Wednesday, October 16, 2013


Claire L. Lyons, Michael Bennett, Clemente Marconi (ed.), Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013. Pp. xxi, 254. ISBN 9781606061336. $60.00.

Reviewed by Barbara A. Barletta, University of Florida (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

This book, meant to accompany the exhibition of the same name, focuses on the art and culture of Sicily during the Classical and early Hellenistic periods. It begins with a series of forewords written by those involved, including museum directors, Italian officials, and the editors of the volume. A useful timeline follows, which is broken down into short periods extending from ca. 500-209 B.C.E. and correlates significant historical events in mainland and eastern Greece with those in Sicily and the western Mediterranean and with cultural and artistic developments in both areas.

The text is likewise written by a series of authors. Its content is established in the "Introduction," by two of the editors, Claire L. Lyons and Michael Bennett. They discuss the history of Sicily with a particular emphasis on developments following the Greek victory over the Carthaginians at Himera in 480 B.C.E. and extending to the conquest of Syracuse by the Romans in 212 B.C.E. This is the time covered by the exhibition. They further cite various examples of wealthy and powerful individuals (especially the tyrants of Syracuse), little known as well as more famous intellectuals, and important artistic achievements. Major themes are the enormous agricultural wealth of the island as attested by hoards of luxury goods from interior (rural) settlements and the widespread connections of the Sicilians.

We know that Sicily was especially wealthy during the Classical and early Hellenistic periods, as demonstrated by literary references and by the extant art, but written sources are fragmentary. Perhaps for that reason, it is often overlooked in studies of Greek art and history. This book aims to fill the gaps in our understanding and to highlight the importance of Sicily within the Greek world. As an exhibition catalogue, it is intended for the general public. This may explain the rather zealous claim of Sicilian influence on building practices of mainland Greece "from Delos to Athens" (p. 3); the evidence for this statement, set out in the essay on architecture, is more limited. Yet the level of most essays may appeal more to a scholarly audience and for this reason the book deserves a place in academic libraries.

Following the "Introduction," the book unfolds in five sections, with between two and six essays and usually three "focus" objects in each. The first of these concerns history, cultural politics, and ethnic identity, with each subject treated in turn in a separate essay. The history of Sicily during the period represented by the exhibition is discussed in some detail, which provides the viewer with a complete background, although this is more useful for the student than the casual visitor. The other essays are more focused but nevertheless engaging. One deals with the period of the two Hellenistic kings Agathokles and Hieron II, finding in their activities the same types of self-promotion used by the successors to Alexander the Great. They can thus be compared to their contemporaries elsewhere in the Greek world. The other essay in this section addresses the interaction of Greeks and non-Greeks. It begins with a discussion of theories of colonization and cultural transmission and argues for a more complex picture. Thus, the establishment of Phoenician and Greek settlements within the previously inhabited territory resulted in varying types of intercultural relations, but with a marked hybridization by the early fifth century.

The next section discusses religion and mythology in Sicily. The first essay explains the diverse functions of Demeter, as both lawgiver and insurer of fertility. With the ascendancy of Syracuse in the early fifth century, the cult of Demeter takes on a propagandistic role, as seen by the locations of the Rape of Persephone by Hades and her descent into the Underworld, which are now set in the vicinity of Enna and Syracuse. This essay also traces the various types of representation of Demeter and her daughter, Persephone. Among the best known of such possible depictions is the so-called Goddess from Morgantina, discussed in an embedded "focus" piece. The second contribution in this section also details the political function of mythology, but with an emphasis on heroes.

The following group of essays elucidates the cultural contributions of the Sikeliotes (Sicilian Greeks). In the pan-Hellenic sanctuaries these take the form of treasuries and votive dedications. Five of the 12 treasuries at Olympia were dedicated by western cities. Victors in both athletic and military contests commemorated the event with visual offerings, while their achievements were celebrated in poetry commissioned for the occasion. These two means of bringing acclaim to the cities and citizens of Sicily are nicely explained in the first two essays of this section. The third details the innovations of Sicilian playwrights, although this information must be gleaned from comments by other writers (as Aristotle) and archaeological evidence, as no play is fully extant. One important source of evidence consists of vases produced in Sicily, as well as southern Italy, that may display actual performances. These appear in both Greek and non-Greek contexts, raising the possibility that the performances were viewed and appreciated by people throughout Sicily.

This section links nicely with the first essay of the next, which explores the achievements and specifically Sicilian identity of one of its most famous citizens, Archimedes. It argues that while Archimedes was part of the wider intellectual world, he contributed much to his own city in terms of inventions for its defense and reflected Sicilian culture in his worldview as well as the dialect in which he wrote. According to the second essay, those specifically Sicilian (and Syracusan) cultural values were passed along to Rome after its conquest of Syracuse. Although the author argues against the view, held since Roman times, that this event was the catalyst for Roman appreciation of Greek art, she nevertheless accepts its importance for the cultural change that occurred in Rome around this time.

The book ends with an examination of Sicilian art and archaeology in the Classical and Hellenistic periods, set out in six essays dealing with architecture, sculpture, coinage, coroplastic art, and wall and vase painting. The first essay discusses major buildings and, most significantly, their impact on and interaction with developments in mainland and Aegean Greece. Whereas this essay mentions, but does not treat in any detail, the distinctive traditions of the Archaic period (before 480 B.C.), the next one, on sculpture, gives considerable emphasis to Archaic works in both the text and the illustrations. Here, too, there is interest in elucidating local contributions, in this case to sculptural style, although the author notes the difficulty in determining the origins of the artists. In Sicily, the problem is complicated by the discovery of sculptures in non-Greek contexts; thus, one wonders whether the seated goddess from Grammichele, which is labeled "provincial" in style, looks the way she does not because of the sculptor but because of the patron.

Remains of sculpture in Sicily are especially limited after the Early Classical period, due to political and military disruptions and, for temple decoration, perhaps a change in taste. A revival of architectural sculpture occurred under Hieron II, but was cut short by the Roman conquest. The paucity of Classical-period Sicilian sculpture is amply compensated by coinage, in what the author of the next essay refers to as "an embarrassment of riches." Coinage attests to the high quality of engraving in Sicily as well as to innovations such as a fiduciary system, the regular use of three different metals (silver, gold, and bronze), the engraver's signature, and the frontal head. Coroplastic (terracotta) art also shows a fairly continuous tradition, as discussed in the next essay. Material is presented from the Archaic through the Hellenistic periods, although, as the author explains, the use of molds complicates the determination of dates, style, and iconography. In objects from the various periods covered, the author suggests a blending of both local and foreign (usually Attic) styles and meanings. Yet the funerary nature of so many of these objects should tell us something of the priorities and beliefs of the Sikeliotes.

The final two essays focus on painting. Despite fragmentary preservation, wall painting in Sicily is shown to be highly refined and to participate in the wider tradition within the Mediterranean. Murals from Morgantina reflect Hieron's connections with the Hellenistic courts in Egypt and Macedonia, while those from more western sites partake of both Greek and Punic influences. The decorative schemes and motifs will be incorporated into Roman painting, both on the island and elsewhere in Italy. Red-figure vase painting is an important product of Sicily, but many questions surround its beginning and end. It was adopted from Athens perhaps, as argued, as early as the third quarter of the fifth century. This would make Sicilian workshops contemporary with those of southern Italy. During the fourth century, there is a shift from a few major centers to workshops at numerous smaller sites and a general decline in quality. Production ceases suddenly, for unknown reasons, probably in the early third century. Thus much study still needs to be done.

The aim of this book, to highlight the distinctive accomplishments of Sicily and its contribution to both the Greek and Roman worlds, is certainly fulfilled. Sometimes it seems, however, as if the authors try too hard to promote Sicily, by citing its impact elsewhere rather than focusing on its local creativity and by the repeated use of Athens for comparison (architecture) or inspiration (sculptural and coroplastic production). To be sure, Athens was responsible for important innovations and her art did serve as a model for Greeks elsewhere, as shown especially by red-figure vase painting (see the last essay), but she was not the only productive center in the Greek world. The Athenocentric orientation of modern scholars should be reassessed, along with the level of Athenian influence on Sicily. One might note here the use of the Ionic order for a temple at Syracuse long before the Athenians adopted Ionic for their better-known buildings.

So too, in various essays authors suggest that the Sikeliotes were striving to be part of the Greek world, for example in their dedications of treasuries at Olympia or their adoption of certain styles and motifs. Studies by Gillian Shepherd (not cited in the bibliography) suggest rather a statement of independence and even rivalry by the Western Greeks through their treasuries.1 The book would be more useful to scholars if the bibliography were expanded to include such alternate views and to offer a wider range of sources for the various monuments. For example, several arulae are discussed, but without mention of the work by Meijden.2

No one can expect a book on such a large topic as Classical and Hellenistic Sicily to be complete, especially one that was organized around an exhibition and thus meant for a wide audience. As is, the various authors do an admirable job of bringing Sicily to life and making their ideas available to the English-language reader. Now that they have demonstrated the importance of Sicily in this period, we hope for more such publications in the future.

Table of Contents

Introduction, Claire L. Lyons and Michael Bennett
1. History, Cultural Politics, and Identity
History of Sicily, 480-211 B.C.-Carmine Ampolo
Focus: The Fallen Heroes of Himera-Stefano Vassallo
Focus: A Unique Coin of Aitna-François de Callatay
Hellenistic Kingship in Sicily: Patronage and Politics under Agathokles and Hieron II-Caroline Veit
Ethnic Identity in Sicily: Greeks and Non-Greeks-Francesca Spatafora
Focus: The Gold Phiale of Damarchos-Pier Giovanni Guzzo
2. Religion and Mythology
The Cult of Demeter and Kore between Tradition and Innovation-Caterina Greco
Focus: The Sanctuary at San Francesco Bisconti-Enrico Caruso
Focus: The Goddess from Morgantina-Clemente Marconi
Greek Myth and Religion in the Sicilian Context-Monica de Cesare
Focus: Herakles Cafeo-Nicola Bonacasa
3. Sikeliote Culture in Art and Literature
Rivalry, Competition, and Promotion: Cities and Citizens of Sicily in the Sanctuaries of Greece-Gianfranco Adornato
Focus: The Mozia Charioteer-M.L. Famà
Imaginary Kings: Visions of Monarchy in Sicilian Literature from Pindar to Theokritos-Kathryn Morgan
Focus: Priapos-Malcolm Bell III
Infinite Variety: Ancient Greek Drama in Sicily-Kathryn Bosher
Focus: Perseus and Andromeda in Agrigento-Fabio Caruso
4. Hellenism and its Legacy
Science in Syracuse: Archimedes in Place-Reviel Netz
Focus: The Archimedes Palimpsest-William Noel
Focus: Archimedes' Genius-Michael Bennett
The Roman Conquest of Sicily and its Consequences-Gabriella Cirucci
Focus: Morgantina's Silver Treasure-Malcolm Bell III
5. Sicilian Art and Archaeology in the Classical and Hellenistic Periods
Classical Greek Architecture in Sicily-Margaret M. Miles
Sculpture in Sicily from the Age of the Tyrants to the Reign of Hieron II-Clemente Marconi
Focus: The Bronze Ram of Castello Maniace-Agata Villa
The Art of Coinage-Carmen Arnold-Biucchi
Agalmata ek pelou: Aspects of Coroplastic Art in Classical and Hellenistic Sicily-Maria Lucia Ferruzza
Hellenistic Tradition in the Mural Painting of Ancient Sicily-Alessandra Merra
Sicilian Red-Figure Vase Painting-Sebastiano Barresi


1.   Gillian Shepherd, "Greeks bearing gifts: religious relationships between Sicily and Greece in the archaic period," in Christopher Smith and John Serrati, eds., Sicily from Aeneas to Augustus. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000, pp. 55-70.
2.   Hellebora van der Meijden, Terrakotta-Arulae aus Sizilien und Unteritalien. Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1993.

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