As so often happens with an exhibition close by that you can visit any time you feel like it, I only finally caught this a few days before it closed. So, apologies to anyone who might have been inspired by a more timely review to sprint to the BM to see it for themselves!
The Guardian's reviewer raved about it
, and certainly the prehistory and classical section of the exhibition was wonderful - the Sicilians had lent some wonderful artefacts, and they were beautifully laid out and interpreted (with the assistance of some glorious full-wall-sized photographs of Sicily's classical sites landscapes, that you felt you could walk into). But the Norman section was just a bit of an anticlimax, because the bulk of the really stunning artefacts from that period can't travel. There were photographs of Roger II's palace at Palermo, including a marvellous one of the ceiling of the Palatine Chapel, printed as a huge transparency and mounted on the ceiling, with benches so you could sit and gaze up at it; that was good, but it's a poor look-out when the photographs are better than the original artefacts. And there was one crushing disappointment; I came round a corner and thought 'Cripes! Have they really managed to borrow Roger's coronation mantle from Vienna???' But on coming closer: 'Er, no, they haven't; this is a rather crude copy in lurex cord on what looks like cotton.'
That was a real let-down.
So, although there were certainly some lovely artefacts (and the catalogue is definitely worth a riffle, and indeed a purchase especially if you can find it at cut price), there's no need for Oltramarines who missed it to shed too many hot tears.
Actually I think my favourite memory of this whole exhibition is a couplet by a 12th-century Sicilian-Arab poet who served at the court of Roger II, one Abd ar-Rahman of Trapani: "The oranges of the island are like blazing fire among the emerald boughs,
And the lemons are like the pale faces of lovers who have spent the night crying.”
Is the touch of bathos at the end present in the Arabic original? And if so, did Abd ar-Rahman actually intend it? I dare say I'll never know…