Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 29, 2018
Gülru Necipoğlu and Alina Payne, eds. Histories of Ornament: From Global to Local Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. 464 pp.; 206 color ills.; 25 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780691167282)

The heft of this volume and the comeliness of its jacket forecast the import and “handsome elegance” (334) of its contents. Richly illustrated, meticulously edited, and exquisitely produced, the object itself fuses ornament with substance in a kind of metonymic representation of its main argument. This work consists of twenty-six contributions grouped into seven sections, of which four reflect chronological groupings of medieval, early-modern, modern, and contemporary topics, while the remaining parts focus on conceptual themes. Geographically, the “global” reference in the publication’s subtitle is well justified, since the places discussed in its essays span several continents (the Islamic world and Western Europe are best represented). The visual and material subjects addressed here range widely as well—from Byzantine icons to the works of the architect Zaha Hadid. In spite of this broadness of scope, key strands of thought weave in and out of all these essays, allowing them to resonate with each other at multiple levels. Their cohesion and complementarity are partly the result of their having been drawn largely from the proceedings of a thematic conference (Harvard, April 12–14, 2012); but these qualities also point to the attentive and thoughtful involvement of the volume’s coeditors. Rather than alighting fleetingly on all twenty-six chapters, this review selects a dozen or so to demonstrate the kind of synergy they all share.

The original conference title, “Ornament as Portable Culture,” explains one of the themes shared in several of the contributions—the role of portability and mobility in the history of ornament. Rémi Labrusse’s essay on the development of “grammars of ornament” during the second half of the nineteenth century foregrounds the importance of designers’ mobility (his examples highlight travel to the Middle East and sites of Islamic art specifically) in their theory formation. Mobility and portability emerge as dynamic forces even in the seemingly stationary art of building, as demonstrated in Daniela del Pesco’s chapter on inlaid marble decoration in Baroque Neapolitan architecture, which examines the question of “artistic itinerancy” (167) through analysis of the career of Lombard artist Cosimo Fanzago (1591–1678). The recontextualization of portable objects from early-medieval Islamic domains into European ecclesiastical settings lies at the center of Avinoam Shalem’s essay, which he provocatively bookends with reflections on exile from two prominent contemporary Palestinian cultural voices, both of which—paradoxically—celebrate dislocation.

Another theme that reemerges throughout the volume is the role in the history of ornament played by the process of transmateriality—the translation of motifs, matrices, designs, and aesthetic systems from one medium into another (and sometimes another and another). Anna Contadini illustrates this process by tracing fifteenth- and sixteenth-century “borrowings” between Italy and the Middle East in the ornamentation of portable objects across a wide range of media. Transmateriality shapes the eclecticism of taste that characterizes material culture of both spheres in that period. In “Images as Objects: The Problem of Figural Ornament in Eighteenth-Century France,” David Pullins explores the process of transmateriality among canvas paintings, etchings, ceramics, textiles, and architectural ornament, and also addresses some of the implications of transgressing hierarchical art-historical boundaries, as when figural compositions migrate between painting and the decorative arts. A similar kind of translation is the subject of Alina Payne’s chapter, which demonstrates the relationship between textile design and façade ornament in the Renaissance architecture of Tuscany. Early in her essay, Payne defines her use of the multivalent term a-tectonic (274) as a descriptor for the sgraffito designs “applied to the skin of the building,” heading off possible confusion (here a-tectonic is not employed in Heinrich Wölfflin’s sense). Her discussion brings to mind Lisa Golombek’s seminal “The Draped Universe of Islam” (in Content and Context of Visual Arts in the Islamic World, ed. Priscilla P. Soucek, University Park: Penn State University Press, 1988, 25–38).

Several essays directly confront the association with moral decadence and the “decline narratives” that have characterized approaches to ornament in earlier generations of art criticism. In a chapter focused on the mid-eighteenth-century funerary complex of Safdar Jang in Delhi, Chanchal Dadlani argues that the site’s eclectic approach to ornament can be viewed as an intentional exercise in juxtaposition and experimentation. She contends that its reception—through the appropriations and transformations of its approach in the architecture of northern India beyond Mughal Delhi and in works on paper executed for the East India Company—accounts for the flattening of surface-form distinctions and ultimately explains how these buildings “lost their register of historical specificity” (188). The moral dimension dominates Anne Dunlop’s essay, “Ornament and Vice: The Foreign, the Mobile, and the Cocharelli Fragments,” which considers the fusions of image, object, and ornament and a range of cross-cultural references encountered in the medium of manuscript illustration. Dunlop advocates resurrecting the label International Gothic—in its original nineteenth-century sense—to convey the kind of regenerative “commingling” of form and ornament evident in the fragments (237). Robin Schuldenfrei takes on the status of ornament in German Bauhaus design and its emergence against a very different decline narrative, generated by critics such as Hermann Muthesius. She too sees potential for reevaluating the materiality of surface in the works of Peter Behrens, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius in regenerative terms, noting in its transmutability a “prospectively redemptive quality” (347).

Questions of ornament in relation to iconography, iconoclasm, and aniconism engage a number of the volume’s contributors. Oya Pancaroğlu, after pithily dispatching just enough background to make the nonspecialist at home with her subject, raises problems of art history’s historiography. In her chapter titled “Ornament, Form, and Vision in Ceramics from Medieval Iran: Reflections of the Human Image,” she is particularly concerned with the discipline’s privileging of iconographic study as a frame of inquiry and its separation of fine and minor arts, as these processes relate to the role of ornament and figural imagery in Islamic art. Starting with a beautifully constructed formal analysis of a series of mīnāī bowls, Pancaroğlu goes on to challenge received notions of discordance between form and decoration in Islamic art. Similarly, Christopher P. Heuer’s essay upends traditional notions surrounding iconoclasm. Drawing on a range of primary sources, he lays out a tight argument for reconsidering the Protestant defacement of images and icons in sixteenth-century northern Europe, demonstrating the extent to which “image breakers are historically stunning image-makers” (165). Gülru Necipoğlu’s chapter contextualizes the tendency toward aniconism in Ottoman ornament. Engaging contemporaneous aesthetic theories as expressed in manuals, biographies, poetry, and other texts, she compares Safavid and Ottoman approaches to decorated surfaces. Ultimately, she constructs an unassailable argument for the use of ornament to “mediat[e] between the body and the body politic” (154) in both cultures and—more broadly—for the potential of Islamic ornament in general to be shaped by “politico-religious motives,” a surprisingly contentious point whose disputants are tactfully tucked away in a footnote (n. 11, 370). Finbarr Barry Flood’s contribution employs Michel Foucault’s ruminations on discontinuity and Alois Riegl’s treatment of the arabesque as vehicles for revisiting questions surrounding the genesis of the so-called beveled style, known best from the stucco dados found among the architectural remains at Abbasid Samarra. Reviewing recent theories on possible modes of religious thought or forms of literary expression made manifest in these designs alongside new historical analyses of Samarra and recent archaeological studies of related sites, Flood proposes an alternative approach for the study of early Islamic ornament: “diversity in disjunction” (93)—a phrase, and a concept, that is certain to jangle the sensibilities of those still attached to the “unity in diversity–diversity in unity” mantra.

The fact that the strands and themes picked up in this reviewer’s reading differ somewhat from those identified by the volume editors for their section headings underscores the multiplicity of rewarding connections that exist among the many essays, others of which are sketched out by the editors in their introduction (5). On the other hand, perhaps because of their earlier incarnation as papers for a cross-specialized conference, most of the essays feature just enough background to make their arguments accessible to nonspecialists, enabling each to stand alone. That this work should appear on the silver anniversary of Oleg Grabar’s The Mediation of Ornament (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992) seems highly appropriate, since that far-reaching piece can be considered to have set the stage for the kind of theoretical depth, cultural breadth, and methodological range encompassed here. 

Ellen Kenney
Assistant Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture, Department of Arab and Islamic Civilizations, American University in Cairo

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