Art and Scientific Thought: Historical Studies Towards a Modern Revision of Their Antagonism

By Martin Johnson | Go to book overview

Chapter 11
The Persian and Arab Artist-mathematicians of Medieval Bagdad

I

There have been scattered moments of history in which science and art have flourished not only side by side but together within the same personalities. The individual instance of Leonardo da Vinci is of such importance to understanding the scientist's and artist's reaction to environment that it is investigated in detail in some later chapters. The European Renaissance contains many other examples, but compared with Leonardo these tend to illustrate only less vividly the contrasts which are in him outstanding; so it will be useful to look further eastwards, where the European tradition of specialisation and of divorce between imaginative and logical enthusiasm never penetrated, and where a man was a mathematician and a poet and possibly a prince without being an aberration. The facts of history in these regions are little known to conventional western study, and much of the following essay is necessarily a first exposure of bare fact: the suggestions just now put forward in the introduction to Part III are a focus towards which my tale of the Bagdad mathematicians may serve to converge supporting evidence.

The peculiar scientific mentality relevant to contact with the arts was found scattered over various Oriental civilisations; for instance in the Alexandrian culture which inherited the Greek tradition and joined to it an infiltration of Babylonian learning, in occasional flickerings throughout the Byzantine centuries, and in several of the great Chinese dynasties. But the example unequalled in its opportunities though defective in fulfilment was the early renaissance in which Greek, Persian, and Hindu elements were suddenly synthesised under the Moslem culture centred at Bagdad. The combined scientific, philosophical, poetic, and artistic impulse lasted from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries, including transplantings to Moorish Spain and also to the Mongol empire after the sack of Bagdad, but its most vital inspiration came from the court of the Caliphs in the first two or three centuries of this period.

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