Oriental origins of Italian Renaissance art

How Islamic decorative arts influenced 15th- and 16th-century Western artists

Virtually all recent publications dealing with the subject of East-West artistic exchanges focus on the period before 1600. There are several reasons for this. First, Islamic art to that date has been considered as superior to European arts, thus making Europe’s immense interest in them obvious.

Second, the acute political rivalry promoted a culture of gift giving which in turn promoted aesthetic and technical excellence on both sides.

Third, the wide range of associations which contemporaries would have perceived between Islamic and Byzantine imagery was crucial to the Italian humanists in whose collections included IslByamic objects and are the means by which they were transmitted to us. Rosamond Mack’s Bazaar to piazza also focuses on this period and concerns the development of decorative and pictorial arts in Italy within the context of East-West trade, diplomatic exchanges and industrial rivalry.

This lavishly illustrated book portrays the “cross-cultural artistic transfer” between the Muslim Mediterranean and Italy over three centuries, undertaking the daunting task of surveying objects ranging from textiles and carpets to ceramics, glass, brassware, bookbinding and pictorial arts. Its purpose, according to the author, “is to link a wide range of art works and specialised scholarship to make this complex subject accessible to a broad readership”.

In the introduction, the author gives an overview of the inexhaustible richness that Islamic trade and European travel had contributed to the development of Italy’s appreciation for decorative arts. The trade links between the Muslim East and the Christian West, she argues, led to a dynamic artistic creativity focusing on materials, formal elements, and stylistic conventions. Dr Mack illustrates her point using a series of portable objects such as kitchenware, carpets, textiles and pottery that found their way to Italy.

At times, however, the author’s own admiration for Islamic objects over-determines her conclusions. For example, she presents the Pisan use of Islamic kitchenware for decorative purposes in architecture as a case for the superiority of Islamic pottery and also for the Italian propensity towards decorative arts, apparently unawares that such plate inserts (bacini) were also part of an architectural tradition in Tunisia, whence the Pisan bacini came. Although this fact does not affect her general argument, it indicates, nevertheless and at least in this case, an imitative rather than imaginative spirit on the part of the Italians.

The first chapter brings to our attention the shifting political landscape of the Mediterranean basin from the era of the pax Mongolica in the early 14th century to the rise of the Memluk Sultanates and the Ottoman Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries. The intention behind this is to suggest that, although through trade and diplomatic affairs the contacts between Europe remained constant, the type and quality of luxury goods that reached Italy were diverse. The chronologically organised subsequent chapters not only prove such diversity, but also show how the Italian audience changed their attitudes towards luxury goods over the centuries.

For example, while textiles were acquired, closely imitated and led to the establishment of Italian trade for Muslim markets, this was not the case for carpets. Although Islamic pottery provided some formal inspirations, the European productions were never technically as successful. While glass remained a hybrid product, combining European and Islamic shapes and decoration, bookbinding was closely imitated to impress humanist patrons. The beautifully selected images are indicative of Dr Mack’s impressive erudition. Her knowledge of textiles and carpets in particular also illuminates her discussion of pictorial arts in convincing ways, a topic to which she devotes two separate chapters.

This book is a traditional, positivistic history of art that employs visual analysis to trace the “sources” of certain stylistic developments. Dr Mack’s point is that Islamic textiles and carpets represented in paintings as well as imitative Islamic pottery, glass, and bookbinding can all be traced back to “real” objects in the possession of the patron, artists or craftsmen.

What interests the author is not the meaning and power embodied in images, but the agency of actual objects, the subject matter of images, and their very materials and techniques. Where a discussion of the meaning of works of art is unavoidable, the author mostly relies on secondary literature, summarising and paraphrasing authors without really acknowledging some of the doubts they raise. For example, the author readily attributes a series of drawings made at the end of the 15th century to Costanzo da Ferrara while the debate over their authorship still continues.

None of this should detract from the fact that the author’s synthetic approach to her subject is a real achievement. The book will certainly be a useful starting point for students interested in the subject of East-West relations. More knowledgeable readers, on the other hand, might be disappointed by its lack of epistemological position and may ask how this book is to be reconciled with today’s more nuanced and critical analyses of the complex relationship between Europe and the East.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Oriental origins'