Sicily, island of sun, myth, and the omnipresent sea, has been the prized jewel in the crown of many invading empires. The Mediterranean Sea was the channel for the great trade routes between the East and the West. Plying her waters, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the French, and the Spanish all conquered Sicily and contributed to her diverse culture.
This cultural amalgamation fostered a varied artistic identity. Arabic decorative motifs endured in the complex architectural elements of the cities, especially Palermo. Technical skills in weaving and other textile arts came from the Greek isles. The Byzantine Empire supplied a rich ornamental vocabulary originating in the bazaars of Constantinople.
In the overall design of this embroidered band, one can see a corruption of traditional Arabic inscriptions, especially in the geometric, repeating designs in the linear elements. Beginning with the Arab domination of the island in 850 AD, this type of motif appeared on textiles, architecture, and pottery. Originally, these were derived from inscriptions indicating the names and titles of nobility and passages from the Koran. Due to the Islamic prohibition on the representation of natural forms, abstract and geometric elements predominated. Over time, these designs transformed into decorative schemes and acquired additional attributes, such as symmetry, balance, and ordered rhythm.
This panel also reveals another aspect of Sicily’s diverse cultural heritage: that of the Greeks. The predominant motif of mermaids reflects the awareness of the sea within the design vocabulary of the island. After all, Homer writes that it was in the Straits of Messina that the Sirens called to Ulysses. Throughout the island, the myth resonates, as in this picture of a mermaid fountain in a piazza in Taormina.
It is this type of visual clue that makes Sicily an art historian’s dream! Perhaps a visit to the Island of Persephone will help you to unlock some of her secrets.