by Roderick Conway Morris

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Islamic Art in Italy

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 29 January 1994
Church of San Pietro in Castello, Venice
The Throne of St. Peter, incorporating an Islamic headstone from 9th-11th century



'The Heritage of Islam', at the Doge's Palace, constitutes a major gathering of the considerable Islamic artistic riches in museums and private collections throughout Italy (and lasts till 30 April), but its lacklustre and low-key presentation, alas, puts one in mind not so much of Aladdin's Cave as the 14th-century Arab traveler Ibn Battuta's description of Bengal: 'A hell full of good things.'

The first Arab raids on Sicily occurred within twenty years of Mohammed's death in 632; Rome was attacked in 846 and Sicily dominated by the Muslims from the mid 9th century till 1060. In 937 Palermo was reported to have 300 mosques. Subsequently the peninsula's flourishing maritime Republics - Genoa, Florence, Pisa and, supremely, Venice - through trade, diplomacy and warfare were in daily contact with Muslims through the middle ages and Renaissance into modern times.

Italian scholars played a vital part in introducing 'Arabic' numerals and algebra (an Arab word), medical and astronomical ideas into Europe and promoting the study of Oriental languages. Even Dante's vision seems influenced by Islamic literature. Meanwhile, the cultural exchanges and ceaseless flow of artefacts to and fro have left us with such striking curiosities as the 'Throne of St Peter', in Venice's original cathedral church in Castello, whose elegantly-carved back is, in fact, a Muslim grave stone, and a Gentile Bellini portrait of Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople (the artist was sent to Istanbul by the Venetian government as a goodwill gesture, and also apparently decorated some of the Ottoman sultan's apartments with erotic murals). And so much did Renaissance Italian and Turkish fine clothmakers imitate each others' work that it is now difficult to establish whether certain pieces are of Muslim or Christian manufacture.

The Venice show's superb textiles, ceramics, metalwork, carvings, carpets, paintings and books, from all over the Muslim world and dating from early times to the last century, many of them exceptional examples, will delight anyone already interested in Islamic art, despite - owing to financial constraints - the use of ugly and unsuitable display cases left over from some past show and often dismal lighting. But the slapdash and half-hearted level of explanation will do nothing to introduce the uninitiated - a primary purpose, surely, of these enterprises - leaving the strong impression that the choice of a more limited focus accompanied by more thoughtful and imaginative presentation would have produced an infinitely better result.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023