“Yamas!” Greek Ruins in Sicily’s Agrigento: Part 2

Detail of Persephone
Detail of Persephone

A week ago we wrote about the Valle dei Templi in Sicily’s Agrigento region.

Expecting to be awed by the grandeur of its Classical Greek temples, instead we came away feeling a bit “meh.”

The next day we headed back to the Museo Archeologico, (it had been closed the day before as you may recall from Part 1), known to hold “some of the best preserved pieces of Greek art and architecture that exist outside of Greece.”

“Would our feelings about Akragas change?” we wondered.

The same “parking assistants” we’d encountered the previous day were attending the small lot across the street from the museum. “We’re back,” Magellan said. This time our protection money covered a two-hour stay instead of two minutes.

The museum’s site is historical—it used to be the upper agora (market) for Akragantines and part of it was formerly the San Nicola Monastery. More than five thousand artifacts are here, mostly from the years of Greek and Roman occupation, with descriptive panels in Italian and English. (Have you ever thought how lucky those of us who speak English are? We  can usually count on an English translation, unlike those who speak Mandarin, Hindustani or Spanish.)

As in most every museum we visited in Sicily, photography is allowed. In last week’s post you saw this photo of a colossal Telemon, one of the originals that supported the majestic Temple of Olympiad Zeus, and considered a highlight of this museum. It was Magellan’s favourite piece here, so let’s look at it again.

A colossal Telemon

The Ephebus of Agrigento(480 BC), found in a cistern near the Temple of Demeter, is thought to represent a young man from Agrigento who won various events at Olympic games. The style is smoother and softer than the marble statues in Greece at the time and it’s said his hairstyle is distinctly Akragasian.

The museum is organized chronologically and one of the first pieces we saw was this golden cup with six bovines (7thcentury BC), which shows that indigenous Sicilians knew about and were emulating the artistry of Greek Mycenaea, a long, sail away.

These Grecian vases attracted our cameras.

The Calyx Krater (mixing bowl) with stories of the Trojan War from Gela (a city near Akgragas) (450 BC)

A swan in profile (590 BC)
Androgynous, winged Cupid holding an ornate lily and dancing with a woman playing a tambourine (330 BC)
Terracotta vase (400-350 BC): nice earrings and a better photographer would have shown you that she’s also wearing a necklace
This vase depicts the triskelos (three legs), which worked its way into the symbol of Sicily in the guise of Trinacria, meaning “three-pointed”

A few years ago I bought a book by Jane Hirshfield, Ten Windows, ostensibly about how to look at poetry. Here’s a favourite quote that describes how I felt when I saw the next piece—a vase of two female figures, perhaps the goddesses Demeter and Persephone.(440-430 BC)

Why ask art into a life at all, if not to be transformed and enlarged by its presence and mysterious means? Some hunger for more is in us – more range, more depth, more feeling, more associative freedom, more beauty.” More perplexity and more friction of interest. More prismatic grief and unstinted delight, more longing, more darkness. More saturation and permeability in knowing our own existence as also the existence of others. More capacity to be astonished.

The Romans overtook Akragas in 210 BC, renaming it Agrigentum. While this alabaster sarcophagus of a child (2nd century AD) causes you to wince in grief, looking closely, you can see it’s incised with childhood moments of happiness.

Then there’s the risqué art.

A donkey with the raised phallus of Dionysus
A vessel modeled in the figure of Bes, the libidinous, dwarf god of joy in dance and sleep, a “protector of the home and womanly matters” (Punic-Hellenistic)

But back to beauty, in miniature. Akragas was one of only two of the Greater Greek cities in Sicily to mint its own coins. These two are silver and were worth four-drachmaes.

The god Nike (425-420 BC) with fish symbolizing wealth from sea trade and culinary prowess
The god Nike as a bull (480-470 BC)

And look at this amazing coin created by the Romans in Agrigentum.

The bearded Roman war god, Mars

“Look at the time,” I said to Magellan, not realizing we’d spent more than two hours in the museum. Seeing this fine art, crafted with such a delicate touch, made us want to raise a glass and salute “Yamas!” to the Akragantines. A complete turnaround from the previous day’s walkabout among their giant-sized limestone temples, this heterotopia, this representation of their society, opened our eyes to the their artistry.


“We weren’t the only ones who felt this way,” Magellan said this week after reading some online comments from other visitors. “And if we’d seen the museum first like we planned, it would’ve been a better experience.”

How about you—what were your impressions of Akragas? The Museum?


Here’s more info on the most visited museum in Sicily.

Do Grigoli, Veronica. “A Dozen Safety Tips for a Holiday in Sicily.” The Dangerously Truthful Diary of a Sicilan Housewife. Posted on February 1, 2015. “Many areas in most cities in Sicily have “parking assistants” who will ask you for a euro when you park your car in a public street. This will be your only opportunity, as a tourist, to interact with the Mafia! If you refuse to pay this protection money, you may return to find your car has been broken into. If you find one area strangely free of parking attendants, beware. It will be designated a free-for-all zone where any petty criminal may steal anything he wants.“

Gerard-Sharp, Lisa. Insight Guides Sicily.China: Apa Publications, 2016. You’ll find five pages of info on Valle dei Templi in this, the only guidebook we took to Sicily.

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