Minsogna Saracina: Storms, Wars and Shipwrecks exhibition at the Ashmolean

In 1783, the Maltese cleric Giuseppe Vella discovered the first of a cache of documents purportedly from the period of Arab rule over Sicily (831-1072). In spite of his reticence to disclose their find-spot, and his… questionable familiarity with Arabic, his translations were wildly popular across the Italian peninsula, serving as evidence of an independent Sicilian history at just the time the kingdom of the island was seeking greater autonomy from the Naples-based House of Bourbon. Vella was even appointed as the first Chair of Arabic at the University of Palermo in 1785. Of course, as news spread further and further, and eventually reached places where (shock horror) Arabic was still the dominant language, it quickly became clear that the documents were rather poorly composed fakes. A long trial for forgery ended in Vella’s imprisonment in 1795, where he was to die twenty years later. The title of this review is stolen from words of Sicily’s greatest poet, Giovanni Meli, for this sordid affair: ‘Sta minsogna saracina’, the Saracen lie.

It’s a story to remember as you walk around the Ashmolean exhibition ‘Storms, Wars and Shipwrecks: Treasures from the Sicilian Seas’ (running 21st June – 25th September). While the exhibition begins with a small display on the history and principles of maritime archaeology, the focus is subsequently all on Sicily, perpetual hacky-sack to Italy’s boot and star also of this year’s blockbuster summer exhibition at the British Museum (it is common for exhibitions at the Ashmolean, and at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, to tie in with those at the British Museum).

Spatially, the display is defined by curves: a long-wave like wall leads you out of the maritime section, where you are greeted by the towering bow of a reconstructed Roman warship to replicate those victorious in the naval battle of the Egadi Islands (241 BC) over the Carthaginians to end the First Punic War. The motif of curvature is particularly striking in the final section of the exhibition, when the displays of the Byzantine and Arabic phases of occupation are partitioned by outlines of a parabolic and a horseshoe arch, respectively. The effect of all these undulating and snaking lines is to reinforce the central underlying message of the exhibition: the history of Sicily, and the Sicilians, is a unity, an unbroken line which the pressures of succeeding empires has never fully disrupted.

A collection of stone heads, dated, in my opinion rather dubiously, AD 100-300 and believed to be produced by apprentice sculptors in North Africa. Reproduced from http://honorfrostfoundation.org/storms-war-and-shipwrecks/. Accessed 31/07/2016.
On the one hand, this is a very welcome presentation. I am sick and tired of museums that present a jigsaw puzzle view of the past, with the Greek material from Greece (although most commonly actually excavated in Northern Italy) kept away from the Egyptian material from Egypt; or the artefacts from China, India and Rome housed in completely separate parts of the building as though their contact through the Silk Road had no influence on the composition and cultures of these societies. In particular, I was very glad to see a Muslim period incorporated into the grand narrative of European state (although pointedly not one on the mainland). It hardly needs reiterating that the impact of Islam on European thought and history has been perpetually downplayed in this country, and it is heartening to see this specific period of the Sicilian past identified as the ‘Golden Age’, and linked in a continuum to the succeeding occupation of the Normans (a group whom Middle England have never forgotten the impact of, 1066 and all that…). It was also nice to see religion presented so respectfully: the Byzantine room successfully evoked the contemplative and peaceful aura of an ancient church, although I think people could be forgiven for initially thinking, as did I, that nineties new age hit ‘Sadeness (Part I)’ was providing the soundtrack for this room.

However, I think ultimately the exhibition was let down by this approach. As the initial success of the Saracen lie demonstrates, cultural memory is short from generation to generation. Although the Kingdom of Sicily instigated by the Norman Roger II (who, as the exhibition tells us, spoke Arabic at court) was still in place in the late eighteenth century, no one on the island knew of its former coloniser’s language anymore. In fact, it was exactly this linguistic and cultural extinction that allowed the forgeries to become so significant, as the documents seemed to speak from an age so distant from the present. The unproblematic assertion of a singular Sicilian history ignores these processes of forgetting and refashioning, which is especially disappointing with these artefacts given the highly circumstantial and fortuitous method of their survival. These items are the lucky few to have reached us from the many thousands of shipwrecks and naval conflicts of the past three millennia: their existence defies consistent narrative, and yet they have been assembled into one.

As one leaves the exhibit and finds a gift shop full of bags and notepads adorned with an Octopus design not found in the exhibition nor even actually from anywhere near Sicily (it is instead to to be found on a bronze age pot from Knossos housed in the Minoan exhibition on the ground floor of the museum), it is hard not to feel a little unsatisfied with an exhibition that promises so much. The objects and the divers who retrieved them with such difficulty deserve more than a half-hearted nod to their discipline and a jaunt through the Sicilian past.


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