Originally a Renaissance monastery, the building was transformed into a museum in 1814. This museum is named after the archaeologist and numismatist Antonio Salinas, who was a Professor at the University of Palermo and the director of the museum from 1873 -1914. Crucially, His career was fundamental to Sicilian history; not only did he take part in excavations in Tinidari and Selinute (discovering four of the archaic metopes!), but he was also one of the founders of the Italian Numismatist Institute. On the second floor, there is an exhibition room dedicated to his achievements.
Surprisingly, as you walk into the first courtyard you will find the fountain of Triton (pictured above), home to a number of cute giant terrapins, charming most visitors on entry!
As you carry on walking, you enter a larger courtyard surrounded by porticos with a range of fragments, stelai, capitals and statues. One such example is an inscription honouring Julia Mamaea, the mother of the Roman emperor Severus Alexander, whose portraits and inscriptions were commonly destroyed by Maximus Thrax (following the practice of damnatio memoriae).
As you continue to your right, exiting the courtyard, you will explore the collections from Selinute. Subsequently, as you carry on, you will learn about the Greek colonies in Western Sicily, excavations of antiquities (from Tindari which includes golden wreaths, Termini and Agrigento just to name a few), as well as 19th century acquisitions such as a fragment of the Parthenon frieze. Some artefacts worthwhile mentioning on this floor are the funerary stelai from the time of Hannibal’s victory in Sicily in 409 BC, votive offerings to Demeter Malophoros, and the Palermo Stone (if you are interested in the latter you can learn more about this artefact here: https://roughdiplomacy.com/palermo-stone/ ).
On the first floor there is a rich collection of Etruscan artefacts, coins, jewellery and finds from Gela.
On the second floor, very ambitiously, the entire history of Sicily is unveiled – from the prehistoric period, to Phoenician colonisation, Roman and Byzantine periods and the Renaissance.
Overall, the layout of the museum is extremely pleasing. The artefacts on the ground floor are those that originally contributed to the establishment of the museum, so as you work your way up to the final floor you can actively see how the museum’s collection has expanded and developed over time. I also really like how at first the collections are isolated into different sections that explore in depth the religion, art, mythology, history and everyday life in ancient Sicily but by the end there is a holistic integration of the breath of their entire history. Uniting the museum as a whole is the celebration of Sicily’s cultural uniqueness.
Two colossal statues of Zeus?
The torso of male was found at Tindari and is dated to the Roman period of Augustus (late 1st century BC to early AD 1st century). From this image, you can see that identification of ancient statues is not always straight forward! There are no obviously recognisable attributes or inscriptions. What can be seen is that the man has a naturalistic physique, with a lightly defined curiass aesthique and an Iliac crest. How can we be sure this is Zeus like the information plaque at the museum says?
Well around 1820 Valerio Villlareale, an Italian sculptor, restored this statue; the statue’s head, neck, right arm and entire lower body was heavily re-constructed with plaster. The face certainly seems extremely similar to the face of Zeus Solunto which he also partially restored!
It was only 19 years after the statue had been restored, in 1839, that W. Abeken identified the statue as Zeus Ourios, the protector of navigation and winds, after comparing it to a figure of Zeus on Hellenistic coins minted in Syracuse (Cook, 1925, p.708). As you can see below, there are similarities with the Hellenistic coin - the drapery, pose and position of the arms, and the head slightly tilted to the side. Whilst the iconography is strikingly similar, we should always be open to the possibility of new evidence being found.
As the name suggests the statue was found in the city of Solunto, which was founded by the Phoenicians in 7th century BC. This statue is dated slightly earlier than Zeus Ourios (to 2nd – 1st century BC). Whilst the other statue was entirely sculpted out of marble this has been primarily sculpted out of limestone, except the face, hands and feet. Recent scientific analysis has also shown metal traces inside the two holes visible on the chiton and the use of polychrome paint on the statue.
Zeus Solunto is much more identifiable due to its facial features such as the beard and the attribution of a throne. Its restoration and reconstruction is not as radical but the arms were probably heavily influenced by Phidias’ Chryselephantine Olympian Zeus.
Next to the acanthus leaf-decorated foot-stool are two columns of the throne which depict Ares crowned by Nike (victory), along with Eros, the Graces and Aphrodite. They were not originally thought to have been part of this statue but were fairly recently assimilated with this statue. What I really like about these reliefs is the juxtaposition of the small deities flanking the colossal king of the gods. Zeus appears omnipotent, a spectator and regulator over all divine and human affairs. Along with his lips parted and the sceptre, which would have been in his left hand, he looks as though he is about to make a judgement on fate.
These Phoenician anthropoid sarcophagi were found in chamber tombs in Cannita, Portella di Mare, near the Phoenician city of Solunto, in 1695 and 1725. The latter chamber tomb contained ivory amulets, metal fragments and a black-figure vase. They were kept in subterranean rooms carved into bedrock, quadrangular in shape with a flat roof. The entrance was sealed by a slab of stone and is accessible from the east via a corridor with steps (Municipal Library Palermo, Ms.Qq – F35). This was a well-known practice throughout the Western Phoenician Punic world.
The tomb found in 1695 was discovered with only the cover of the sarcophagus – the case was reconstructed. The female who has her arms by her side, wears a fillet on her head, and is draped in a long smooth simple dress with no folds. The face reveals similarities with Classical Greek art, especially due to the ‘severe look’ and the more naturalistic appearance, and for this reason the sarcophagus is dated to the first half of the 5th century BC.
The sarcophagus found in 1725 predates the other with more archaic features for example her almond shaped eyes, her eyebrows that form her nose, her broad shoulders and neck, and the wrong proportions. Her left arm is folded on her chest and was holding an alabastron (a perfume / ointment jar). Additionally, traces of red paint were found on her hair suggesting the rest of the cover was vividly painted. The case was originally painted with scenes in blue and red, reproduced in an engraving by the Benedictine abbot Michel Del Giudice. These paintings depicted seated females, a male bust and a naked youth rearing four horses.
These are the only ones of its type found in Sicily, so they are very valuable in showing how the cultures of the ancient world merged together on the island.
A small selection of archaeology from Selinus, a Greek city of the Western coast of Sicily:
This section of the museum was incredible; I even had the room to myself! I visited the museum in 2018 as an eager college student who had just studied one of metopes from temple C at Selinus (modern day selinute). It was brilliant to see the extraordinary preservation of these metopes, especially from Temple C and E, up close because they are almost in complete form.
This was the most important temple on the Acropolis, situated on the highest spot, dedicated to Apollo, who was the patron god of Selinus’ mother city, Megara Nisaea.
Construction of this Doric temple started in 540 BC and ended towards 510 BC. Impressively, the temple had a four-step base (crepido) and a colonnade of 6 by 17 columns, with double columns at the front. In front of the main façade was a monumental altar which was overlooked by 10 metopes!
Built out of limestone from the Cusa Quarries and originally covered with white plaster, the temple was vividly and richly decorated; the polychrome on three of the best preserved metopes is still visible. It had sphinxes as acroteria and an anthemion frieze decorated with palmettes and lotus flowers. The pediment was adorned with a giant polychrome Gorgon mask which had an apotropaic function like the sphinxes. The restitution of the pediment in the museum today is the same one which was designed in 1926, based on the sketches of Ettore Gabrici.
From left to right in the museum, the first metope depicts Apollo on a quadriga (a four horsed chariot) flanked by Leto and Artemis, which is similar to the archaic pediment of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The horses almost jump out of the metope when looking directly at it from below; the symmetrical twist in the two horses at the end adds to this through foreshortening. The space is filled very well, with the four horses dominating the square space and appear imposing.
The second metope depicts the story of Perseus beheading the gorgon Medusa, who notoriously had snakes as hair and turned people to stone, with the help of Athene. Medusa is in the running kneeling-pose and Perseus in winged boots which both denoted speed and movement in the otherwise static sculptures. Additionally, the story-telling of this moment is synoptic (like the pediment depicting the same subject matter on the Temple of Artemis at Corcyra). Pegasus is depicted, who sprang from Medusa’s head as it was slice off, yet her head is not detached from her body and still seems very much alive.
The third depicts Herakles flanked by the symmetrical Kerkopes. The story goes that Herakles was sleeping under a tree and the two Kerkopes, who were very mischievous, stole his bow. Herakles caught them and tied them upside down on a pole to carry them away. They had a wonderful view of Herakles’ hairy posterior and made jokes about it. The hero was so amused that he decided to let them go. The most significant feature to this metope is the differentiation between Herakles and the Kerkopes with the contrasting expressions – the Kerkopes have an archaic smile that characterise them as mischievous whilst Herakles has the severe look. This is very unusual as the standard expression in the archaic period was the archaic smile and individualisation was a feature later associated with the Classical period.
Altogether the metopes showed divine epiphanies in the centre and heroic deeds on the sides with particular emphasis on the Doric origin of the colony.
There were previous remains found before the Classical temple (dating to 460-450 BC) which was called temple E1. This was destroyed by a fire but many artefacts survived such as a fragmented volute krater depicting Ajax and Achilles playing dice (the same subject matter painted by Exekias).
A Votive inscription shows Temple E was dedicated to Hera. This was smaller than Temple C, but still in Doric order, with a three-step base and a 6 by 15 colonnade, surrounded by a peribolos, a scared enclosure wall, that separated it from Temple F. It had 6 limestone metopes on the front façade with inserts of marble from Paros used to show the exposure of female figures! Like Temple C, white plaster was placed over the limestone architecture which suggests it was painted in polychrome.
On the left metope Herakles is fighting an Amazon. Herakles is in the victors pose on the left with his foot and arm crossing diagonally over the Amazon’s lifeless body. His lion skin, a typical attribute, frames the heroic nudity of Herakles. Whereas the amazon is fully clothed in a Phrygian outfit, without her breast out like typical iconography of amazons, to emphasise the fight between civilisation and barbarians.
Next the scared marriage of Zeus and Hera is illustrated (known as the hieros gamos). This is an important addition to the Temple of Hera because it highlights her role as the goddess of marriage. Zeus is reclining with lose drapery contained to his lower half, reaching out to Hera’s hand, which has just removed her veil. The way Zeus holds Hera’s hand makes it seem like a contract. Similarly, Ancient Greek wedding rituals appeared to be a contract as the bride moved from the jurisdiction of her father to her husband.
The third metope displayed is the unfortunate encounter between Artemis and Actaeon. Artemis, the virgin goddess, was bathing naked in a pool in the woods when the hunter Actaeon saw her. As a punishment Artemis transformed Actaeon into a stag and had his dogs eat him to death. In this depiction Actaeon’s metamorphosis is not shown, which is probably to make layout of the metope more aesthetically pleasing. Moreover, as he is shown in human form the contrast between the fully-clothed Artemis in a peplos and his nudity emphasises his pathetic death.
The last metope displayed in the row depicts Athene in conflict with the giant Enceladus. In some versions of the story she throws the island of Sicily at him and buries him under it! Athene is dressed in a peplos with the aegis on her chest, and probably wore a helmet and held a spear like the statue of Athene Promachos in the Naples Archaeological Museum. The idea of divine and heroic retribution is evident in all the metopes discussed and the main reason the god-fearing Greeks reciprocally worshipped these powerful entities.
As a whole, the metopes from Temple E were arranged to celebrate Hera, the goddess of marriage. Divine couples were in the centre and mythological scenes were either side.
In conclusion, the Antonio Salinas Archaeological Museum is extremely special because it reveals Sicily’s complex history and the development of the island into a wonderful melting-pot of cultures. Whilst I only had space to mentioned a few personal highlights from Phoenician, Greek and Roman rule of Sicily the museum its self has so much more to offer! I learnt a lot from this museum and would definitely recommend a visit if you find yourself in Palermo.
Price of tickets: Free admission
Location: Via Bara All’Olivella, Palermo, Sicily. It’s about a 3-minute walk from the theatro Massimo and there are plenty of cafes nearby (which I accidently discovered served expresso martinis at 9am due to my awful Italian accent).
Opening times: Tuesday – Saturday 9:00am – 6:00pm, Sunday 9:00am – 1:30pm. Closed on Monday. N.B. Currently shut due to Coronavirus.
Other information: A gift shop and café are at the museum. It’s also wheelchair accessible.
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Ronnais is a Classical Civilisation undergraduate at the University of Leeds. In her free time, she is either listening to 80s music, playing football or travelling around Greek and Roman archaeological sites.