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Sicily: Art And Invention Between Greece and Rome.

Sicily: Art And Invention Between Greece and Rome

J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa

Malibu, California

April 3-August 19,2013

Sicily continues to captivate the imagination of the modern traveler to this day. In antiquity, the island was known as Sikelia and was home to Greek colonists who settled there as early as the 8th century. Although they never forgot their roots and worshipped the Greek pantheon, the settlers--or Sikeliotes--built new cities, produced cultural innovations, and developed their own civilization apart from mainland Greece. Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome represents a collaborative effort of the J. Paul Getty Museum and Villa together with the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Sicilian Region and the Assessorato for Cultural Heritage and Sicilian Identity. The impressive exhibit centered on the role of innovation, continuity and production on the island as well as its relationship to the rest of the Mediterranean world. Originally scheduled to travel, a number of international museums and institutions loaned over one hundred works for the exhibit that celebrated 2013 as the "year of Italian culture in the United States." (1)

The exhibit's most prominent works included decorative arts, numismatics, sculpture and religious objects that highlighted the island's range of production and interaction with neighboring cultures throughout the Mediterranean between the fifth and third centuries BCE. The fifth century indeed marked a turning point for Sikelia, resulting in its development as a powerful presence in the region that only ended with the Roman conquest of the island in the third century BCE. Both the defeat of Hamilcar I and the Carthaginians in 480 BCE and of the Athenians in 413 BCE were significant triumphs establishing Sicily as an island capable of defending itself against neighboring aggressors wishing to capture its enviable resources and take advantage of its strategic position.

A high quality catalogue published by the J. Paul Getty Museum featuring over twenty entries addressing various aspects of the island's identity, material culture, and religious practices accompanied the exhibit and provided greater insight into the contexts of the works on display. The theme of cultural interaction at a crossroads of the Mediterranean was clearly expressed throughout the exhibit. This was made visible through the inclusion of objects that once changed hands or traversed great distances in antiquity, such as the inscribed Etruscan helmet loaned by the British Museum that was taken as part of war spoils by Hieron I and dedicated at the temple of Zeus in Olympia following the defeat of the Etruscans in 474 BCE at Cumae.

The exhibition itself was comprised of three main rooms and adjoining hallways organized according to broad social and cultural themes. Visitors were encouraged to begin in the room focusing on athletics and competition, which also displayed the famed Mozia Charioteer, an imposing sculptural figure dating to the fifth century BCE.

The second room centered on religious ritual and material connected to the worship of Demeter and Persephone, whose cult presence on the island was particularly strong. An inscribed gold phiale (Fig. 1) used for pouring wine libations, a fourth century BCE altar reused during the Roman period, and a statue of Demeter accompanied by a jug of seeds were among the objects chosen to represent the importance of cult ritual for the agricultural lifestyle of the Sikeliotes. The so-called Herakles of Cafeo, (Fig. 2) a small bronze votive of Herakles, was another significant small-scale work included in the exhibit. The object was found at the bottom of the Irminio River and likely was connected to devotions to nearby springs, indicating a probable link of the god to healing practices, a seemingly nontraditional role for a deity more typically associated with athletics.

A hallway following the second room was dedicated to invention and the famed scientist and mathematician, Archimedes, a native of Syracuse, Sicily. This space featured a page from the Archimedes Palimpsest, the oldest surviving manuscript containing portions of the inventor's treatises along with other fragments of ancient texts reused in the medieval period for the purposes of creating a prayer book. The final room addressed aspects of domesticity, theater and the arts. Here, tragic and comedic masks, statues of performers, mixing vessels and a large sculpture of the god Priapos offered insights into both the domestic and social spheres of Sikeliote life.

The exhibit featured a number of works representing a range of artistic skill and techniques. Among them, the so-called Mozia Charioteer (Fig. 3) stands out as a tour-de-force of figural representation. Sculpted from marble and found in 1976 on the small island of Mozia (ancient Motya) just off the coast of Sicily, the figure stands over six feet tall and likely represents a victorious youth triumphantly posing after the Panhellenic chariot race. The figure is remarkable for its dynamic posture highlighted by the delicate garment folds that cling to the young man's body and contrast strongly with his almost emotionless expression, which is characteristic of the fifth century's Severe style. Uncertainty surrounds this work, however, and more recent speculation on the part of scholars suggests that the figure may represent a dancer or a musician. The head was found separated from the body without metal attachments or arms and it is believed that the sculpture was buried during the siege of Motya in 397 BCE along with a number of other objects and architectural fragments.

Most works were small scale and portable but other large-scale sculptural examples, such as an impressive statue of Priapos from Syracuse, were also included. Within the context of the exhibit, the Sikeliote Priapos functioned as a visual foil for the measured dynamism of the Mozia youth. Possibly one of the earliest representations of the deity and sculpted from local limestone, the figure's thrust pelvis, exaggerated arched back and vivid details suggests the raw power of the god connected to the wilderness and erotic licentiousness. Together with the Mozia Charioteer, these examples showcased the possible range of Sikeliote sculptural achievement from the period.

It is not surprising that curators routinely face the challenge of successfully conveying both a complete historical and spatial context for objects on display--the latter being especially difficult to achieve within the confines of a museum's walls. In the case of this exhibit, further complications emerge since few architectural examples survive to give insight into the island's built environment. However, much to this exhibit's credit, curators Claire Lyons and Alexandra Sofroniew clearly worked to create a sense of physical atmosphere by placing oversized photographs of both man-made and natural landscapes along the main hallway, helping visitors grasp a sense of objects otherwise completely dependent on labels for context. Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome was a testament not only to the achievements of ancient Sicily at its height but also to the potential for collaborative endeavors between institutions to present a vast and diverse collection of works to the public, now housed in museums around the world. It is only regrettable that the exhibit came to an early dose and could not complete its journey in the United States as originally planned.

Ana Milena Mitrovici

University of California, Santa Barbara


See: The exhibit was scheduled to travel to the Cleveland Museum of Art, but was unfortunately canceled after Sicilian officials requested that prized pieces such as the Mozia Charioteer and a gold phiale be returned to Sicily earlier than initially intended.
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Author:Mitrovici, Ana Milena
Publication:Southeastern College Art Conference Review
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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