‘Florence & Baghdad: Renaissance Art and Arab Science’

A little ways on from the ten year anniversary of September 11th, it’s apparent that one of its innumerable effects is a significant trend in academic scholarship that focuses on the long, complex, often vexed history of relations between Western Europe (and later, the United States) and the Arab world. Historians and political scientists, as one might expect, have produced much of this scholarship, often ascribing the events of September 11th and subsequent events such as the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to fundamental ideological differences centuries in the making.

Whatever the merits of this scholarship—and only time will tell—it’s also the case that in the past decade scholars of literature and art history have also dedicated significant energy and interest to the topic of “East-West” relations, often from the vantage of some relatively obscure areas of interest (Byzantine iconic art and John Mandeville’s account of travel in medieval Arabia for example). The godfather of this work, so to speak, is Edward Said, whose study Orientalism which, long before 2001, examined Western representations of the Middle East in the context of Western colonialist ideology.

Said’s work and more recent installments are certainly evidence that charges leveled against academia—especially the humanities—for “ivory tower” disdain for the affairs of the world are often simply unfair. Indeed, if anything, the work evidences a profound desire on the part of scholars to relate their work to the larger trajectory of history—a desire that critics, most often of a conservative political inclination, attribute to political interestedness at the expense of scholarly impartiality.

Hans Belting—whose distinguished career includes teaching and research appointments at German and American universities—explicitly positions Florence & Baghdad: Renaissance Art and Arab Science in the context of recent academic trends and the larger socio-historical realities that inform them. He writes in the introduction (the English translation is by Deborah Lucas Schneider), “Islam has become a hot topic in today’s intense debates, but its very topicality carries the risk of distorting or even falsifying history.”

Belting goes on to insist that his aim is not to propose the innate superiority of Western or Arabe culture—or a superficial allegiance of the two cultures—but, rather, to explore their complex interaction as it relates to one particular historical phenomenon. That phenomenon is the use of perspective—or the suggestion of three-dimensionality—in Western painting, a phenomenon that progressed with astonishing complexity and sophistication in the Renaissance, beginning in 15th-century Italy.

If the topic seems rather minute in its interests, Belting insists that its implications are vast. For the representation of the world in art both reflects and conditions how members of a society literally see (and, by extension, understand) the world around them. We find in Renaissance art, then, documentation of a pivotal moment in the evolution of the, well, worldviews of the West and Middle East.

Belting’s argument makes several key assertions: first, we should not assume that the use of perspective necessarily entails a more sophisticated or accurate representation of the physical world; second, the scientific and mathematical discoveries that inform the use of perspective in Renaissance art owe a significant debt to medieval Arab scholars; third, the neglect of perspective in Arab art indicates not primitivism or a failure of intellect but, rather, priorities and interests very different from those that informed Western art.

These are ambitious claims and Belting largely substantiates them with wide-ranging scholarship that evinces thorough study not just of Western and Arab art but also optical theory, mathematics, and philosophy. And though for specialists in the field Belting’s work may not be groundbreaking, the explanation of the emphasis on geometric forms in Islamic art is informative and goes a long way toward facilitating understanding of the cultural values—as well as taboos—that underwrite it.

The explanation for how Arab mathematical theory came to be disseminated in Italian art—the journey from Baghdad to Florence, in other words—is convincing but seems underdeveloped. Belting’s aim, though, seems less to make an iron-clad case then to reorient the investigation into the origins of perspective from classical antiquity to the medieval Baghdad and environs.

Also the study, for substantial stretches, tends toward a general history of the development of perspective, its relation to the specific interests of the volume and their larger implications unclear. Still, great erudition and clear, purposeful prose (at least in English translation) abound—as do beautiful reproductions of many of the artworks Belting cites.

Florence & Baghdad is academic in its interests and execution but in the best sense of that term: substantially researched and carefully argued. Its objective tone, reluctance to indulge in sloganeering, and deep interest in what history can tell us about the present are most welcome in an area that too often falls into accusatory rhetoric and prejudicial dismissal.

RATING 7 / 10