The Power of Things and the Flow of Cultural Transformations / Islamic Artefacts in the Mediterranean World

March 7, 2013
Reviewed by Alicia Walker
The Power of Things and the Flow of Cultural Transformations 
Edited by Lieselotte E. Saurma-Jeltsch and Anja Eisenbeiß
Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2010. 
280 pp.
Paperback 39.90 € / $55
ISBN: 978-3-422-06978-7

Islamic Artefacts in the Mediterranean World: Trade, Gift Exchange and Artistic Transfer 
Edited by Catarina Schmidt Arcangeli and Gerhard Wolf
Venice: Marsilio Editori, 2011.
248 pp.; 206 b/w and 18 color ills.
Cloth 48 €
ISBN: 978-8-831-70984-2

1. islamic artifacts.jpg The fields of medieval and early modern studies have witnessed a burgeoning of cross-cultural inquiry over the past decade. Both scholarly symposia and publications that cast a cross-cultural perspective have become increasingly more nuanced and specific about the questions they pose and the topics they explore. On the one hand this has resulted in narrowing the focus of inquiry to particular case studies and themes, emphasizing how the particularities of these situations inflect the nature of intercultural exchange in each instance. On the other hand there has been an expansion in the range of geographic, temporal, and artistic comparisons brought to bear on the issue. The two volumes reviewed here offer useful examples of how both constricting and expanding the scope of inquiry can generate new understandings of the ways medieval and early modern cross-cultural artistic interaction operated, and how such relations fundamentally shaped visual and material culture as well as the people who viewed and interpreted these objects in the past. 

The ten essays in The Power of Things and the Flow of Cultural Transformations were originally presented as lectures in a series organized at the University of Heidelberg in 2009–2010. These papers are concerned not only with the movement of objects and ideas across divides of culture and geography, but also with how this movement intersects with our understanding of history, materiality, and the construction of identity. Some of the essays also provide innovative approaches to understanding how monumental artistic traditions—including architecture, large-scale sculpture, and garden design—were transmitted across geographic and cultural distances. The essays command a wide chronological and geographic span, from Western Europe, to Asia, to the Americas and from the twelfth to the twentieth century. Such breadth challenges the reader to find immediate resonance among the essays, but at the same time it productively shifts attention to the conceptual and methodological parallels among the papers, demonstrating how strategies and dynamics of intercultural artistic relations can operate in surprisingly parallel ways across time and space. The diverse case studies are unified by their attention to the ways in which visual and material culture played an active role in defining individual and group identities, yet the meanings of things are revealed to be unstable and responsive, being constantly transformed as objects and people moved through new contexts. The editors have organized the volume to track an intriguing progression from consideration of actual objects and their real movements across social and physical boundaries to increasingly more abstract and imagined things that served as vehicles for the expression of ideas about cultural interaction and difference. 

Saurma-Jeltsch and Eisenbeiß’s introductory essay, “About the Agency of Things, of Objects and Artefacts,” provides a useful introduction to “thing theory” and juxtaposes the subsequent essays in relation to this complex and ever-expanding body of literature. The editors wisely avoid attempting to stake a particular position within this theoretical trajectory for the volume as a whole, opting instead to situate the collection alongside these rich ideas. The opening essay is admirably concise and precise, and it can function exceptionally well as an entry point for advanced undergraduate or graduate students into this heterogeneous theoretical subfield. The subsequent essays are gathered into three parts, each of which has an eloquent and compelling title. The content of the essays in each section is not, however, always consistent with these headings. At the same time, other important connections and contributions that link the studies—such as the intriguing processes for the transmission of monumental arts or the imbrication of cross-cultural artistic interactions with cross-cultural economic networks—are not highlighted in these groupings or their titles. 

In Part I, “The Efficacy of Things: Enchanting Materials and Staggering Craftsmanship,” the editors cluster essays that relate to the materiality of things and their “haptic power” (8). This connection would have benefited from further elucidation; neither the title of the section nor its brief explanation is clearly reflected in the content of the papers. In different ways, each of these essays grapples with the difficulty of locating meaning in circumstances of cross-cultural movement and reception. They also draw attention to how formal and aesthetic properties factored in cross-cultural artistic exchange as powerfully as semiotics.  

In her essay, “Translocation and Transformation: Some Middle Eastern Objects in Europe,” Anna Contadini surveys a range of object types—rock crystal vessels, marble architectural elements, bronze sculptures—of Islamic origin that migrated from their originally secular, Islamic contexts to Christian sacred spaces of church treasuries and facades. Contadini explores a range of possibilities that motivated and made possible these transmissions as well as the changes in function and potential shifts in meaning that these objects experienced. Emphasizing the dearth of textual documentation for medieval object exchange, she models some of the ways that these lacunae can be navigated, for example, by looking at the history of production and transmission of object categories as a means to hypothesize the pathways that may have been traced by individual objects. This essay makes a useful distinction between various themes according to which cross-cultural artistic interactions might be considered, including aesthetic properties, function, and semiotics. Contadini remains cautious about drawing definitive conclusions, however, insisting on the speculative nature of such arguments as well as the ever-changing nature of objects’ functions, meanings, and aesthetic impact as they moved through new environments.  

Lisa Monnas considers the importance of textiles in long-distance medieval artistic interaction and notes that they not only moved as trade goods but also transformed the style of local textiles and the techniques employed to produce them. Her essay, “The Impact of Oriental Silks on Italian Silk Weaving in the Fourteenth Century,” delves deeply into the economic realities and circumstances of production that contributed to a dovetailing of European and Asian textile industries in this era. Her analysis of the terminology and techniques for diverse types of fabrics draws attention to the complexity of the production and consumption of late medieval textiles. Monnas explores possible meanings for the iconography of these objects as well as how individual motifs could have been reinterpreted when they moved from one cultural context to another. Like Contadini she remains vigilant against presuming that these objects were read in a consistent manner by all viewers. The images of textiles captured in late medieval Italian paintings that are introduced at the outset of the essay emerge as indexes of a sophisticated system of manufacturing, trade, and connoisseurship in late medieval Europe that communicated value and meaning as much through the skill of craftsmanship and the luxury of materials as through the symbolism of iconographic motifs. David Roxburgh’s essay, “The ‘Journal’ of Ghiyath al-Din Naqqash, Timurid Envoy to Khan Balïgh, and Chinese Art and Architecture,” shifts the focus of inquiry from the portable objects that moved between cultures to the people who traversed geographic and cultural space. Roxburgh examines how the travel account of the fifteenth-century Timurid envoy Ghiyath al-Din Naqqash records a late medieval viewer’s reception of the architecture and monumental sculptures of another cultural and artistic tradition. He points to how Ghiyath al-Din’s descriptions of Buddhist art and architecture can be analyzed as much from what is not said as from what is reported. In particular, Ghiyath al-Din exhibits a lack of interest in the iconography of Buddhist art, which Roxburgh observes as “an apparent reticence about subject matter in a narrative report that favours making over meaning” (102). Roxburgh suggests that rather than viewing this absence of semiotic engagement as a shortcoming, we might understand it to reflect instead Ghiyath al-Din’s primary interest in how what he witnessed was useful and meaningful within a Timurid framework as opposed to the Ming context in which he first experienced it. Roxburgh relates this attitude to the way in which Timurid paintings that employ Chinese models possess a foreign aura but transform their sources such that the formal idioms and iconographic programs of these paintings insist on a decidedly Timurid identity. 

Timon Screech, like Monnas, considers works of art in distinctly economic terms, while also addressing how artists and traders understood the meanings of these objects to be unstable and in need of constant, considered evaluation. His essay, “The Cargo of the New Year’s Gift: Pictures from London to India and Japan, 1614,” further widens the scope of the volume in both geographic and chronological terms, examining painted pictures on a seventeenth-century trade ship that traveled between England and Japan. Screech reveals how Western European efforts to create new markets for artistic goods through the introduction of diplomatic gifts of “lascivious” paintings, court portraits, cityscapes, and other subjects were intended to stimulate export markets for these items. As Screech notes, these works of art were also purposefully curated to present the proper image of English rulers and their lands. In addition, they were carefully selected in response to existing Japanese aesthetic interests and were intended to help shape these tastes in new ways. 

Part II, “Reified Memories: The Embodiment of Historicity,” explores the “differing historicity of things” (8). Again, the editors’ concise characterization would have benefited from more extensive analysis, particularly in this instance because the essays, although all interesting and engaging, did not equally align themselves with the possibilities evoked in the section title. Nicholas Thomas’s essay was the most immediately relevant to the designated theme. It engages with the question of how objects, monuments, and their shifting physical contexts can stimulate reflections on history and place as well as sharpen the identities that are forged through the friction and fluidity between works of art or architecture and their contexts. In his essay, “The Power of Maori Things: Tene Waitere’s Carving and Colonial History,” he exposes simple dichotomies of colonized and colonizer, insider and outsider as insufficient to capture the complex, ambivalent alliances and conflicts among a spectrum of actors and across a history of interaction between the Maori and Europeans. He masterfully shows the usefulness of works of art and architecture as sites where such considerations can be localized and to which wider-ranging ideas can be tethered. While the meanings and functions of objects and monuments are in constant flux, works of art and architecture retain utility because of the way they allow these histories to be recuperated through them and keep different places and times tied to one another, albeit in flexible and sometimes attenuated ways. He argues that the ability of these things to remain potent and relevant derives in part from their particular presence, their vitality and difference. Maori objects and buildings are celebrated for their resilience, accruing new significance as their circumstances change with the passing of time. 

In “Musical Instruments as Conveyors of Meaning from One Culture to Another: The Example of the Lute,” Charles Burnett asks whether the associations held for Islamic musical instruments were retained during the process of their transmission to Western Europe. While the words used to translate Arabic musical terms tended to remain accurate in capturing the original instrument type, Latin treatises did not transmit broader traditions surrounding musical instruments, specifically the use of music in Arab medicine for treating melancholia and other mental conditions. Similarly some of the symbolisms for musical instruments as embodiments of cosmic order were not adopted in the West. Burnett suggests that the reason for this selective transmission may rest in the fact that Western musicology was already well established by the time that Arabic texts were translated in the twelfth century, making Western scholars less receptive to this “other” tradition. It was only in intellectual domains like astronomy, certain categories of medicine, and natural philosophy that they sought to learn from Islamic sources. 

Toshio Watanabe stakes a claim for the fundamentally transnational character of modern Japanese gardens, as demonstrated by their having been established in non-Japanese locations as a way to promote Japanese identities, whether as ambassadors of culture in the international theater of World’s Fairs, as statements of colonial seizure in territories conquered by the Japanese, or as defiant responses to the humiliation and oppression of American internment camps. Conversely, he notes the impact of European and North American garden design and philosophies regarding public space in shaping the form and ideologies of Japanese gardens since the nineteenth century. Citing the relatively limited scholarly attention paid to the cross-cultural dimension of Japanese garden history, Watanabe’s largely descriptive account offers an overture to a larger project that awaits full consideration. 

The most coherent of the sections in this volume is Part III, “Things from Afar: Heralded Imaginings,” which gathers essays that explore how imagined things in fictional narratives embody real attitudes toward faraway cultures. These essays offer extremely important models for how fictional and real objects and spaces can illuminate one another and contribute equally to our understanding of broader outlooks toward cultural “others.” In “‘A thing called the Grail’: Oriental spolia in Wolfram’s Parzival and its Manuscript Tradition,” Michael Stolz considers how the otherness of the Grail “stone” is established in the medieval narrative by means of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s insistence on the untranslatability of terms relating to its description and the association of the object with people and practices of a distinctly exotic nature. Stolz asks what we can learn from the way in which “Oriental” and “Occidental” components remain estranged from one another and what the self-consciously exotic status of spolia imparts to the poem as a whole. In this discussion, untranslatability emerges as a key tactic for both adorning the text with the fascinating allure of the foreign and affirming the exotic origin and mysterious power of the Grail within the text. 

Larry Silver charts the changing conceptions and representations of India from the medieval to modern eras, as Western Europe’s understanding of India shifted from a “place” (a location existing only in the imagination and full of wonders) to a “space” (a location known through physical experience and actual observation, although perhaps no less wonder-full as a result). Silver shows how preexisting systems of meaning gave shape to early modern Western European artists’ and writers’ representations of India, for example, depicting the royal procession of the king of Cochin in an early sixteenth-century woodcut using the compositional conventions developed for portraying ancient Roman imperial triumphs. At the same time they incorporated into these images exotic objects, plants, animals, and human physical traits in order to make clear the difference of these foreign locales. Actual things also increasingly contributed to Western knowledge of India, arriving in Europe by means of diplomatic and eventually commercial networks. This essay is significant for its recognition of European conceptions of India as diachronic phenomena and shows that the transformation from fantasy to observation was gradual, even incomplete. 

The final essay, Marina Warner’s “Riding the Carpet: The Vehicle of Stories in the Arabian Nights,” observes the way that things become actors in fictional stories through magical empowerment, thereby introducing fantastical possibilities that enchanted and exhilarated European readers. According to Warner, fictional things speak literally and figuratively in the narratives they inhabit, and by listening to them we might better understand both the stories for which they were first invented and the contexts in which they later appeared. She posits that this unusual agency of objects in these exotic tales also shaped the way that Europeans thought about actual things associated with the “Orient.” Focusing on the well-known trope of the magic carpet, she argues that fictional things from the East can become tools for the disparagement of their source cultures. Yet she resists a scholarly tendency to see European cultural hegemony and claims to ethical superiority as uncontested. Indeed, she emphasizes that colonial and other intercultural contacts characterized by unequal power differentials lead to the infiltration and transformation of the dominant group in deep and powerful ways, a form of subversive cultural conquest often accomplished via things, both real and imagined. 

On the whole, these essays are of excellent quality and attest to the diverse and important ways that cross-cultural considerations enrich our understanding not only of the spaces between cultures but of cultural centers as well. Although the individual papers resonate productively with one another, their overarching contribution is perhaps more evocative than definitive, and the volume might have benefited from extended introductions to the three sections, sharing in greater detail the editors’ perceptions of how the essays gathered in each part of the volume complemented and enhanced one another. Synthetic discussions of this kind would have also made clearer the contribution of the volume as a whole to our broader understanding of cross-cultural artistic exchange. This lost opportunity is particularly regretted because the essays showed unusually high methodological self-reflection and theoretical rigor, positioning them especially well to serve as conceptual models for how to interpret things in cross-cultural relations regardless of their historical, geographic, and cultural specifics.  

Islamic Artefacts in the Mediterranean World: Trade, Gift Exchange and Artistic Transfer was also the product of a series of lectures, which were originally presented in a conference organized by the Kunsthistorische Institut in Florence as part of an effort to expand the parameters of the center’s traditionally Italo-centric purview. The volume is concerned with reinstating the materiality of objects into our consideration of premodern art, particularly in response to a scholarly tendency to discuss “images” as though they are somehow separate or separable from their physical substrates. The editors seek to accord physical objects their rightful due as the topic of serious inquiry, thereby revising earlier trends toward interpreting such works as merely technical or aesthetic achievements. The term “artefact” is proposed as a label that gathers all objects of art historical inquiry into a common discourse, thereby transcending hierarchies of genre, media, and subject matter that structure and sometimes fragment scholarship in the field. The essays claim common ground in examining the “reuse, reframing, and transforming of ‘Islamic’ objects in Christian contexts” (7). They are further united by the rejection of traditional notions of “East and West” or “Orient and Occident” in favor of recognizing the imbricated nature of identities that were brought into contact through diplomatic, economic, military, and other traffic across the Mediterranean Sea as well as through the region’s connections with a wider world including Central Asia, the Persian Gulf, India, China, and the Atlantic coasts of Europe. 

While taking the transformation of Islamic works of art as a common point of departure, the authors address a variety of mechanisms through which objects and people were put into motion and survey a broad chronological span from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century. The essays vary in length and depth as well as in their commitment to the principles and goals of the volume, resulting in a less than coherent collection of studies. Although all the contributions bring to light interesting artefacts and intriguing circumstances of cross-cultural interaction, the most useful papers move beyond the description of individual works of art and avoid reductive explanations for the mechanics and meaning of artistic transmission. They instead situate these objects and monuments in relation to the specifics of their historical context(s) and distill from these particularities broader methods and concepts for interpreting intercultural artistic relations, a strength that they share with the essays found in The Power of Things.

In his essay, “The Otherness in the Focus of Interest: or, If Only the Other Could Speak,” Avinoam Shalem reflects upon the now-popular notion that things have “biographies” by recognizing the simultaneous absurdity and utility of conceiving of objects as possessing “lives.” He observes that things’ lack of biology equips them to endure beyond the limitations of animals, plants, and people and to accrue and convey history in a fashion that flora and fauna are inherently unable to do. At the same time, the tactility and substance of objects inclines us to view them like bodies, and their portability allows them to move in ways that remind us of human mobility. Shalem offers justification for viewing medieval Islamic objects in these terms by documenting the prevalent ascription of anthropomorphic properties to objects in medieval Islamic literature. He then catalogues specific artefacts that experienced particularly dynamic intercultural transmission through their reuse in medieval Christian church treasuries. He proposes that this medieval textual and material evidence substantiates the contemporary scholarly conception of works of art as “living things.” 

Anthony Cutler’s essay, “St. Francis and the ‘Noble Heathen’: Notes of Gift Practice in the Ayyubid Era,” surveys lists of presents exchanged between the thirteenth-century Ayyubid sultans and Islamic and Christian recipients, thereby placing in a larger historical context Sultan al-Kamil’s donation of gifts to St. Francis when the latter traveled to Egypt in 1219. Put into circulation through social networks that ran within and beyond Islamic territories, diplomatic gifts carried real as well as symbolic values, the successful transmission of which depended on the interest and knowledge of the recipients. Indeed Cutler posits that the degree to which the event of gift exchange was omitted from some Western accounts of St. Francis and Sultan al-Kamil’s encounter indicates how the language of gift giving was not spoken fluently—or at least in the same dialect—throughout all cultures of the Mediterranean. In two thematically related studies, Jaško Belamrić (“Gifts and Tears”) provides an overview of the relationship of Dubrovnik with the Ottoman Empire after the conquest of Bosnia, paying particular attention to the objects that were exchanged in diplomatic relations between them; and Fernando Valdés (“Manufacturas Palatinas, objetos de corte, regalos de embajada en la Córdoba Omeya”) examines historical accounts that describe diplomatic gifts exchanged between the Spanish Umayyads and various foreign powers and identifies extant objects representing the kinds of artefacts that could have served this function. Together these three essays attest to the importance of material objects in articulating political power relations, and to the way that gifts could stimulate larger economies of goods circulating through networks of politics and trade. Artefacts are shown to have fulfilled these roles in particularly interesting and unique ways, mediating relationships that were complicated by differences of religion, language, and culture.

David Jacoby recuperates the often disparaged term “Oriental” as a geographic designator in order to characterize thirteenth-century and later silks produced in a broad geographic area of the eastern Mediterranean and Asia that were eventually transported to Western Europe. In his essay, “Oriental Silks Go West: A Declining Trade in the Later Middle Ages,” he traces textiles cited in the written record (such as church and royal treasury inventories, market regulations, and diplomatic and trade accounts) as well as in the material record (such as paintings of the era, rare examples of actual preserved Oriental textiles, and imitations of Oriental textiles produced in Western workshops). Intriguingly, by the second half of the thirteenth century, the current of transmission had begun to shift such that by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Italian, especially Venetian, textiles flooded the markets of Egypt and Syria. True Oriental textiles could no longer compete with production from the Latin West. Written sources rarely provide a sustained discussion of the “Oriental” textiles they cite and often omit explicit reference to their places of origin. Jacoby raises the possibility that some of these silks may in fact have been produced in the West, a phenomenon that would be in keeping with patterns of production at the time. Indeed, he shows that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, silks produced in the Near East and China began to imitate Italian silks in order to compete with Western imports. 

In a related study, “Tappeti orientali a Firenze nel Rinascimento,” Marco Spallanzani analyzes the demand for and supply of “Oriental” carpets in early modern Italy (late fourteenth to sixteenth century), focusing on the role of Florentines in this import market. Assessing various archives that preserve evidence of this trade (including account books, insurance contracts, waybills, domestic inventories, and personal correspondences), he provides a rigorously documented and refreshingly concrete perspective on the ways and means by which these exotic objects traveled to Europe from the eastern Mediterranean as well as on the subsequent regional distribution of Oriental carpets within Italy. Spallanzani posits that the expansion of the Florentine importation of carpets in the fifteenth century corresponded to the increasing independence of Florentine merchants, who sought ever more direct routes to Near Eastern locales and unmediated transactions with the markets that supplied exotic textiles. Drawing from archival documents as well as the evidence of extant textiles and carpets depicted in late medieval and early modern Italian paintings, Spallanzani provides an overview of the monetary value, dimensions, functions, and decorative types that characterized Oriental carpets found in Florence.

Continuing a focus on textiles, Almut Goldhahn (“Der Teppich als hortus conclusus—Orientalische Knüpfteppiche auf Mariendarstellungen des 15. Jahrhunderts in Italien”) relates the “Oriental” carpets depicted in fifteenth-century European paintings of the Virgin Enthroned to the importation of actual Ottoman and Persian carpets to the West, which were used to decorate private homes and public spaces, as indicated in cityscapes and genre paintings of the era. Noting that these rugs were similarly used in Persian, Ottoman, and European ceremonial environments to mark off spaces that were reserved for prestigious individuals, Goldhahn posits that European viewers would have read representations of exotic textiles in contemporary paintings as signs of honor for the Virgin. Responding to the question of whether these rugs evoked a particular iconographic significance, she argues that the textiles create a hortus conclusus, thereby presenting Mary in a sacred space that only the most holy beings may enter. 

In his essay, “Quoting Oriental Style: Observations on the Imitation Criteria in the Arts from the Duecento to the Cinquecento,” Claus-Peter Haase employs formal analysis of “Oriental” motifs and forms in medieval and early modern European arts, suggesting that imitations of foreign models generally do not equal the caliber of original works. He endorses the careful stylistic analysis of extant objects as a means to establish whether they should be understood as products of actual Islamic workshops and masters versus European copies. Formal analysis also guides Turgut Saner’s exploration of the dialogue between Armenian and Seljuq architectural forms and techniques. In “Circulation of Architectural Motifs in Medieval Anatolia,” he tracks the productive intermingling of these traditions in monuments constructed in the region during the thirteenth century. Saner argues that the conventional categorization of figural decoration as strictly Christian versus geometric and floral decoration (along with muqarnas) as distinctly Islamic cannot be sustained in relation to medieval Armenian and Seljuq monuments, which employ similar decorative motifs and structural devices in churches, mosques, citadels, and gates. Rather than seeing these architectural traditions and cultural groups through an “exoticist” lens that emphasizes difference, he argues that their proximity and the free circulation of artistic ideas in which they engaged require that we interpret them as part of an integrated tradition. 

Sylvia Auld also tracks visual similarities among artistic motifs, in this case those found in both medieval Islamic and Western European art of diverse media dating to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Her essay, “Exploring Links Between East and West in the 13th Century: Circles of Coincidence,” documents the suggestive similarities of certain emblems—especially the so-called three-hare whorl—across a broad East–West geographic expanse. She determines that while the forms of these motifs remain consistent (thereby substantiating the claim of intercultural artistic transmission), the meanings they held, if any, were not retained across cultures. The subsequent essay, “Riti esterni e culti domestici nella regalità di tradizione iranica,” by Giovanni M. D’Erme, arrives at the opposite conclusion. D’Erme expands the idea of intercultural relations to consider not only the synchronic transmission of artistic styles and motifs across significant geographic distances, but also the diachronic aspects of artistic diffusion. Noting in medieval art of Central Asia and Europe the persistence of elements that resemble features found in the seventh-century B.C.E. Iranian bronzes from Luristan, he proposes that despite their specific meanings in a particular medieval cultural-religious milieu, certain iconographic motifs survived because their general significance as cosmic, royal symbols remained relevant (and fundamentally consistent) throughout time and across diverse geographic and cultural contexts.  

Returning to the theme of objects’ roles in diplomatic relations, Deborah Howard (“Diplomacy and Culture”) examines the nature of responsibilities held by fifteenth-century Venetian diplomats to Mamluk and Ottoman territories, as observed in the biographies of three named envoys, and the way that objects and monuments factored into their mediations between Islamic and European cultures. Using household inventories, government archives, and letters, she considers how objects—including diplomatic gifts, ceremonial garments, and accoutrements of consuls’ residencies abroad and at home—reflected diplomats’ function as representatives of Venetian authority and as facilitators of productive relations with foreign authorities. She also discusses the possible role that envoys could have played in shaping architectural tastes back home, thereby endorsing the idea that aesthetic forms encountered in distant lands during their foreign posts could have been absorbed by these diplomats and later impacted the local building projects in which they were subsequently involved. The importance of objects in diplomatic relations is also a key aspect of Giovanni Curatola’s essay, “Marin Sanudo, Venezia, i doni diplomatici e le merci orientali islamiche,” in which he synthesizes descriptions of Venetian diplomatic gifts to, and economic relations with, the Islamic polities—especially the Mamluks and Ottomans—in the Diarii of the important early modern Italian chronicler Marino Sanudo (d. 1536). In addition to finished goods, the account enumerates a wide range of raw materials and perishable products that were traded between these groups as well as information regarding the logistics of their commercial exchanges. 

Stefano Carboni (“Vetri preziosi. La circolazione del vetro di origine islamica in Italia”) assesses a small number of medieval Islamic glass objects preserved in the church treasuries of Venice, Genoa, and Capua. Although the precise origins of these objects are not known, Carboni surveys the evidence for their proveniences. Of particular interest is his discussion of the medieval and early modern European reception of these objects, including the process by which some of these vessels were transformed into sacred Christian relics. In addition to evaluating the glass objects’ technical features, Carboni considers their relationship with objects in precious stone that they may have imitated and for which medieval and early modern viewers sometimes mistook them.  

Florence Moly’s essay, “Il Tacuinum Sanitatis alla corte dei Visconti: un testo arabo fra manuale medico e oggetto di curiosità,” explores a Latin translation and adaptation of an eleventh-century Arabic manual on hygiene and diet, known in the medieval West as the Tacuinum sanitatis, which was produced in Milan at the end of the fourteenth century. Conceived as a popular manual that distills scholarly information for the lay user, the original Arabic text was arranged in easy-to-use tables and was never illustrated. The illuminated Latin version significantly truncates the original text, and its iconography seems to have drawn from ancient illustrated scientific treatises, the texts of which were in turn the sources for the Arabic compilation. Moly notes that although the imagery of the illustrated Latin Tacuinum is decidedly Italian in character, some scenes intentionally signal the Islamic origin of the text, for example, portraying figures wearing turbans or depicting products of Eastern origin, like the date palm. She argues that despite the significant differences between the nonillustrated Arabic and illustrated Latin manuscripts, they share the goal of making scientific knowledge accessible and usable for the lay reader. Examining another instance of East-West manuscript relations, Maria Vittoria Fontana (“Muhammad and Khadija in an Illustration of a 14th-Century Manuscript of the Satirica Ystoria by Paulinus Venetus [MS. Vatican Latin 1960]”) describes the intriguing portrayals of the meeting/marriage of Muhammad and Khadija that appear in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Western European world chronicles and juxtaposes them with sixteenth-century Islamic manuscripts that depict the same scenes but follow different visual conventions.  

In his contribution, “El gran turco als ‘maskierter’ Tyrann. Ein Topos druckgraphischer Darstellungen osmanischer Sultane im 15. und 16. Jahrhundert,” Alberto Saviello examines a series of prints depicting the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II (r. 1451–81) that were produced in exceptionally large numbers and distributed widely in Europe. He suggests that the unusual popularity of these images was due to the role they played in allaying European angst over the Ottoman military and economic threat, serving as surrogates through which to affirm the inferiority of the sultan in relation to European rulers. A related consideration of European-Ottoman artistic relations in the pictorial arts, Ulrike Ilg’s “On the Difficulties of Depicting a ‘Real’ Turk: Reflections on Ethnographic Orientalism in European Art (14th to the 16th Centuries),” plots the transformation of Western European illustrated accounts of travels to the East from imaginative fabrications and recapitulations of established iconographic formulae to firsthand observations that claimed increasingly rigorous standards of empiricism. She shows that these efforts to observe were often thwarted by the cultural mores of the foreign cultures that Western artists sought to document. For example, portrait painting was not an established practice in the sixteenth-century Ottoman world, and access to certain social groups (such as elite women) was generally prohibited. Artists who aspired to record local “types” faced major challenges in securing access to live models. Ilg argues that similarities between “portraits” of locals created by European artists and the figures depicted in Ottoman illustrated chronicles of the second half of the sixteenth century indicate that Western artists turned to the generic images in Ottoman historical texts as the basis for their “portraits.” The use of Ottoman works of art as model books was not, however, an indication of European aesthetic appreciation for Eastern art. When judgment was expressed, European sources speak disparagingly of Ottoman painting; Western artists’ use of these illustrations was a practical solution for their lack of easy access to live models.

These two collections of essays attest to the important contributions that cross-cultural perspectives can bring to bear on works of art that participated in the dynamic intercultural environments of the medieval and early modern worlds. These studies make a compelling case for seeing objects and monuments not as passive products of aesthetic habits but instead as active agents of social power and eloquent articulators of identity. The volumes include a number of papers that exemplify the highest standards of methodological and theoretical rigor in cross-cultural art historical inquiry, a strength that is especially evident in The Power of Things. To highlight another noteworthy contribution, several essays in both publications together advance our understanding of the intercultural connections in the production, trade, and consumption of medieval and early modern textiles, especially carpets. The methods of interpretation and conclusions found in these studies offer a useful example for how similar consideration of other media (like enamel, ivory, or glass, for example) might be undertaken. From a thematic perspective, the intersection of art and diplomacy as well as the common ground between art and commerce emerge as particularly salient topics in current scholarship. While individual essays in each collection are of obvious interest to specialists in the cultural and historical areas they address, more sustained and thorough consideration of the volumes in total rewards the reader with a wide range of innovative, useful interpretive models across geographic, cultural, and chronological subfields. These, and recent publications like them, might mark a crucial turn in art history and other disciplines concerned with the study of “artefacts” and “things,” whereby consideration of cultures in dialogue and works of art and architecture in motion is no longer a topic of special concern or peripheral interest but instead a central, even normal feature of scholarship in the discipline.    


Alicia Walker is the author of The Emperor and the World: Exotic Elements and the Imaging of Middle Byzantine Imperial Power (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and is coeditor with Heather E. Grossman of the special issue of Medieval Encounters, Mechanisms of Exchange: Transmission in Medieval Art and Architecture in the Mediterranean (Brill, 2012). Her research focuses on cross-cultural artistic interactions in the medieval world and gender issues in the art and material culture of Byzantium.

 

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