By Professor Gervase Rosser
At the end of June, ten second-year Art Historians embarked on a week’s optional, extra curricular trip to Sicily. The programme was led by myself, Gervase Rosser, and Alessandra Buccheri (who completed her DPhil in Renaissance Art History in Oxford and who now lives in Palermo).
The choice of Sicily (where Alessandra and I have also organised visits in the past) is deliberate: the island teaches an unconventional history of art. The Renaissance grand narrative is still a story of Tuscany, Venice and Rome. Yet Sicily’s position in the middle of the Mediterranean has made it a nexus of cultures and a crucible of artistic invention across millennia. Generations of travellers from northern Europe have been drawn there. The discovery of the Greek underpinning of European culture in the Italian context was, for Goethe, a revelation. He wrote:
‘Without Sicily, Italy creates no image in the soul: here is the key to everything.’
One of the most evocative sites from this period – which we made the goal of one of our first visits – is the Greek city of Selinunte, on the southern coast of the island – abandoned since the city was destroyed in the third century BCE.
Selinunte, Oxford Art Historians in the steps of Goethe © Department of History of Art
A wonderful survivor of that Hellenistic culture, found by a fisherman in the sea not far from Selinunte in 1998, is the bronze Dancing Satyr now kept in a little museum at Mazzara del Vallo. The sight of it silenced everyone. The challenge of capturing its dynamism inspired those of us who could draw, and we all sat and gazed at it for a long time.
Dancing Satyr, bronze, ?4th century BC, Mazzara del Vallo Museum © Department of History of Art
After Selinunte, the vast Roman villa at Piazza Armerina – thought to have been built for the imperial governor of the island – was palpably from a different culture. There was more than a hint of vulgarity in the sheer scale of the mosaic decoration, and the herculean scenes of hunting. It is a monument to a variety of pleasures.
Sicily’s gardens and fountains testify to the Arabic presence in the island, dominant for over two centuries. The Normans, who replaced Arabic rule in the twelfth century, retained much of the culture which they found. We found our way to La Zisa, the out-of-town residence to which the Norman court adjourned from Palermo during the heat of the summer – and we also felt refreshed by the water from the restored fountain which flows from the marble and mosaic interior of the building out into the gardens.
We caught there an installation by Ai Wei Wei, with the theme, still highly significant for the Sicilian location, of migration and cultural crossings.
Ai Wei Wei, Odyssey, installed at ZAC Zisa, Palermo, 2017 © Evelyn Earl
The week was full of artistic high-points, but probably the most sensational moment was the entry to the Norman cathedral of Monreale – with its walls completely covered in mosaics – an extraordinary intensity of colour and light.
Twelfth-century fountain in the cloister of Monreale Cathedral © Evelyn Earl
The combination of Arabic and Byzantine extends into the cloister in a contrasting but complementary idiom – of restful decorative detail of stone and the cooling presence and touch of water. This architectural sophistication is developed into a further dimension in the Cappella Palatina, the chapel of the royal palace, in Palermo. The ceiling with its secular paintings – the work of Arab craftsmen – is as remarkable as the marble and mosaic work of the building.
We wandered extensively in the city of Palermo, which was our base for the week. At the Hispano-Sicilian Palazzo Abatellis, now the Regional Museum, we were particularly struck by the anonymous fresco of the Triumph of Death, originally in the cloister of a late-medieval hospital in the city – an image full of life, and visual evocations of contemporary culture (and its corruptions): hunting, fountains, music-making, and some fabulous hats.
Students debate the Triumph of Death in the Palazzo Abatellis © Fionn Montell-Boyd
The inventiveness and vitality of Sicilian art extended across the centuries. The extraordinarily elaborate stucco work of Giacomo Serpotta (d. 1732) made a huge impression on everyone.
The marked Sicilian taste for rich ornament is evident across all media. The interior of Palermo Cathedral was therefore a surprise, being, at the time of our visit, relatively austere and cold. We reflected, however, on the effect of timing upon the art-historical experience. The patronal feast of Santa Rosalia each July transforms the church and the city into a colossal stage. The festival impressed earlier travellers, including the Englishman Patrick Brydone, whose vivid and sympathetic account in his Tour through Sicily and Malta was published in 1776:
‘The whole of the cathedral, both roof and walls, is entirely covered over with mirror, intermixed with gold and silver paper, and an infinite variety of artificial flowers…Now, form an idea if you can, of one of our great cathedrals dressed out in this manner, and illuminated with twenty thousand wax tapers, and you will have some faint notion of this splendid scene.’
Definitively austere, however, was the former palace of the Spanish Inquisition in Palermo, containing grim cells, which nonetheless miraculously preserve dozens of wall-paintings created by the inmates – a moving trace of human resilience.
Palazzo Lo Steri, Palermo, cells of prisoners of the Inquisition, wall-paintings, 17th-18th century © Maria O’Hana
The long-standing cultural cosmopolitanism of Sicily is reflected also in its culture of food and wine. Patrick Brydone recalled the reputation (well established from ancient Greek times) of the seductive, honey-coloured wine of Agrigento – together with the effects of drinking excessive amounts of it. Primed to avoid such excesses, we appreciated the qualities, and enjoyed scenes such as the following on a nightly basis.
© Evelyn Earl
The culture of eating together was also one of conversation. Experiencing such an amazingly rich set of cultural encounters and talking about our shared impressions prompted further reflections on the animation of space – and about the relationship between art and friendship (to be continued …).
Gervase Rosser is a Professor of the History of Art in the Department of Art History and a Fellow of St Catherine’s College. For the BA course Gervase teaches courses on the classical tradition, medieval and Italian Renaissance art, and theoretical approaches to the subject.
For more information about the BA degree, please see the Department’s Undergraduate Admissions page.