Sublime Sicily: A Hellenic Gem in Antiquity

gm_330941EX1Sicily evokes the fiery majesty Mt. Etna, the wine-dark hues of the surrounding sea, and the delicious flavors of arancini and limoncello. Situated at a pivotal intersection between Greece, Italy, and North Africa, Sicily is not only the largest island in the Mediterranean, but the site of over 5,000 years of human history. Few are aware, however, that Sicily experienced a spectacular golden age from the fifth century to the third century BCE, while under the rule of ancient Greek émigrés. Enriched by its immense agricultural bounty, the sociocultural milieu of Hellenic and Hellenistic Sicily was diverse and innovative, rivaling the sophistication and refinement of the “mother country” during its classical apex.

Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome — an exhibition at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles, California — presents the grandeur and glory of ancient Sicily or “Sikelia” in all its complexity, beauty, and ingenuity. In this exclusive interview with the Ancient History Encyclopedia, James Blake Wiener speaks to Dr. Alexandra Sofroniew, co-curator of the exhibition, about Sicily’s special role in Mediterranean antiquity.

gm_329427EX1JW: Dr. Alexandra Sofroniew, welcome to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and thank you so much for speaking to us about Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome, currently on view at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles, California.

Sicily: Art and Invention is the first major exhibition to underscore the wealth, power, and inventiveness of ancient Sicily in the United States. How difficult was it to create a show, which exemplifies the social and cultural vigor of a dazzling golden age?

AS: There are always practical challenges in putting together an exhibition where almost all of the objects are loans from other museums. Dr. Claire Lyons and I are extremely grateful for the fruitful collaboration of all our lenders and especially our Sicilian partners. In terms of the theme, it was relatively easy to create a “wish-list” of objects to be in the show. There are so many incredible works of art that tell the story of Sicily in the Classical (c. 500-323 BCE) and Hellenistic periods (c. 323-210 BCE), artifacts that have not been seen in the United States before, and that we knew would surprise and delight our visitors.

gm_322517T13V1JW: Among the 145 objects on display, the commanding Mozia Charioteer is unquestionably one of the exhibition’s highlights. Since its discovery in 1979 — off the western coast of Sicily on the island of Mozia — the statue has been the object of admiration and scholarship.

What makes this statue so exceptional, and what does it reveal about Sicilian Greek sculpture in particular?

AS: The statue is exceptional for the beauty of the carving and mastery of the sculptor. The delicate pleats of the sheer garment worn by the Charioteer cling to his body, emphasizing the powerful athletic physique beneath in a breathtaking, sensual way. It has also stirred up debate because it is such a mystery; it was excavated from the Carthaginian outpost on Mozia, and scholars question who it depicts, whether it was carved by a Greek or a local, and why it ended up on this small island off the coast of Sicily.

The Mozia Charioteer demonstrates that marble statues of the highest quality were being commissioned and produced on Sicily. Marble was not naturally available on the island so had to be imported (the Charioteer is Parian marble), but Sicilian Greek craftsmen were up to the task of creating accomplished and often inventive sculpture, pushing new stylistic boundaries.

gm_330963EX1JW: Sicily: Art and Invention provides an interesting look into artistic innovation through the prism of ancient Sicilian coins.

During the later half of the fifth century BCE, a group of Sicilian Greek coin engravers — known as the “Signing Masters” — abandoned the typical profile view in favor of a three-quarter perspective or frontal pose. This act was nothing short of revolutionary!

Why did they choose do so, and what other characteristics make Sicilian Greek coins different from those minted in ancient Greece or Italy?

AS: The “Signing Masters” experimented with new designs — they were true artists, using coins to make dramatic and intricate works of art, just on a very small-scale. They also signed their works, carving their names into the coin dies, an unusual practice nearly only found on Sicilian Greek coinage from this period. Many would rate these examples from Sicily as the most beautiful coins surviving from antiquity!

In addition, from the standpoint of economic history, the Sicilian Greeks were the first to mint a fiduciary currency — they produced bronze coins whose value was greater than the intrinsic worth of the metal itself.gm_330942EX1

JW: Over the centuries, the Greeks colonized and settled the entire island of Sicily, bringing their religious cults and practices with them. Sicilian Greeks were noted devotees of the divine hero, Herakles, in addition to Demeter and her daughter, Persephone. How should ancient Sicilian religious art be understood and assessed in your opinion, and what factors enabled such an impressive experimentation in the sphere of the sacred arts?

gm_330959EX1AS: The agricultural productivity of the island brought the Sicilian Greek cities great wealth and power. Across Sicily, sanctuaries to Demeter and Persephone, the goddesses of fertility who were responsible for such abundance, were filled with dedications and thank-offerings. Distinctive types of votives were made to give as gifts, such as the brightly colored terracotta female busts that most likely depict one of the goddesses.

There was also a concern for the afterlife. Delicately painted vases made for the tomb show the Sicilian Greek care for ensuring a favorable transition into the Underworld.

JW: The exhibition concludes with a marvelous section on the life of Archimedes of Syracuse (c. 287-212 BCE), showcasing a leaf from the Archimedes Palimpsest, and a thorough examination of how the Sicilian visual arts reflected emerging currents in literature.

The legacy of the ancient Greeks in Sicily is indelible, and these splendid objects help reconstruct an often overlooked world of sumptuous lifestyles, religious rituals, and economic vitality. If there is one thing the public ought to know about the ancient Greeks in Sicily, what is it in your opinion?gm_330968EX1

AS: I think you summed it up very well, James — far from being a cultural backwater or a passive recipient of culture from Athens and mainland Greece, the Sicilian Greeks lived in rich, grand cities, engaged with theater, literature, philosophy, and science, and adorned their temples and homes with beautiful paintings and bronze and marble statuary.

Oh, and Sicily is home to some fantastic archaeological sites — there are many standing temples still visible today!

JW: Dr. Sofroniew, I thank you so much for introducing us to a special exhibition and the enthralling world of ancient Sicily. Please keep us updated on events at the Getty Museum and Villa.

gm_01494601AS: It has been my pleasure, James, thank you very much. I certainly will! We have several diverse and exciting exhibitions coming up at the Villa in the next year, on the Roman Emperor Tiberius, the Cyrus Cylinder, and the art of Byzantium from Greek collections.

Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome has been co-organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana. The exhibition celebrates 2013 as the Year of Italian Culture in the United States, an initiative of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, realized under the leadership of the President of the Republic of Italy.

Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome continues at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles, California until August 19, 2013. Please visit Getty Voices: Sicilian Journeys, presented by Drs. Claire Lyons and Alexandra Sofroniew, for additional perspectives on ancient Sicilian art, religion, and culture.

We invite you to read the Ancient History Encyclopedia’s review of the splendid Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome exhibition catalogue.

Image Credits:

  1. Painter of Louvre K 240 (Greek, active about 375 – 350 B.C.). Calyx Krater with a phlyax scene and Acrobat, 325 – 300 B.C., Sikeliote (Sicilian Greek). Terracotta, Object: H: 40.3 x W (greatest extent): 36.8 cm (15 7/8 x 14 1/2 in.). Courtesy of the Museo Archeologico Regionale Eoliano Luigi Bernaboò Brea, Lipari. By permission of the Regione Siciliana, Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana. Dipartimento dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana.
  2. Unknown. Appliqué of a Satyr, 2nd century B.C., Sikeliote (Sicilian Greek). Ivory, Object: 23.3 x 15.8 x 0.9 cm (9 3/16 x 6 1/4 x 3/8 in.). The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, 71.557, Photo © The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.
  3. Unknown. Statue of a Charioteer (the “Mozia Youth”), c. 470 – 460 B.C., Sikeliote (Sicilian Greek). Marble, Object: H: 181 x W (chest): 40 cm (71 1/4 x 15 3/4 in.) Object (lower part): W: 43 cm (16 15/16 in.). Regione Siciliana, Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana, Dipartimento dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana. 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.
  4. Signed by Choirion (Italian (Sicilian), active 5th century B.C.). Tetradrachm of Katane, about 405 B.C., Sikeliote (Sicilian Greek). Silver, Object: Diam.: 2.8 cm, Weight: 17.2 g (1 1/16 in., 0.038 lb.). Museo Archeologico Regionale Paolo Orsi Siracusa. By permission of the Regione Siciliana, Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana. Dipartimento dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana.
  5. Unknown. Statuette of Herakles, 250 – 150 B.C., Sikeliote (Sicilian Greek). Bronze, Object: H: 22 x W: 15 cm (8 11/16 x 5 7/8 in.). Photo: Carlo Giunta. Courtesy of the Parco Archeologico di Cava d’Ispica, Modica. By permission of the Regione Siciliana, Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana. Dipartimento dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana.
  6. Unknown. Bust of a goddess wearing a polos, late 4th century B.C., Sikeliote (Sicilian Greek). Terracotta and polychrome, Object: H: 48.7 x W: 41.1 x D: 22.2 cm (19 3/16 x 16 3/16 x 8 3/4 in.). Museo Archeologico Regionale Paolo Orsi Siracusa. Courtesy of the Museo Archeologico Regionale Paolo Orsi, Syracuse. By permission of the Regione Siciliana, Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana. Dipartimento dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana.
  7. Unknown. Lebes Gamikos with Nuptial Scene, 250 B.C., Sikeliote (Sicilian Greek). Terracotta with slip and polychrome, Object: H: 56 x W: 59 cm (22 1/16 x 23 1/4 in.) [Object (without lid): H: 31 cm (12 3/16 in.)]. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1953 (53.11.5). Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY.
  8. Unknown. Thymiaterion Supported by a Statuette of Nike, 500 – 480 B.C., Sikeliote (Sicilian Greek). Terracotta with polychromy, Object: H: 44.6 x Diam. (incense cup): 7 cm (17 9/16 x 2 3/4 in.). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California.

SofroniewDr. Alexandra Sofroniew is Assistant Curator of Antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Villa. She received her BA in Classics from Stanford University in 2004, and her MA and PhD in Ancient History from the University of Oxford in 2011. Her doctoral thesis was titled “Considering Cultural Exchange: A Thematic Analysis of Votive Objects from Southern Italy from the Sixth to the Second centuries BCE.” Previously, she has worked on archaeological excavations in central Italy and Sicily, and spent a year working at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, UK. She specializes in the history and material culture of pre-Roman Italy and Sicily, and her research focuses on the Samnites, in addition to ancient terracottas and other votive and domestic objects. Most recently, Dr. Alexandra Sofroniew was one of the editors of the Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome exhibition catalogue. She divides her time between the United Kingdom and United States.

James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be “illuminating.”

All images featured in this interview have been attributed to their respective owners. Images lent to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Villa, and Dr. Alexandra Sofroniew have been done so as a courtesy for the purposes of this interview and are copyrighted. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited. A heartfelt thank you is extended to Dr. Claire Lyons, co-curator of the exhibition, Ms. Desiree Zenowich, Senior Communications Specialist at J. Paul Getty Museum, and Ms. Veronica Alvarez. Without their kind assistance, this interview would not have been possible. Special thanks is also extended to Ms. Karen Barrett-Wilt. The views presented here are not necessarily those of the Ancient History Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013. Please contact us for rights to republication.

James Wiener
About the Author
James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist and Latin Americanist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.