sicily.

“And the lemons are like the pale faces of lovers who have spent the night crying.” These lush, evocative lines of verse appear at the start of a new exhibition at the British Museum devoted to Sicily’s extraordinary history.

They will kindle nostalgia in anyone who has ever been to this magical island. If you’ve never visited Sicily, and have plans for a summer holiday elsewhere, then this show - with its wall-sized, glossy photographs of sunlit Sicilian sites - is the next best thing.

Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, is one of the most bewitching destinations in Europe. Despite its distinctive triangular shape, though, it suffers from an image problem. During the 19th century it was a feudal wilderness of peasants and lawless banditry. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s exquisite novel, The Leopard, published posthumously in 1958, characterised it as a melancholy place of faded grandeur and decay.

And, of course, Sicily is notorious as the insular fortress of Cosa Nostra. Even blinkered visitors to Sicily, though, cannot fail to notice the multicultural richness of its history, which spans millennia, and makes the Mafia seem like upstarts.

Byzantine-style mosaic showing the Virgin as Advocate for the Human Race, originally from Palermo Cathedral, c.1130-1180 AD

Situated smack in the middle of the Mediterranean, in between Christian Europe and Islamic Africa, and blessed with Mount Etna’s fertile volcanic soils, Sicily has always been an irresistible destination for conquerors and settlers, from the Phoenician merchants who migrated there from the 10th century BC onwards, to today’s desperate refugees, who risk death to travel to the island on overcrowded boats from Libya.

The exhibition at the British Museum, boasting more than 200 objects, focuses on two distinct peoples from this long procession of ethnicity: the ancient Greeks and the Normans. Each presided over glory years for Sicily, separated by 13 centuries. The Greeks began to settle on Sicily towards the end of the eighth century BC. They were led by aristocratic adventurers who set forth from the city-states of their homeland to establish independent communities known as colonies.

Greek colonies thrived along the shores of the Mediterranean – the philosopher Plato compared them to “frogs around a pond” – but those in Sicily proved especially prosperous, because they benefited from the island’s natural riches, which favoured trade in olive oil, wool, grains, and wine.

The Greeks introduced grapevines to Sicily, as well as olives, and the island became famous for its wine. Even Julius Caesar was a fan. By the end of the sixth century BC, several Greek Sicilian cities, including Syracuse, Gela and Akragas (modern Agrigento), had established themselves as influential power bases – and their self-aggrandising rulers, known as tyrants, competed to flaunt their wealth.

Marble statue of warrior, Akragas, Sicily, c.470 BC  Credit: Regione Siciliana 

They built vast, lavishly decorated temples, including the largest Doric temple ever constructed in antiquity, the Temple of Zeus at Akragas, which was one and a half times the length of the Parthenon in Athens. The Temple of Concord at Akragas, built about 440 BC, is the best-preserved Greek temple in the western Mediterranean.

The tyrants also sponsored other arts besides architecture, and indulged their passion for the elite sport of chariot-racing, the Formula One of its day, by competing at the Panhellenic Games. Sicily was renowned for its horses. After an initial section devoted to the early farming communities of Sicily that predated the Phoenicians and Greeks, featuring a memorable limestone tomb slab, from 2000 BC, decorated with a mysterious design possibly representing the sexual act, the exhibition amply demonstrates the golden age that flourished under Sicily’s sophisticated Greek rulers.

There are terracotta ornaments that decorated Sicily’s limestone and sandstone temples, as well as a relief depicting a charioteer mid-race, a dramatic terracotta horse’s head, with flaring nostrils, from the roof of a monumental building, and a sleek sculpture of a stumbling warrior, carved from marble (which had to be imported).

Fragments of the funerary robe of Henry VI, Palermo, Sicily, 1197 AD  Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum 

There are smaller, more intimate objects, too: luxurious gold jewellery, including a pair of snake-headed bracelets and a stunning crescent pendant redolent of Asia, and several examples of Greek Sicily’s high-value silver coins, which boast subtle portraits, and were so large and beautiful that the proud artisans who made them added signatures.

During the third century BC, Greek power on the island waned, and in 241 BC Sicily became Rome’s first province. At this point, the exhibition leaps dramatically forwards in time, dispatching almost 1,300 years with a single wall label.

This informs us that, after the Romans, the island was briefly ruled by the Vandals and Goths, before it came under the sway of the Byzantine Empire. Then, after two centuries of Muslim invasions from North Africa, Sicily was fully conquered by Arabs by AD 965. The Arabs introduced new crops, including oranges, cotton and sugar cane, which revolutionised agriculture.

Around the same time, the Normans, Christian descendants of the Vikings, were starting to leave northern France and explore southern Italy. In 1061, five years before William the Conqueror sailed across the Channel, two noble Norman mercenary brothers, Robert and Roger de Hauteville, who were already firmly established in Calabria, initiated the conquest of Sicily.

The Baroque town of Ragusa Ibla Credit: Alamy 

It took them around 30 years to get the job done, but still: while William struggled to stay warm in dingy, dreary England, the de Hauteville brothers, along with the 450 knights they had supposedly brought with them, were sunning themselves on a Mediterranean island paradise.

Roger founded a dynasty there that would endure for a century, and Sicily under the Normans became a superpower. Posterity considers the Norman kingdom of Sicily an especially enlightened period in the island’s history. This is because the Norman rulers, faced with the dilemma of how to govern the island’s mixed population, including Jews as well as tens of thousands of Muslims, opted for tolerance and inclusiveness.

The British Museum’s exhibition explains how monarchs such as Roger II, who was crowned King of Sicily in Palermo’s cathedral on Christmas Day 1130, broadcast this policy in art and architecture. The hallmark of Norman Sicilian art is its harmonious fusion of diverse styles and traditions.

This is apparent in the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, which incorporates Byzantine mosaics, Southern Italian marble floors, and a “honeycomb” ceiling that was fashioned and decorated by North African woodworkers and painters, who depicted Roger II as an Islamic ruler.

The exhibition culminates with a section exploring the “dazzling” court of Roger II’s grandson, Frederick II, who became Holy Roman Emperor.

A recent exhibition, 'Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs', also in Room 35 at the British Museum, likewise stressed the cosmopolitan, polyglot nature of another ancient power next to the Mediterranean. In the past, perhaps, the British Museum would have concentrated on a single epoch in Egypt’s or Sicily’s history.

But today, in our era of multiculturalism, with its attendant social pressures, the institution is eager to explore how different cultures interact. Norman Sicily is a “good news” story in this context, since it offers an idealised vision of society at a time when immigration is high on Britain’s political agenda.

Some visitors may find this whiff of evangelism off-putting. But perhaps it’s best to ignore the subplot of contemporary politics, and simply marvel at Sicily’s outstanding past.

From April 21 to Aug 14. Information: britishmuseum.org

To plan your perfect trip to Sicily see Telegraph Travel's ultimate itinerary around the island