Islanders: The Making of the Mediterranean review – a ‘revelatory’ exhibition

The words “insularity” and “isolation” both come from the Latin for “island”, said Maev Kennedy in The Art Newspaper. But the island civilisations of the ancient Mediterranean were anything but closed off. As this new exhibition at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum shows, they were remarkably open to outside influence – to foreign materials, skills, fashions and legends. Focusing on the classical culture of Crete, Sardinia and Cyprus, the show demonstrates that “the sea united rather than divided” these civilisations, allowing for considerable cultural cross-pollination. Bringing together around 200 objects dating from the Neolithic era to the Roman period, it shows that the inhabitants of the three islands attempted to “explain their tangled histories” through storytelling – even when, as with Sardinia’s Nuragic civilisation, they had no system of writing. Among the “splendid loans” on display are a Cypriot statue of a “goddess rising from the sea” that is believed to have influenced Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus; some “vivid” bronze figurines from Sardinia; and a drawing of a dolphin – a “sacred” animal that “represented friendship” – found on Crete.

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The show is “awash” with “fascinating” exhibits, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. We see bronze statuettes of a “four-eyed warrior and an archer in a horned helmet” created “five or six millennia ago” in Nuragic Sardinia. The culture was so named for its nuraghe, the “conical stone towers” that typified its architecture; so “strange” were these structures that they were later thought to be “witches’ houses”. Best of all is the “sophisticated” art of Minoan Crete, represented here by objects including an “astonishingly well-observed” copper-alloy figure of a crawling baby and a crab shell-shaped cup from around 1900BC. The show positively bursts with goodies, but more could have been done to “turn a series of impressive archaeological finds into a defter, less scrappy, piece of storytelling”.

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It hardly matters, said Laura Cumming in The Observer, when the exhibition presents us with marvel after marvel. Consider, for instance, an “exquisite” little bronze ship created in Sardinia between 1000-700BC, its mast “topped with a heraldic bird”, its prow resembling the head of an ox. Cyprus, we learn, even had “its own terracotta army”, represented here by statues of “warriors riding into the dawn on horse-drawn chariots”. There’s an iron archer “raising his tremulous bow” that could be by Giacometti. “You will see Picasso and Brâncusi at every turn, and the origins of modern sculpture millennia in advance.” To call these extraordinary items “revelatory” would be an “understatement”. Indeed, “I have scarcely seen anything like them before”.

The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (01223-333230, Until 4 June

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