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Saturday, 12 May 2012

East Meets West: The Influence of the Orient on European Renaissance Art

By Alexandra A. Jopp


To fully evaluate the artistic achievements of the Renaissance, it is necessary to acknowledge that the art that emerged from it was deeply imbued with the worlds of trade and politics, both of the east and of the west.”

Heather Karellas
Images of the East in Renaissance Art


Art is a product and reflection of culture. Because the human mind is both universal and particular, we can understand art objects as culturally specific, yet also interpret them from a broader historical perspective. Panofsky defends the history of art as a humanistic discipline, one that embodies values such as rationality and freedom while accepting human limitations. Without a personal viewpoint, he argued, one would have no system of reference against which observations could be measured.

Though the Renaissance is regarded as a period of rebirth of the ideas of classical antiquity, antiquity, in fact, had never disappeared, even during the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance, though, it was regarded in a new light and became the impetus for a world-changing movement. This was an era of new ideas brought about through a revisiting of classical thought, an attempt to link antique models with the contemporary world. The term “Renaissance,” referring to the revolution in cultural and artistic life that took place in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, was not applied to the period until the nineteenth century, when French historian Jules Michelet used it in his History of France in 1855. He described the Renaissance as a movement that witnessed “the discovery of the world and the discovery of man.” The goal of this art exhibit is to illustrate that Renaissance art was a global phenomenon, and to look, in particular, at the influences of the Orient (Byzantium, Persia, India and the Ottoman Empire).

During the Renaissance, European countries traded with the nations of the Orient, and these business transactions led to cultural exchanges,
as can be seen in representations of Eastern ideas and imagery in European Renaissance art. The appearance of Eastern images in Western art can provide insights into the European perspective regarding the study of the East as a whole. This imagery serves as a source of debate among art and history scholars who analyze the complicated relationship between Europe and the Middle East in today’s increasingly globalized world.

This exhibition offers an original thematic presentation of images of the Orient as they appear in Renaissance art in the years 1280 to 1600. The paintings come from such artists as Mantegna, Bellini, Holbein, Cimabue, Gozzoli, Ferrara and van Eyck.

II.  Checklist of Objects

1. Vittore Carpaccio, The Preaching of St. Stephen in Jerusalem, 1514. Oil on canvas. 148 cm × 194 cm (58 in × 76 in). Louvre, Paris.

2.  Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533. Oil on oak. 207 cm × 209.5 cm (81 in × 82.5 in). National Gallery, London.

3.  Costanzo da Ferrara.  Seated Scribe. 1470s.

4. Benozzo Gozzoli, The Journey of the Magi, 1459-62. Cappella dei Magi, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence, East Wall, fresco.

5. Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, 1434. Oil on oak panel of 3 vertical boards. 82.2 (panel 84.5) cm × 60 (panel 62.5) cm (32.4 in × 23.6 in). National Gallery, London.

6. Albrecht Dürer, Ottoman Rider, c.1495, ink and watercolour on paper, 30 × 21 cm, Albertina, Vienna, Graphische Sammlung, no.3196, D 171.

7. Gentile Bellini, Portrait of Mehmet II, 1480, oil on canvas, 70 × 52 cm, National Gallery, London.  The National Gallery, London.

8. Costanzo da Ferrara, medal of Mehmet II, 1481, bronze, diameter 12 cm, obverse (portrait), Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Douce collection.

9. Andrea Mantegna, Madonna and Child. 1457-1460. 212 cm × 460 cm (83 in × 180 in). Basilica di San Zeno, Verona.

10. Titian, Portrait of Sulyeman the Magnificent, c.1530–40, oil on canvas, 99 × 85 cm, Gemäldgalerie, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

11. Cimabue. Madonna and Child with Angels.  

12. Sebastiano del Piombo, Cardinal Bandinello Sauli, His Secretary, and Two Geographers, 1516, oil on panel transferred to canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection.

13. Giovanni Bellini and Titian, The Feast of the Gods, 1514/1529, oil on canvas, Widener Collection.

14. Gentile da Fabriano, c. 1370–1427, Madonna and Child, c. 1422, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection.

15. Giotto, probably 1266–1337, Madonna and Child, probably 1320/1330, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection.


III. Arrangement of Objects

One of the many pleasures of an exhibit is that one often discovers the unexpected. Images of Madonna and Child by Cimabue, Carpaccio, Mantegna, Giotto, and Fabriano are grouped together to show influences of Middle Eastern textiles in Renaissance art. What these paintings have in common is a combination – a juxtaposition, even – of Christian icons with Islamic influences. This group of paintings also includes an encircling inscription in cursive Arabic script. The exhibit will open with Madonna and Child by Cimabue, as it is considered to be one of the earliest examples of a Renaissance painting that depicted Eastern textiles.

Next, four splendid works by Jan van Eyck, Hans Holbein the Younger, Piombo and Gozzoli are assembled together to demonstrate the influences of East-West trade and the power and prestige of patrons. These three paintings serve as a display of personal symbols, with the carpets symbolizing wealth, elite social status and refined artistic taste.

The last arrangement includes works by Titian, Bellini, Durer and Ferrara. This group shows the relationship between East and West, as some of the artists, such as Bellini, actually traveled to the Middle East and served as a court painter to an Islamic monarch. The paintings in this group include portraits in traditional Oriental style that express respect for Islamic study.

Thus, the exhibition includes a diverse set of both familiar and obscure works by Italian Renaissance artists among its 15 paintings. It provides opportunities for discovery and insight to all viewers, whether they are art connoisseurs or novices.


IV.  Exhibition Labels

1. Vittore Carpaccio, The Preaching of St. Stephen in Jerusalem, 1514. Oil on canvas. 148 cm × 194 cm (58 in × 76 in). Louvre, Paris.

Among Venetian painters, Vittore Carpaccio is known as a storyteller. The Preaching of St. Stephen in Jerusalem is part of a cycle of five paintings depicting events from the saint’s life. According to the Acts of Apostles, St. Stephen was one of seven deacons of the early Christian community in Jerusalem, one of “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3) who were chosen by the apostles to relieve them of the administrative burden of waiting on tables and caring for widows. He is thought to have been the first Christian martyr to be stoned to death by a crowd, and he is the patron saint of weavers. In this painting, he is depicted dressed in his deacon’s vestments, standing in front of a crowd, preaching about the Kingdom of God. Carpaccio fills his work with fine Oriental attires, the Jerusalem temple complex and white marble buildings with minarets.

2.  Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533. Oil on oak. 207 cm × 209.5 cm (81 in × 82.5 in). National Gallery, London.

Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors was painted in 1533. On the left is Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII. On the right is his childhood friend who came to stay with him while on official business in London, Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur. With an emphasis on exploration and trade, the painting offers an arrangement of several scientific and musical objects. The display on the two tables includes several examples of Oriental imagery and is designed to impress with prestige and learning. The carpet on the table and the rich green backdrop are examples of Turkish imports. The fur in the painting symbolizes the wealth achieved through the commerce that flourished between East and West.

3.  Costanzo da Ferrara. Seated Scribe. 1470s.

In addition to exchanging money and goods, Italy and Turkey also exchanged artistic ideas and skills. When Sultan Mehmed II of Turkey requested that a painter be sent to Istanbul to paint his portrait, King Ferdinand I of Naples dispatched Costanzo, who stayed in Turkey for several years and was knighted by the Sultan. It has been suggested that the artist might have left Naples for Istanbul in the spring of 1478, about a year before Gentile Bellini went to the Turkish court. Through the inclusion of several Oriental images, Costanzo presents Islamic and Middle Eastern ideas as models for imitation and learning.

4. Benozzo Gozzoli, The Journey of the Magi, 1459-62. Cappella dei Magi, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence, East Wall, fresco.

A renewed interest in antiquity, philosophy and the natural sciences was beginning among the wealthy in Quattrocento Florence, with the Medici family at the vanguard. The region was a political and religious power in which rich families competed for supremacy. Trade with the Middle East and Europe was increasing, and in 1439, the Council of Ferrara, financed by the Medici, moved to Florence, exposing Florentines to new cultures, art and languages. Gozzoli’s painting can be interpreted as a celebration of the Medici’s role in uniting the Eastern and Western churches. He painted John VIII, Joseph II and Lorenzo de Medici as the three Magi. The Medici family negotiated commercial access to Constantinople in 1439, as Lorenzo saw this as a critical connection between East and West. The general population of Constantinople rejected the agreement, however, and the Italian state refused to provide military assistance to the Byzantines in their fight against the Ottomans. The agreement ended in 1453, the same year that Constantinople fell, bringing an end to the Byzantine Empire. The painting remains an important example of Middle Eastern ideas incorporated into Italian artwork. It shows the status that was associated with embarking on a magnificent journey to the East, and it depicts the travelers as wealthy explorers and diplomats forming vital connections between Europe and the Eastern world.

5. Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait, 1434. Oil on oak panel of 3 vertical boards. 82.2 (panel 84.5) cm × 60 (panel 62.5) cm (32.4 in × 23.6 in). National Gallery, London.

This mysterious painting mesmerizes not only because of its meticulous realistic detail but also because of its intriguing iconographic content, which would have been readily accessible to the contemporary viewer, but much of which we are now unable to decode. We observe a wealthy couple, Giovanni Arnolfini, a wealthy silk merchant from Tuscany, and Giovanna Cenami, whose figures loom large in the foreground of a restricted and confined space. The artist depicted, among other things, a brick house, rich clothes, a Turkish carpet, a mirror, Spanish oranges and Venetian glasswork – all signs of prosperity. The painting is a classic portrayal of the magnificence of exotic goods.


V.  15 Sources for the Exhibition

1.     Ashton, Eliyahu. Levant Trade in the Middle Ages. Princeton  University Press: Princeton, 1983.

2.     Baxandall, Michael. Painting and Experience in 15th-century Italy. Oxford, 1972.

3.     Brotton, Jerry. The Renaissance Bazaar. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2002.

4.     “Bellini in Istanbul,” in Bellini and the East.  New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005.

5.     Contadini, Anna and Norton, Claire, eds. The Renaissance and the Ottoman World. London: Ashgate, 2012.

6.     Contadini , Anna and Burnett, Charles, eds. Islam and the Italian Renaissance. London: The Warburg Institute, 1999.

7.     Cowan, Alexander. Mediterranean Urban Culture, 1400-1700. University of Exeter Press: Exeter, 200.

8.     Elkins, J., ed. Is Art History Global? Routledge: New York, 2007.

9.     Friedman, John Block. “Exotic Peoples in Manuscript Illustration,” in The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.

1  Howard, Deborah. Venice and the East. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000.

1  “Italian Images of Mehmed the Conqueror,” in Bellini and the East.  New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005.

1  Jardine, Lisa and Jerry Broton, Global Interests: Renaissance Art between East and West. Reaktion Books: London, 2000.

1  Jardine, Lisa.Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance. W. W. Norton & Company: New York, 1998.

1  Mack, Rosamond. Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian art, 1300-1600. Berkeley: University of California, 2002.

1  Walter G. Andrews and Mehmet Kalpakli. The Age of the Beloveds: Love and the Beloved in Early Modern Ottoman and European Culture and Society. Duke University Press, 2005.

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