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Spring Arts Preview

Sicilian art coming to the Getty

The exhibition, part of a partnership with the local Ministry of Culture, is devoted to the artistic vigor of the island's ancient Greek colonies and will include two monumental sculptures.

March 08, 2013|By Suzanne Muchnic
  • “Statue of a Youth (The Mozia Charioteer)” is regarded as a masterpiece of early classical marble statuary.
“Statue of a Youth (The Mozia Charioteer)” is regarded as… (J. Paul Getty Trust )

SICILY, Italy — Two years ago, the J. Paul Getty Museum ended a lengthy dispute with Italian cultural authorities by returning a towering limestone and marble statue of a Greek goddess to Sicily. The sculpture is now the pride of the relatively modest Museo Archeologico in Aidone — and by far its biggest attraction.

The tiny hilltop town in central Sicily, near an excavation of the ancient city of Morgantina, is also the home of a Hellenistic silver collection repatriated in 2010 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Another piece, a terra-cotta head depicting the Greek god Hades, will also be returning to Aidone from the Getty, after the museum determined that it had probably been severed from a sculptural body undergoing restoration.

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But the movement of ancient Sicilian art isn't all one way: The Getty is also reaping rewards in a partnership with the Sicilian Ministry of Culture and Sicilian Identity signed in 2010. After several conservation projects and a group display of small objects from Morgantina, the Villa will host a much bigger exhibition, "Sicily: Art and Invention Between Greece and Rome," which opens April 3.

The show consists of more than 150 objects, about a third of which are on loan from Sicilian museums, says Claire Lyons, curator of the exhibition and acting senior curator of antiquities at the Getty.

It is the first major show to develop from the partnership resulting from the 2010 agreement calling for joint projects in conservation, earthquake protection of artworks, exhibitions, scholarly research and conferences.

"This is also the first major exhibition in this country to focus exclusively on Sicily," she says. The show was organized with the Cleveland Museum of Art, where it will appear in the fall.

Exemplifying the artistic vigor of Greek colonies that emerged in Sicily from the 5th through 3rd centuries BC, the artworks will include two monumental sculptures — a 6-foot-tall marble figure known as the "Mozia Charioteer" and a 51/2-foot-tall statue of the fertility god Priapus.

They will be accompanied by terra-cotta heads of gods and goddesses, theatrical masks and figurines, a solid gold bowl, gilded silver objects, painted ceramic vessels and dozens of coins bearing delicately detailed images. One section of the show will be devoted to the work of Archimedes, a leading scientist and mathematician.

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Sicilian officials have hailed their collaborative agreement with the Getty as a turning point in international relations and in Sicily's management of its cultural heritage. For the Villa's audience, the primary benefit of the inaugural exhibition may be a raised awareness of the archaeological riches and artistic legacy of a region much less familiar than Greece and mainland Italy.

More than just the home of the Mafia and Mt. Etna — the tallest volcano in Europe and an undeniably impressive sight — the craggy island jutting off to the west of Italy's boot is dotted with ancient temples, amphitheaters and other architectural remains.

Sicilian museums, large and small, pristine and musty, display thousands of visual keys to local history. Yet few tourists who explore an astonishing complex of temples in Agrigento or a vast archaeological park in Syracuse realize they are wandering through areas once occupied by some of the greatest cities in the ancient Mediterranean world.

In its prime, Lyons says, "Syracuse and its territory became the largest empire in Europe. People don't know that." And that's a main point of the exhibition. "Even for people in our field, even for scholars, there's a long tradition of thinking of Athens and Greece as the center and everywhere else as the distant periphery that receives Greek culture gratefully," she says. "We want to tell a story that reverses that. We look at Sicily as a place that generated incredibly inventive forms of culture and sent them back to Greece and later helped to convey the Greek culture that Romans so admired and emulated."

Ticking off a list of Sicilian "firsts," Lyons mentions flamboyant terra-cotta embellishments for buildings, public baths with domed chambers, cookbooks, pebble mosaics and delicately painted ceramics that have preserved the style of lost murals.

Another achievement, large-scale sculpture, is under-represented in the exhibition, Lyons says. But the two extraordinary examples — likely to attract considerable attention when they go on view — have been subjects of intense study and conservation over the last year.

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