What I learnt new about Sicily from the British Museum exhibition

I knew that Sicily had been occupied by the Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, and Normans before lapsing into its characteristic torpor described so well in The Leopard. I knew too of its great beauty, delicious food and wine, and wickedness. What I did not know—and learnt from the exhibition at the British Museum–is that for a century Sicily was a free thinking and intellectual powerhouse bringing together learning from the Christian, Byzantine, Jewish, and Muslim worlds. And this happened under the Normans, whom I’ve always thought of as a severe military power closer to Sparta than Athens.

The Normans began their conquest of Sicily in 1061, and Roger I became king in 1072.  He was a warrior, but his son Roger II, also a worrior, had time for more intellectual pursuits. He commissioned one of the first Western maps of the world from Muhammad al-Idrisi. In case you are perplexed, the Tabula Rogeriana (or the Map of Roger as the British Museum called it in a Monty Python way), is “upside down” in that the North is at the bottom.

Map of Roger

But Sicilian civilisation reached its height when Ferdinand II came to the throne in 1220. He spoke six languages (Latin, Sicilian, German, French, Greek, and Arabic) and was fascinated by philosophy, the arts, and science. A contemporary called him stupor mundi (the wonder of the world), and Nietszche called him the first European, partly perhaps because he ruled over Germany, Italy, and Burgundy as well as Sicily and probably more because he tended towards atheism, something highly unusual in the medieval world. His tolerance and passion for learning meant that his court include thinkers from everywhere.

Ferdinand II

A quote in the exhibition from a contemporary scholar described him thus: “…a king whose court is a school, whose individual words are philosophical axioms, whose questions are unanswerable, whose solutions leave nothing undiscussed and whose zeal leaves nothing untried.”

His zeal to leave nothing untried was illustrated by an experiment in which he shut a prisoner in a barrel to see if the soul could be seen escaping through a hole in the cask when the prisoner died. In another experiment he fed two prisoners, sent one to hunt and one to bed, and then disembowelled them to see which had digested his food the most.

When he died in 1250 his empire collapsed and Sicily never again reached such intellectual heights.


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