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Barbarism Begins at Home: Islamic Art on Display in Palermo's Museo Nazionale and Sicilian Ethnography at the 1891‐92 Esposizione Nazionale

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Abstract

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Palermo's Museo Nazionale (National Museum) displayed one of the earliest institutional collections of Islamic art in Western Europe. The museum's director, Antonino Salinas, exhibited objects demonstrating the island's material heritage, including its two-and-a-half centuries of rule by North African dynasties during the medieval period. The prevailing perception elsewhere in post-unification Italy ‐ that Sicily was ungovernable and barbaric in nature ‐ heightened the display's significance. Another exhibition that many Italians would have perceived as representing the 'other' was the Mostra Etnografica Siciliana (Sicilian Ethnographic Exhibition), which the folklorist Giuseppe Pitrè created for the 1891‐92 Palermo Esposizione Nazionale (National Exposition). Highlighting Sicily's volatile image, the Italian press implicitly equated Pitrè's show with the so-called Abyssinian Village, which stood in the exposition fairgrounds and marked the establishment of Italy's first colony in Eritrea at a time of unprecedented imperial expansion. At the National Museum, Salinas remained undeterred, and despite associations of the island's conditions with Africa, he expanded its Islamic holdings. Likewise, Pitrè exhibited costumes, tools, and devotional objects that further accentuated regional differences at the National Exposition. In both displays, Salinas and Pitrè presented what they conceived as Sicily's unique cultural and historical patrimony.
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Keywords: Antonino Salinas; Giuseppe Pitrè; Islamic collection; Italian imperialism; Palermo; ethnographic exhibition

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 0000000419370538 Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Publication date: March 1, 2020

More about this publication?
  • The International Journal of Islamic Architecture (IJIA) is intended for those interested in urban design and planning, architecture, and landscape design in the historic Islamic world, encompassing the Middle East and parts of Africa and Asia, but also the more recent geographies of Islam in its global dimensions. The main emphasis is on detailed analysis of the practical, historical and theoretical aspects of architecture, with a focus on both design and its reception. The journal is also specifically interested in contemporary architecture and urban design in relation to social and cultural history, geography, politics, aesthetics, technology, and conservation. Spanning across cultures and disciplines, IJIA seeks to analyze and explain issues related to the built environment throughout the regions covered. The cross-cultural and interdisciplinary nature of this journal will significantly contribute to the knowledge in this field.

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