Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 15, 2006
George Saliba and Linda Komaroff The Arts of Fire: Islamic Influences on Glass and Ceramics of the Italian Renaissance Ed. Catherine Hess. Getty Trust Publications, 2004. 184 pp.; 61 color ills.; 17 b/w ills. Paper $39.95 (089236758X)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC: July 18, 2004–February 6, 2005; Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth: April 3, 2005–September 4, 2005; Setagaya Art Museum, Tokyo: October 22, 2005–December 11, 2005; Millennium Galleries, Sheffield: January 14, 2006–April 16, 2006

The past three years have provided an opportunity to see two exquisite and thought-provoking exhibitions of Islamic art and the art that influenced or responded to the brilliant creations of Islamic artists. These exhibitions, The Arts of Fire and Palace and Mosque, offered visitors a rare opportunity to see a wide variety of luxury items in an exhibition context designed to educate viewers about the formal characteristics of Islamic art and the dynamic environment in which these objects were produced. Furthermore, both exhibitions were accompanied by well-written and lavishly illustrated catalogues that supported the agendas behind the selection of the works included in the exhibits.

The exhibition, curated by Tim Stanley of the Victoria and Albert Museum, has brought a group of masterpieces from the South Kensington Museum’s permanent collection on tour during the renovation of the galleries and their future reinstallation as the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art. Catherine Hess, associate curator in the Department of Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the J. Paul Getty Museum, took a more narrow approach in her choice of objects from the Getty’s permanent collection and from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Her focus was on the particular influence that Islamic glass and ceramic manufacture exerted on early modern Italian art and design. Both exhibitions delight the eye with rich color and breathtaking artifice, and both catalogues provide readers with wonderful insight into the field of Islamic art and the impact of Islamic artists’ pottery, glass, textile, and sculpture on the rest of the world.

In The Arts of Fire, Hess has produced a fine catalogue to accompany her 2004 Getty Institute exhibition of pottery and glass. The excellent reproductions of the items selected for the exhibition make this publication a particularly valuable resource for scholars of early modern decorative arts. Similarly, the three essays that accompany the catalogue, including an overview by the curator written with the assistance of Nassim Rossi, “Brilliant Achievements: The Journey of Islamic Glass and Ceramics to Renaissance Italy,” provide scholars and novices alike with well-written introductions to the development of these arts in Europe and the debt European artisans owed to their counterparts and predecessors in the Islamic world.

From the outset of this work, the authors and those responsible for the exhibition make a clear case for the connection of the magnificent glass and ceramics produced in Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to the innovative and technologically advanced craftsmen working in these kindred media in Muslim Spain, Syria, and Iran, among other places. Similarly, the recognition that the most renowned painters of the Italian Renaissance, as well as many Northerners such as Hugo van der Goes, acknowledged the beauty of both Italian and Islamic luxury glass and ceramics permeates the text and is thoroughly documented in a number of paintings chosen by the authors to illustrate the introductory essay.

Although the increasing quality of Italian majolica is well known, less widely understood is the source of this brightly colored variety of ceramic in the styles of pottery developed in Spain under the Caliphs and continued by Islamic craftsmen resident in the Christian kingdoms of Reconquista Iberia. In the second essay, “Color, Precious Metal, and Fire: Islamic Ceramics and Glass,” Linda Komaroff, curator of Ancient and Islamic Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, discusses the development of the “arts of fire” in the Islamic world. Komaroff draws the quite wonderful parallel between the interest of the Islamic elite in imports from the Far East and the Western fascination with Islamic products. Furthermore, the Italian response to the multiple styles of ceramics produced in Mamluk Egypt, the Abbasid Middle East, and Ottoman Turkey, as well as to examples of Chinese porcelain arriving via trade relationships with the Islamic merchants and via political engagement between Italian states and their Eastern counterparts, suggests that the increasingly refined taste for fine ceramics demanded variety, and that this demand forced or allowed Italian designers and artisans to consider the discrete types of ceramic bodies and the distinctive styles of glazing and painted decoration as grist for their mill.

The increasing attention being paid by scholars to the continuous dialogue between East and West throughout the early modern period provided impetus for this catalogue and reflects the work of historians, art historians, and architectural historians such as Deborah Howard (Venice and the East, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000) and Rosamund Mack (From Bazaar to Piazza, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002) on the valuable contributions to European material culture and fine art made by European travelers in Islamic lands; by diplomatic relations and the accompanying gifts that flowed between Cairo, Damascus, Tabriz or Istanbul, and Italy; and by the transfer of skills from East to West following the expansion of Islam across the Mediterranean basin. Indeed, the flowering of Norman Palermo as a brilliant gem sparkling on the shores of the erstwhile Greek and Roman island offered Italians a splendid example of a beneficial embrace of the artistic prowess of Islam, although it must be clear that King Roger’s reputation and that of his court had long suffered from political animosity between his heirs and the papacy. In any event, medieval and early modern contact between Christendom and Islam frequently turned on the highly lucrative trade of spices and luxury goods like the fine ceramics and glass that increasingly graced the tables of upper-class residences as a mark of good taste and wealth.

Although the grand statements made by commissioned works of art and architecture dominate much art-historical discourse, the acquisition and display of luxury decorative art offered owners another means of displaying wealth and power. The recognition of the rarity and value of Islamic objects is underscored by the inclusion of portraits of particularly breathtaking examples in altarpieces and private commissions alike. The limited availability of high-quality items, which increased their appeal to the wealthiest collectors, inspired local manufacturers to begin to approximate the appearance of Islamic examples or to at least modify palettes and profiles to satisfy European demand for the most popular types. More interesting, perhaps, is the foundation of factories in cities or regions where no skilled local labor existed. In some other instances, princes such as Grand Duke Francesco de’ Medici and his brother Grand Duke Ferdinando I seized the opportunity to create new industries in Tuscany and, in the process, create a new source of income directly tied to spreading interest in the purchase of the latest Italian majolica. Through this enterprise, local craftsmen absorbed the lessons of their Islamic counterparts and introduced new high-quality pieces with colors and painted decoration based upon the earlier imported wares but now designed to satisfy the tastes of the Italian market.

The first two essays of this catalogue offer scholars and laymen a clear introduction to the development of the arts of ceramic and glass manufacture in the Islamic world as well as the eventual influence of imported Islamic decorative arts on European buyers and craftsmen. The third essay, George Saliba’s “The World of Islam and Renaissance Science and Technology,” picks up the theme of artistic influence and takes on the parallel relationship Saliba identifies in the sciences. Indeed, Saliba introduces a series of remarkable examples in which Islamic mathematicians, astronomers, and physicians developed ideas about concepts including planetary motion and pulmonary circulation of the blood that had a decided impact on early modern European scientists. Furthermore, the suggestion that things associated with Europe’s Scientific Revolution had roots in Islamic natural philosophy or science is reinforced by Saliba’s analysis of potential conduits for information such as the Medici Oriental Press that used papal support to establish a printing and translating enterprise capable of facilitating the transfer of ideas between East and West. What Saliba does not tell us, however, is the Stamperia Orientale’s decided failure to circulate many copies of its scientific and theological texts, thousands of which remained in a storeroom in the Villa Medici in Rome for decades after having found no real public. In any case, Saliba serves us well by bringing to our attention Antonio da Sangallo the Younger’s drawings of astrolabes made by a Baghdadi named Khafif in the ninth century; Saliba further points out that the beautiful renderings represented “the epitome of a sophisticated scientific machine . . . that he thought was superior to what was then available in Europe,” even though the piece was at least six hundred years old! (61) In other words, in many respects—and particularly in the manufacture of glass and ceramics, and in certain scientific domains—Islamic culture paved the way for later flowerings in early modern Europe.

The exhibition and this catalogue offer Renaissance scholars, a group frequently better versed in painting and other fine arts, a rich introduction to the decorative arts that captured wealthy patrons’ fancy. The succinct yet informative essays present cogent observations based on real transactions between the two cultures; as a result, they help make the case for European stylistic appropriation much more tangible than we have seen in discussions of architectural ornament, for example. Furthermore, the essays and the selected works in these two kindred arts reveal a continuous and ultimately beneficial flow of ideas between Christian Europe and the Islamic world.

Tim Stanley’s Palace and Mosque chose to survey a wider range of Islamic art, a decision made, perhaps, due to the short-term availability of the complete collection of Islamic art and artifacts for travel during the renovation of the Islamic galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Similarly, his catalogue reads as a survey of Islamic art from the rise of Islam to the nineteenth century, when agents of the then South Kensington Museum began to acquire exemplary pieces of Islamic art with the hope that this work would offer inspiration to British designers in industrial England. The main text, with smaller focused studies inserted throughout by Stanley, co-authors Mariam Rosser-Owen and Stephen Vernoit, and several other authors, undertakes the task of identifying those characteristics of the visual culture of the lands that embraced Islam, which might serve as the fundamental traits of an Islamic art. He achieves his goal, for the most part, in an essay that discusses the visual arts in the larger context of patronage activity, long-distance trade, religious doctrine, and Islamic literature. What might be most striking about the text of the catalogue, however, is the strength of the Victoria and Albert Museum collection as evidenced by Stanley’s use of pieces from the exhibition to support his argument.

The Arts of Fire and Palace and Mosque are superior examples of the didactic value of the well-designed exhibition and the clearly written catalogue. In both catalogues readers are presented with powerful visual evidence of concise yet compelling arguments. With The Arts of Fire, Hess focuses attention on two sister arts as media of the transmission of technique and style from East to West. With Palace and Mosque, Stanley produced a text that supplements the variety of surveys available on the arts of the Islamic world. Furthermore, the curators and their co-authors have, in both volumes, made a deliberate and wise decision to frame their arguments within the larger context of the spread of Islam and the evolution of the Islamic world during centuries of political and social upheaval. Moreover, both catalogues do not favor an expert audience over those who might be inspired to read these texts after the exhibition. That being said, the scholarly writing and thoughtful use of illustrations offer rich information for more advanced students of Islamic art and the decorative arts in general.

The major differences in the catalogues, beyond the broader or narrower focus of the exhibition materials that are the raison d’etre of the text, is the choice made by Stanley to not provide a typical catalogue of the exhibition in the catalogue itself, even though the liberal use of color illustrations in support of the text suggests that nearly every object in the exhibition is reproduced in the catalogue. Hess, on the other hand, made the decision to compose a standard catalogue that featured a color reproduction of each item. This choice makes sense after reading The Arts of Fire’s three essays and considering the need for illustrations of paintings, for example, that were not part of the exhibition to support points argued in the essays. In addition, Hess has included a quite useful bibliography of references as well as a glossary, whereas Stanley cites a short list of sources for further reading. One can imagine that Hess expects the readers of The Arts of Fire to have a more specific interest in the decorative arts, particularly ceramics and glass, and has thus made the astute decision to offer a glimpse at the scholarly apparatus behind the exhibition and catalogue.

The visual legacy of Islam is, unfortunately, placed effectively in the past by both exhibition catalogues. The premise behind The Arts of Fire makes it quite clear that the exciting moment of cultural exchange illuminated by the exhibition was not long-lived, and that the focus on the delivery of ideas to Renaissance Italy from the Islamic world was inherently limited in scope. However, the authors do make an effort to address the bigger picture of the nature of Islamic art and the reason behind Italian interest in Islamic forms, which begs the question of the transmission of ideas between Europe and the Islamic world in the years before or since the Renaissance. Tim Stanley’s Palace and Mosque does not focus itself primarily on the exchange of ideas between Islam and Europe or the Far East, but this issue is an important part of his text. What is disappointing, although again this may relate to the historical focus of the Victoria and Albert Museum collection, is the lack of any art from the modern Islamic world. In the preface to the text and elsewhere in the book, the authors suggest that a better understanding of Islamic art—and what makes something definitely Islamic after all—would go a long way toward the establishment of a common ground for an understanding of Islamic culture and, in the process, would help viewers of the exhibition and readers of the catalogue avoid the missteps the authors suggest are made on an almost daily basis in the West’s dealings with the Islamic world. As art historians, we continually argue for an inextricable relationship between visual culture and human intellectual, social, and political behavior. Stanley echoes this thought, and this reader wishes he would have brought the story of Islamic art up to the present day, as I hope the new Jameel Gallery in London will attempt to do. This would make his strong contribution to the study of Islamic art an equally useful tool in the reformulation of our relationship with the Islamic world.

Christopher Pastore
Associate Director, Programs in the Humanities and the Social Sciences, University of Pennsylvania

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