17.05.07, Booms and Higgs, Sicily: Culture and Conquest

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G.A. Loud

The Medieval Review 17.05.07

Booms, Dirk and Peter Higgs. Sicily: Culture and Conquest . Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016. pp. 288. ISBN: 978-0-714122-892 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Graham Loud
University of Leeds

Although published by Cornell, this book accompanied, and functions as a catalogue of, an exhibition mounted at the British Museum between April and August 2016. The exhibition was a relatively small, but high-quality, one, illustrating two separate periods of the cultural history of Sicily: the classical Greek era (primarily 5th-3rd century B.C.) and the Norman era in the Middle Ages. The impact of the latter period was extended into the time of Frederick II, as the heir of "Norman culture." While both discrete sections were extremely interesting, there was little to link the two apart from the physical setting of Sicily, and broad reflections on the impact of alien conquerors on indigenous cultures. One might reflect on a few physical continuities--the cathedral of Syracuse incorporating pillars from the classical temple that stood upon the same site in its structure, and the Norman-era castle of Erice built on the site of a former temple of Venus--and classical-style cameos and gems were produced at the court of Frederick II--but essentially this book comprises two separate and unrelated portions. Both in consideration of his readership here and in the light of his own expertise, the present reviewer will consider only the second half of the work, discussing medieval Sicily, that is the section (chapters 3-5) written by Dirk Booms. Two aspects of this section ought to be considered: its value first as a guide to the surviving treasures of Norman Sicily, and secondly as an historical introduction to the period. It proves more successful for the first aspect than the second.

The actual exhibition, which the present reviewer was lucky enough to see on the opening evening, although comprising only a few small rooms, was well-chosen, and the appreciation of the portable exhibits (some from the British Museum's own collections, but by no means confined to these) was enhanced by excellent photographs of key buildings and sites. That of Enna, for example [fig. 132 here], immediately illuminates the chronicler Malaterra's remarks on the impregnability of the site, and the problems which capturing this posed for Count Roger I. In one respect, at least, this book improves upon the exhibition, for however interesting it is to view actual coins, the Sicilian tarì of the Middle Ages are extremely small (between 14 and 18 mm. diameter), and it is only with the blown-up illustrations that one can appreciate the designs and inscriptions. A number of key artefacts of the period were exhibited and are reproduced here: notably a Koran produced in Palermo in the 980s (one of the relatively few survivals from Arabic Sicily); the royal robe of 1133-1134, probably one of the treasures of Sicily taken to Germany by Henry VI in 1195--one of a number of ceremonial garments now in Vienna which were part of the exhibition; an ivory casket from Bari and a magnificently carved ivory horn from the BM's own collection, as well as the British Library's celebrated trilingual Psalter, which may have been connected to the palace chapel. And while the great architectural monuments of the era are hardly portable, the colour photographs bring them vividly to life--I particularly liked the aerial shots of the historic centre of Palermo and of Monreale (figs. 119 and 183), views which the tourist cannot see. One might have liked some further pictures of the mosaics of the Cappella Palatina and Monreale, to give more of an idea of the iconographic schemes, and Cefalù is curiously neglected--the famous mosaic of Christ Pantocrator from the apse there appears seemingly as an afterthought (fig. 229, the last illustration in the book). But the discussion of the royal palace, for example, is both clear and comprehensive. In short, this book provides an admirable introduction to the material culture of Norman Sicily.

Where, however, it is less successful is as an introduction to the history. Dirk Booms is a curator of Roman archaeology at the BM, not a medievalist. He has admittedly read widely, if not always discriminatingly, about the Norman / Staufen era. (The footnotes and bibliography reveal use of some quite dated literature, but of by no means all the available modern work, even in English). The discussion of the Arabic period, before the Normans, is quite helpful. Here the author has taken advantage, in particular, of the work of Jeremy Johns and Alex Metcalfe, acknowledged experts in the field. This first half of chapter 3 serves to some extent as a linking section to the earlier chapters on classical Sicily, although only to a limited extent since the centuries of Roman rule are passed over extremely quickly, dismissed as a period when Sicily had no identifiable culture of its own--apart from the fourth-century mosaics at Piazza Armerina. The discussion of the central Middle Ages is, however, problematic in two respects. First, there is a rather unsubtle emphasis on the tolerant and "multicultural" nature of Norman Sicily--predictable perhaps for an exhibition that was the product of a collaboration between the BM and various cultural institutions in Sicily, and underwritten by a Swiss bank which operates internationally, but which still owes rather too strong an allegiance to modern political correctness. Admittedly, Booms does make some qualifications, briefly noting the growing Latin influence at court after Roger II, but the title of the last chapter, which continues the discussion through the reign of Frederick II, is still "An Enlightened Kingdom." Yet how enlightened was it? Modern historians tend to see the toleration accorded to Muslims as essentially pragmatic and somewhat reluctant, and the Muslim community as already under severe pressure, not least through Latin emigration into Sicily, by the later twelfth century. In the thirteenth century the forces of acculturation, as well as increasing religious pressure from the papacy, were beginning to affect the Greek community also. Messina went from being a predominantly Greek city to a majority Latin one in not much more than half a century, although Greek influence lingered much longer in the countryside, and in southern Calabria. The problem with this theme of "enlightenment" is most apparent in the discussion of Frederick II, which concentrates on the court culture and alleged Islamophilia of the emperor, and passes over in a paragraph the destruction of the Islamic community on Sicily. This brief passage also repeats the claim that the remaining Muslims of Sicily were deported to Lucera--an assertion which glosses over how a population which c. 1200 must still have been in the tens of thousands can have been transported to a mainland colony which most estimates suggest comprised no more than 15,000-20,000 inhabitants. What in fact happened to the Sicilian Muslims is problematic, and has never, to my mind, been satisfactorily explained. But the process was clearly brutal, rather than in any way "enlightened." A really effective discussion of Sicilian "multi-culturalism" thus needs to be more sceptical and nuanced than the one here, and probably to compare and contrast Sicily with other regions where Latin Christian rulers tolerated other religious groups, as in Spain. Indeed, I wondered whether the "multicultural" epithet applied better to the early classical period than to the central Middle Ages.

The other problem with the account of the Norman / Staufen period is that it contains some simplifications and quite a few outright factual errors. A few examples must suffice here. Thus, for the former, while Roger I certainly did use Muslim troops, we know about these only from their use on the mainland of southern Italy. It is not clear that they were employed, as seems to be implied, against their co-religionists on the island. The continued use of tarì (quarter-dinar gold coins) was indeed a mark of continuity, but they were also minted on the mainland, at Amalfi and Salerno, and had been at the former since c. 960--their use was not, in other words, a purely Sicilian phenomenon, or one confined in Christian hands to the age of the Normans. Nor indeed was the use of mosaic--there is nothing here about mainland precursors to the Sicilian church mosaics of the twelfth century, notably at Montecassino and Salerno cathedral. Here, of course we are dealing with nuances, and some simplification is perhaps inevitable in a work of this type, although the tendency here is, once again, to contribute to the overall narrative of Sicilian Norman-era exceptionalism, rather than placing the island in the wider context of contemporary southern Italy. Other claims are much more dubious. Did Roger II have Greek and Arabic tutors (178)? We do not know, although it is possible that the Emir Christodoulos (a Greek) may have had some role in supervising his upbringing. The figures quoted for the size of Roger's army in 1128 (178) seem to result from a misreading of the, admittedly unlikely, estimate given by one manuscript of the chronicle attributed to Romuald of Salerno. (They certainly do not derive from Houben's biography, which is cited in the relevant footnote). Stephen of Perche was not, so far as we know, on his way to a Crusade when he came to Sicily to take over the government in 1167; nor did he remain there "for several years" (226), in fact it was only about nine months. It was shown a long time ago that Archbishop Walter of Palermo and his brother Bartholomew were not English (pace p. 237). We are also informed that Frederick II was excommunicated for his failure to set off on Crusade by Pope Innocent IX (257), who was pope for a brief two months in 1591. More careful vetting of the text could surely have eliminated such elementary slips.

One would not wish to pour cold water onto an attempt to introduce the Norman kingdom of Sicily to a wider educated public--and indeed I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition on which this book was based, including the classical part with which I was less familiar. Sicily: Culture and Conquest, faithfully reproduces the excellent exhibits, and brings the exhibition to life for those not lucky enough to have seen it. Yet perhaps a Roman archaeologist should seek a little more guidance before trying to explain the Middle Ages.

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