Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 20, 2013
Claire L. Lyons, Michael Bennett, and Clemente Marconi, eds. Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome Exh. cat. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2013. 288 pp.; 144 color ills.; 23 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9781606061336)
Exhibition schedule: J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, April 3–August 19, 2013; Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, September 30, 2013–January 5, 2014; Palazzo Ajutamicristo, Palermo, February 14–June 15, 2014
Sikeliote (Sicilian Greek). Statue of a Youth (The Mozia Charioteer) (470–460 BC). Marble. H: 181 x W (chest): 40 cm (71 1/4 x 15 3/4 in.). Courtesy of the Servizio Parco archeologico e ambientale presso le isole dello Stagnone e delle aree archeologiche di Marsala e dei Comuni limitrofi–Museo Archeologico Baglio Anselmi. By permission of the Regione Siciliana, Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana. Dipartimento dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana.

Sicilian Greeks—who adopted a collective identity as “Sikeliotes”—celebrated a decisive victory over the Carthaginians at the Battle of Himera in 480 BCE, by tradition on the same day the Greeks defeated the Persians at Salamis (Herodotus 7.166). In 212 BCE Marcellus sacked Syracuse and brought Sicily under Roman domination. Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome, curated by Claire Lyons and Alexandra Sofroniew, focuses on this key period, when Sicily, situated geographically at a pivotal intersection between Greece, Italy, and North Africa, experienced a spectacular golden age of cultural productivity. Rather than the traditional Athenocentric narrative, which begins with the Greek settlement of Sicily in ca. 730 BCE and casts Sicily as a provincial outpost passively receiving a culture generated in Greece, this exhibition proposes a re-reading of the modes of Hellenization, reestablishing for modern audiences Sicily as a catalyst that shaped Greek culture, sending waves of Hellenism outwards to both “old Greece” and, eventually, to Rome. It suggests how certain historical factors—including freedom from the conventions of the motherland and incredible wealth from agricultural abundance—furthered this exceptional condition. The result is aesthetically and intellectually stimulating.

At the Getty Villa, space for special exhibitions consists of three galleries and two corridors. Among the finest examples of marble carving to survive from antiquity, the Mozia Charioteer dominates the first gallery, which is devoted to the self-representation of an emerging Sikeliote culture, primarily through the commemoration of athletic and military victory. Named for the island off Sicily’s western coast where it was discovered in 1976, the charioteer demonstrates that marble statues of the highest quality—works that pushed the Attic limits of propriety—were commissioned and produced in Sicily. This was one of the earliest Hellenic sculptures meant to be seen completely in the round. A new, permanent seismic isolation base developed by Getty Villa conservation staff allows viewers to appreciate fully the dynamic torsion of the charioteer’s pose without the interference of its previous steel support structure. The calligraphic rendering of his sheer garment’s folds reveals his athletic physique with breathtaking sensuality. His hauteur inspires psychological explanation. Discovery at a Punic site further complicates attempts at interpretation: usually understood to celebrate a Sikeliote victory at one of the great games back in Greece, was it later taken as booty to commemorate a Carthaginian victory? While victory in the games demonstrated that the Sikeliotes were participants in the greater Greek world, military victory put them forward on the global stage. A limestone lion’s-head waterspout from the Temple of Victory at Himera is a reminder that more Doric temples stand in Sicily than in Greece, and that Sicily was the site of much architectural origination, such as the appearance of sculpted metopes. An Etruscan helmet of the Corinthian type captured in the naval battle off Cumae in 474 BCE was inscribed to celebrate the leadership of Hieron I of Syracuse and deposited in the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia; but it was in honor of Hieron’s victory in the chariot race at Delphi in 470 that Pindar described the battle as “freeing Greece from slavery” (Pythian 1.71–80). This gallery also features several coins, including two tetradrachms by the Aitna Master, establishing that some of the most beautiful issues in all of numismatics were struck in Sicily. Sicilian designers frequently signed their coins, just as vase painters signed their works in Greece, underscoring that these were conceived as small sculptures in relief. Sicily struck coins in gold, silver, and bronze, the last representing the first fiduciary currency, yet another Sicilian innovation.

An itinerant Greek sculptor probably carved the torso of a late kouros, which is indicative of the important artistic and cultural steps that lead to the Mozia Charioteer. By virtue of its votive function, the torso presides over a gallery devoted to religion and ritual. Sicily’s agricultural productivity led to the preeminence there of the cult of Demeter and Kore, as attested by terracotta heads of Hades and Kore, votive statuettes, and small votive reliefs. It was at the foot of Enna on Sicily that Hades carried Persephone into the Underworld, so careful study of these objects reveals Sikeliote versions of the cult’s eschatological doctrines distinctive from those at Eleusis. The gold libation bowl (phiale) of Damarchos, one of only five phialai surviving intact, demonstrates the virtuosity of the early Hellenistic goldsmiths. The pieces represent religion in Sicily as both personal experience and public performance at the greater sanctuaries. In a very real way, the realms of art history, myth, and topography all converge in these objects.

A massive sculpture of the fertility god Priapus, in some mythographies the son of Dionysus, oversees a gallery devoted to the theater and other pleasures of life. Carved from a local limestone, he bends in the double-S lordosis pose that enabled the god—and his viewers—to admire the enormity of his now-missing attribute. To progress through the galleries from the moment when sculptors broke the rigidity of archaic convention in the kouros torso, to the dazzling sensuality of the charioteer, to the explosive dynamism of this figure demonstrates the significance of Sikeliote practice to the history of Greek sculpture. Similarly, although Aristotle’s book on comedy in the Poetics does not survive, his introduction to his book on tragedy makes considerable reference to Sikeliote poets and dramatists, and throughout he incorporates Sikeliote authors into the wider history of Greek literature. Pindar was brought to compose odes to celebrate Syracusan athletic victories, and Aeschylus died at Gela at an advanced age; but the works of Stesichorus of Himera, one of the canonical lyric poets active in the late seventh and early sixth centuries BCE, transformed the heritage of epic into dramatic lyric that can be seen as a forerunner to tragedy. A white-ground calyx krater by the Phiale Painter from Agrigento illustrates the myth of Perseus and Andromeda, yet lacks the elements of staging so often shown on Sicilian and South Italian vases. A group of terracotta figurines from the island of Lipari might remind viewers that Sicily was credited with inventing comedy. A selection of red-figure vases with theatrical imagery indicates how Sicilian workshops began by reworking Attic models but ultimately supplanted imported wares. The island is also where Theocritus invented pastoral poetry, and therefore where well-known figures were sometimes presented in a novel way. Most people are familiar with Polyphemus as the monstrous Cyclops from Homer’s Odyssey. A marble head of the Hellenistic period, however, portrays the denizen of Mount Etna as the pathetic figure who fell in love with the nymph Galatea. Not all Sicilian invention was in the realm of science and high culture: one red-figure krater shows women playing kottabos (a popular drinking game that was a product of Sicily).

The exhibition aptly concludes with silver objects from the Hellenistic period, including pieces from the Morgantina Hoard; these last were probably hidden just prior to the Roman siege of nearby Syracuse and remained undisturbed until their clandestine discovery in the 1980s. Fashioned by Syracusan goldsmiths for use in a symposium and frequently decorated with motifs drawn from the theater, they are evocative of the immense material wealth drawn from Sicily’s agricultural bounty and its place as a hub of Mediterranean trade routes. Plato (who visited Syracuse twice) disapproved of the luxurious lives led by Sikeliotes. The pieces also provide a tantalizing suggestion of the objects that Marcellus appropriated from Syracuse for his triumph. Livy (25.40.1–2) is explicit in tracing to those spolia “the beginnings of the craze for Greek works of art” and stimulating Romans to an appreciation of Hellenic pursuits (culminating at its worst in Verres’s despoliation of Sicily). This marks the point at which Sicily not only shared its innovations with Greece, but also profoundly affected the budding culture of Rome.

The 145 objects on display come from the Getty’s own collection and twenty other lenders, including twelve Sicilian museums. The same-titled volume is more an independent resource than an exhibition catalogue, featuring current research by more than forty international scholars. Arranged thematically, their essays flesh out the narratives proposed by the exhibition, exploring diverse social and historical contexts and elaborating on Sicilian innovations in architecture, engineering, philosophy, literature, and more; thirteen entries focus on particular monuments to consider their significance in detail. Sicily: Art and Invention is the first major show to come from the Getty’s 2010 cultural agreement with Sicily, a long-term collaboration meant to improve relations between the museum and Italy and result in joint research, conservation, and exhibition programs. According to recent news reports, internal Sicilian politics jeopardized the run of the show; fortunately they were resolved. It is hoped that similar problems will not derail the planning for a second exhibition that will focus on western Sicily, Selinute, and its Punic settlements. As with this endeavor, it would enrich an understanding of Sicily’s crucial role in the development of Mediterranean cultures.

Peter J. Holliday
Professor, History of Art and Classical Archaeology, California State University, Long Beach

Please send comments about this review to