Book review: Florence and Baghdad, Renaissance Art and Arab Science
Noted art historian Hans Belting claims tight connection between Arab culture and Renaissance
Posted: November 30, 2011
In recent years, European scholarly interest in Islamic culture has grown steadily, as many books and studies try to understand the nature and history of Islamic art, and a grasp of Islamic culture's complexity is considered a necessity for the peaceful co-existence of Western or Euro-Atlantic culture and Middle East Arab culture.
As interest in Islamic culture increases, it begins to seem like a trend, and thus many rather shallow studies gain undeserved attention. However, this is not the case of Hans Belting's Florence and Baghdad: Renaissance Art and Arab Science.
Belting, born in 1935, is a German art historian interested mainly in the art of Byzantium, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. His field of interest covers contemporary art and the theory of image. Previously he taught at the universities of Hamburg, Heidelberg, Munich and Karlsruhe. His books include The End of the History of Art: Likeness and Presence; A History of the Image Before the Era of Art; and The Invisible Masterpiece. The Modern Myths of Art. Florence and Baghdad was originally published in German in 2008.
It is at first appropriate to admire Belting's book as a beautiful object. It contains a number of fine photos and illustrations, and it is a pleasure to just browse through it. The cover design, by Jill Breitbarth, combines tile decoration from the mosque-cathedral of Qous and the Annunciation, presumably by Bernart van Orley. It shows how these representatives of two different cultures fit together surprisingly well, aptly illustrating Belting's words: "One can speak of differences only where there is common ground." This implies his understanding of two cultures not as opponents in a clash of civilizations but rather as two branches of Mediterranean culture.
By Hans Belting
Translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2011
But it would actually be more precise if the position of the two cover images were changed. As it is, the mosque tile design stands atop a 16th-century painting. Belting's argument in Florence and Baghdad is that it was Arab science, namely the theory of vision by Abu Ali al Hasan Ibn al-Haitham, known in Western history simply as Alhazan, which provided the basis for the invention of perspective. In Belting's words, "Perspective art is based on a theory of Arab origin, a mathematical theory having to do with visual rays and the geometry of light."
The book title represents the categories of art and science. Florence stands for perspective because it was first used in art there by Filippo Brunelleschi (and defined by Leon Battista Alberti) in the 15th century; Baghdad, for centuries one of the leading centers of Arab culture, represents science in the Arab world.
It is a well-known fact that many classical texts by ancient Greek philosophers appeared in the Renaissance culture through Arabic translations. Arabic scholars had direct access to ancient scientific books and, as Belting argues, they were not simply following or transcribing previous knowledge; they continued in creative research. The best example is Alhazan. Even the word "perspective" was used in the Latin world to denote a visual theory of Arab origin; Perspectiva was a Latin name for one of Alhazan's books.
Very likely some questions now spring to the reader's mind. How is it possible the theory of perspective, which for centuries was the dominant and defining form of European art, is based on the Arab theory of optics, when Islamic culture itself is above all aniconic, a culture without pictorial representations, without an emphasis on recreating what one is looking at? How and why did an Arab theory serve as a base for perspective, which, in Belting's view, is Western culture's most important pictorial idea? And why wasn't this known until now?
The last question can probably be answered more easily. The nature of Western culture, thus also its art history, has long suffered from the Narcissus complex, looking only at itself though it is obvious that history contains many cultural "gaze partners," Arab being the leading one among them. Today, the essential view doesn't see European pictorial culture as a general standard. In Belting's words, "In this context the question cannot be, 'Why did linear perspective not exist in other cultures?' Rather we ask about the particular conditions under which it originated in the West."
The other questions are more difficult to answer. Belting summarizes, "Arab visual theory gave a predominant role to light, which is essentially aniconic; it relegated pictures to the realm of the mind exclusively." Though later he claims, "By providing sensory pleasure - a need fulfilled in other cultures by pictures - Arabic calligraphy turned writing into an art form that was valued and admired for its own sake."
The main problem can be simplified to a window. A picture in Western culture is a window, a view through an open window: It focuses on the actual process of seeing by the subject, a man. The Arab window, mashrabiyya, with its geometric pattern, prevents seeing and focuses instead on light.
Belting aspires to be one of the cultural milestones that change our essential views on art and visual culture. Florence and Baghdad is not just a well-written academic study, it is also a book accessible to a wide audience. Occasionally it even reads like a thriller. The best thing is, once you finish it, you realize it isn't just amusing, but eye-opening.
Filip Šenk can be reached at
Tags: prague post books, arab world, renaissance, book review, czech literature, hans betling, baghdad.