Venice's Mediterranean Colonies: Architecture and Urbanism/Venice and the East: The Impact of the Islamic World on Venetian Architecture 1100-1500/global Interests: Renaissance Art between East and West/Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art, 1300-1600

Article excerpt


Venice's Mediterranean Colonies: Architecture and Urbanism

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 383 pp.; 136 b/w ills. $80.00


Venice and the East: The Impact of the Islamic World on Venetian Architecture 1100-1500

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 283 pp.; 271 color and b/w ills. $60.00


Global Interests: Renaissance Art between East and West

Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. 224 pp.; 87 color and b/w ills. $39.95


Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art, 1300-1600

Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. 266 pp.; 101 color ills., 85 b/w. $65.00

The four books under review all deal, in a broad sense, with the artistic contacts that existed from the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance between Italy and the Islamic world or, to be more accurate, with the world of the eastern half of the Mediterranean basin. Two (Georgopoulou and Howard) concentrate on Venice. One (Mack) is a broadly based overview spanning three centuries and presumably covering the whole of Italy. The fourth one (Jardine and Brotton) is a more specific consideration of a particular set of images with a somewhat inflated title. All see the arts and the world from the point of view of whatever Italian perspective they have chosen, while the provider of contacts-late Byzantium or the Islamic world under Mamluk, Ottoman, or other guises-appears mostly as a display of available objects, monuments of architecture, and sources of inspiration.

What are these artistic "contacts"? How does one detect them? Through a history of trade that implies an exchange of goods and of taste? Or from the recognition, within any one "style" or "art," of unexpected and necessarily alien details?

In older, intellectually organized, scholarly times, contacts resulted in influences.1 These evolved from the appearance within a given group of features that were more commonly identified with another group. Thus, the canons for depicting landscape in Persian painting were at some point revolutionized by the ways of Chinese art, apparently a conscious and willful act on the part of the receiver, a neutral or irrelevant one on the part of the giver. Comparable examples occurred with the spread of Gothic architecture, Impressionist techniques in painting, and the use of metalwork designs in ceramics. The problem with the word "influence" is that it works better as a verb than as a noun. As a verb it depicts something quite reasonable and logical, the modification of a given formal entity by a motif or a technique developed elsewhere. But can an influence be a visual morpheme to be isolated like a microbe or an antigen under the microscope? Or is it only an action, the action of transferring a motif to a new group?

Maybe we should avoid the word "influence" unless whatever we are talking about is carefully defined by the willful decisions of artisans, artists, or patrons.2 We should rather talk about impacts. It is easy to argue that Italian art had a tremendous impact nearly everywhere in Europe after 1500, and French art accomplished the same in the 18th century. To evaluate these impacts is another matter, as it is to choose between possibly conflicting interpretations. Was there a "universal" European art, with secondary importance to be given to individual lands? Or are separate Baroque or later experiments important in their variety more than in their reflection of some alleged common ideal? Thus, impacts may be even more confusing than influences in defining artistic relationships between different cultural groups; they are like transplants, which can become part and parcel of a new entity or be rejected. And, perhaps, the term is too vague altogether.

Other terms were developed more recently in literary studies and in the social sciences. "Interculturality" and "hybridity" imply either certain contexts or certain results derived from historical or cultural contacts that motivate patrons or makers to combine forms from different origins without necessarily adopting all the meanings associated with these forms in the culture of their origin. …