Research Progress Notes: Week of June 24th

This week I did my research due diligence and thought about medieval Sicily in a new context.

After last week, I was pretty sure I had identified all the relevant medieval manuscripts in both libraries here in Palermo. But I had this nagging feeling that something could have slipped through my fingers. So I went back to the regional library to take a look at three scientific manuscripts that I was sure were too late for me and ask the librarians if there was anything else I should look at. Sure enough, all three manuscripts were written on paper with watermarks – around the late 15th century, Italy became the main producer of industrial paper, mostly for export to the eastern Mediterranean. Ottoman books were often written on Italian paper, and we can trace exactly where they came from and when based on the watermark. The industrialized paper process (which did include an early form of mechanization) allowed paper producers to place a maker’s mark on every single sheet – these marks are typically visible just above the binding in the center of every fourth page, due to the size of the industrial sheets and how they were folded and cut to book size. Because I’m really only interested in 12th century manuscripts at this point, this pretty much disqualifies all three manuscripts; however, one of them has the same formatting, handwriting, and margin note placement as many of my turn-of-the-14th century Salernitan medical manuals, so it’s possible that this was a paper version of the same thing. This is an interesting point, but it doesn’t add much to my work right now and it still doesn’t tell me much about what texts were available in Sicily in the 12th century.


A crown-shaped watermark.

So once I had finished with those manuscripts, I asked the librarians about any others. And here is the great insider’s knowledge of archival libraries – the librarians know everything and will tell you about it if you ask the right questions. When I first arrived they told me I would have to look in their catalogs to find medieval manuscripts. But once I had done that and I asked them if they had anything 12th-century, they spent two minutes looking through their digital catalog to determine that the only 12th century manuscripts they had were saint’s lives – not what I’m looking for. So I went off to the communal library to ask there. This was a bit harder, because the librarian who had known about my alchemical manuscript wasn’t around. So first I was directed to a massive art book on Sicily during the reign of Frederick II, which was extremely helpful for identifying some more copper, this time in the form of Sicilian enamels (which is great, because currently my discussion of copper relies on examples from Limoges, France). The book also explained the scriptorium at Monreale, which is again very useful, since Monreale has repeatedly come up as an important location in the story I’m trying to tell. But otherwise, no manuscripts. So then I did something that the librarians probably thought was crazy – I just started flipping through their entire card catalog. I looked for “al” and “ibn” and “ben” names. I looked for names I knew well – Rhazes, Avicenna, Galen, Hippocrates, al-Biruni, Theophilus, Constantine… nothing. So after about 2 hours of this I decided I had done my due diligence and there was officially nothing left there for me.

I finally did something nice for myself. I took myself out for coffee and cake (you know, Italian breakfast) at Cioccolateria Lorenzo, an adorable little cafĂ© with a garden. I had the lemon cake, which, unlike every disappointing lemon cake I had in London, was light and super lemony all the way through, with a sugary crust on the bottom. The experience was only slightly dampened when I was targeted by a bird, but I recovered in the bathroom. I also bought myself one of the briefcases at QUIR, a little leather store right next to the communal library, that I’ve been pining after for the last three years. It’s perfect – roomy, with multiple compartments and pockets, very light, easy closures that look cool, and a beautiful finish. I think this has to be the last bag I ever get, though.

I know at this point that archaeological museums in Italy don’t display medieval finds, but I felt I might as well look at Palermo’s regional museum anyway. Archaeology is such a huge part of Italian culture that every region has a local museum, and a small town can only get on the map if they have one (which is why the town of Castronovo has been willing to let the Sicily in Transition team keep coming back for the last 5 years). So I didn’t find anything medieval there, but I did find a new perspective on the medieval period.

Archaeology in Sicily is primarily interested in the Hellenic period, back when Sicily and southern Italy were Magna Greicia, or “greater Greece” – a major colony of imperial Greece that was in some ways the most important part. This museum is set on the site of a Hellenic temple and displays the architectural remains. I can say without exaggeration that it is one of the best archaeological museums I’ve ever been to. It is extremely modern, both in it’s presentation and its sensibilities.

Traditionally, archaeological museums show a plan of the site, pictures of the white men excavating it, and just kind of dump bleached marble all over the place, with some feature space reserved for a particularly large statue or some bronze weapons. Palermo’s museum restores life to these remains. It’s structure is a lovely medieval-style cloister with a garden in the middle (I’m a sucker for cloister gardens), which is a huge contrast to just about every other archaeological site that is barren as a dust bowl. Architectural pieces are displayed in recreated courtyards and rooms, giving a sense of scale and environment. But more importantly, this museum displays tons and tons of polychrome. All classical sculpture, including carved stonework on buildings, was painted in bright colors, but we don’t typically see it displayed that way because 17th century archaeologists couldn’t accept that these were the garish tastes of the “refined” classical peoples, and instead insisted that the paint had been added by those stupid medieval guys. In some spaces in the museum, bare carvings are displayed next to painted restorations. In others, the dulled polychrome is presented with drawings of its more colorful past. And in one really stunning example, an unfinished painted pot is given a priority spot with an explanation of the labels the painters left on the pot to indicate the colors they hadn’t added yet.

One detail that jumped out at me a few times was depictions of lions on pots, which brought to mind Roger II’s cloak. Even though I’m not working on it anymore – I think it’s overdone as a topic and even if I tried to publish again my paper would get lost in a sea of similar papers – I always come back to it as a reference point. I still think it encapsulates Roger’s vision of a Siculo-Norman empire, and I think the specific iconography of the lion and the camel is extremely important. I’ve always thought of the lion as modeled off of a sort of Seljuk or Fatimid type. But these Hellenistic lions, some of them as early as 6th century BC, really struck me as similar. And why can’t Roger’s lions be both Hellenistic and Seljuk? These traditions were very close geographically and artistic currency in the Mediterranean was based on invoking past regimes. When we talk about the Normans, though, we always think of them as mimicking Roman or Byzantine models. But I had never really thought of the Normans as inhabiting classical Greece and essentially staking their claim on Byzantine territory based on that. It always seemed like the Norman antagonism towards the Byzantines was entirely contemporary – the Byzantines were the big players and the Normans wanted to prove themselves by taking them on. But the Normans were also constantly invoking classical Greek models, saying that by existing within former Magna Greicia they had a claim to Byzantium. And this also makes a lot of sense when it comes to their intellectual focus – they wanted that connection to the Greek language because it added to their cultural inheritance.


The museum also has a beautiful exhibit on Pompeii, which I found very confusing for a second before I realized how much sense it makes in the context of modern Sicily. That region of Magna Greicia has maintained in one form or another for over two and a half millennia, and when the Normans lost Sicily to the Swabians, the region eventually became an independent Kingdom of Two Sicilies (although it was technically only called that in the 19th century). The Two Sicilies comprised the island of Sicily and the area around Naples. So during that time, which is when the bulk of Pompeii was excavated, it would have been easy for items from the excavation to end up in Palermo – it would be like someone buying a piece of art in New York and taking it back to Boston. The feature on Pompeii in Palermo’s museum underscores how important the excavation of the ancient city was to Sicily at the time – most of the exhibit is about the history of the excavation itself, which was focused on historical preservation within the region, rather than treasure hunting. If this sounds like an Indiana Jones movie, it basically was, just the bad guys were Italian nationalists under Garibaldi rather than Nazis. Southern Italy really crafted its identity during this time – it desperately needed to, because it was dying off and tons of its people were fleeing the region and moving to America. Rome had an obvious historical claim to fame – it was still the very city that birthed a massive empire and it was home to the Catholic church. But Sicily didn’t have that clear connection. Pompeii justified southern Italy’s link to the Roman Empire, since, as the best-preserved Roman site, it is the basis for our understanding of how Romans lived. Sicily became extremely protective of the finds and outlawed the removal of antiquities, even private property – it needed to tie the very region to the ancient history. True to the legacy of the excavation, the exhibit in Palermo’s museum creates a space that feels like a Roman villa, complete with recreated floor tiles and a room with frescoed walls. I especially loved the floor tiles because they again reminded me of the Norman period and underscored that feeling of classical invocation I described earlier. The curators even painted the walls in the bright color scheme of the original frescoes, to create the ambiance that such a brightly painted room would have had.


This museum visit took me completely by surprise. I didn’t expect such an amazing museum or so many connections to my own studies. And it’s funny, because for a hot second many years ago I imagined I might go into classics. Back when I was studying ancient Greek in high school, I was really drawn in by classical archaeology and I used to spend my lunch breaks walking around the Greek and Roman galleries at the Met (that’s really a privileged New York upbringing in a nutshell). But I think part of the reason I went medieval instead was because there wasn’t a lot of mystery to Antiquity, and I was really bothered by the way it was presented in the scholarship as the height of civilization. It actually made the medieval period, which was supposed to look worse by comparison, more interesting to me. So for a museum to remind me what I loved about classics, I can only give it my highest recommendation – see this if you’re in Palermo.

Next week I’ll be finishing up here and taking a closer look at my manuscript images again. I might also go back to Monreale and take a second look (and more pictures, since some of the ones I took three years ago are terrible).