With this exhibition, Museo d’Arte Orientale (MAO) in Turin wants to analyse the tension between Asia and the European continent in terms of the artistic and cultural trajectories undeniably tied historically by continuous trade, references, and hybridisation. Hence the drive for the museum to open the Islamic Art Gallery to new interpretative directions through other collections and curatorial exchange. This is the first project in collaboration with The Bruschettini Foundation and the curatorship of Filiz Çakır Phillip to bring to MAO Lustre and Luxe from Islamic Spain, which aims to present objects and images that transport visitors to little explored territories, opening new trajectories of knowledge and reflection.
Philip discusses this Islamic legacy in the West in his essay in the exhibition’s booklet, explaining that over a period of more than 700 years, the Iberian Peninsula made up the occidental frontier of the Islamic World. The first interest of Islamic rulers to expand their territories into Europe was awakened in the early 8th century. Spain witnessed the first Muslim invasion in the year 711, the dawn of the caliphate period (711-1031), resulting in the cities of Malaga, Granada and Cordoba becoming part of western Islamic territories. The term ‘Andalusia’ (Arabic: al-Andalus) was soon coined, referring to Islamic Spain.
These cities received new settlers mostly from Yemen and Syria together with thousands of Berbers from North Africa. In the Mediterranean coastal cities, the new settlers planted sugarcane and cotton, fig and olives trees, and in the provinces of Malaga and Granada oranges and vine. The Valencia region turned into a fruitful territory through the installation of artificial water channels, an advanced agrarian technology brought by the Arabs. In the region of Murcia black mulberry trees were planted that became crucial for the silk production of the region’s legendary textile industry of later periods.
All in all, the region of Granada became the most important production centre in Andalusia dedicated to silk and cotton, and their dyeing, as well as leather manufacturing. Toledo became the centre of al-Andalus’ arms and armour production. The region of Almeria (meaning ‘Mirror of the Sea’ in Arabic) and the port city of Almeria became known for their magnificent silk manufactories, but also embraced the establishment of workshops of pottery. According to al-Idrisi, the city of Chinchilla in the province of Murcia produced wool carpets since the 12th and 13th centuries.
These carpets were colourful with vivid patterns derived from indigenous Iberian designs, luxury silks, and imported Turkish carpets mainly from the city of Ushak in western Turkey. During the 15th century, Spanish carpets were manufactured for Christian patrons, by Muslim weavers using materials from Jewish producers. The city Manises, near Valencia, was a famous centre of ceramics that produced from the 14th to the 17th century. A highlight of the exhibition is a fragment of a border of a carpet from the collection of the Instituto Valencia de Don Juan, Madrid, dated between the late 15th or early 16th century and representative of the group of Mudéjar carpets with heraldic coats of arms.
Continuing with the theme of the influence of trade, Cristina Maritano, conservator at Palazzo Madama, and Alberto Boralevi, Florence, in her essay notes how Western civilisation has often found itself admiring the technical and technological progress of eastern civilisations, China and Islam, as well as the beauty of their art. During the Middle Ages, there came a phase marked by the passing on of techniques and knowledge for which the Mediterranean basin was a place of privileged exchange. The interchange and integration of different cultures made the Iberian Peninsula particularly fertile on the artistic plane. Pottery, understood as a universal language, is an interesting interpretative key for gaining a better understanding of the encounter between the Islamic and Western civilisations.
The history of lustreware begins between the ninth and 10th centuries in the Near East, in the areas that are now part of Iraq, Syria and Egypt. There, Muslim artisans had refined the difficult technique of incorporating metal oxides into the glassy surface of their pottery. After being shaped and fired once, the clay objects – for the most part basins and vases – were covered with a tin and lead enamel and fired a second time. After the second firing, the objects were painted with a mixture of metal oxides (copper and/or silver), clay, ochre and vinegar. At that point, the pottery was fired again, at low temperature in a reduction atmosphere, which is to say with little oxygen: this complex finale made it possible for the metal ions to penetrate the glass, transforming them into nanoparticles and releasing their shine.
This technique, which lent the objects astonishing gold and silver reflections, spread throughout the Islamic world and the first exemplars soon began to circulate in the West. By the 10th century, lustreware basins were imported into Italy and France and used to decorate the exterior of religious buildings, paying no heed to the fact that many of them bore inscriptions in praise of Allah. The powerful Maritime Republic of Pisa, at the centre of a vast trade network, was a great admirer of this pottery, and many of the city’s bell towers and religious buildings, as well as public and private secular buildings, were decorated with Islamic pottery.
With the advance of the Islamic conquest, first in the Maghreb and then in Andalusia, the lustreware technique arrived in Europe and Spanish lustre-painted dishes, ewers and bowls were produced under both Muslim and Christian patronage. The ceramic production of Islamic Spain was important for the Mediterranean and European trade and had a particularly great impact on the Italian manufacturing centres of ceramic, namely the centres of maiolica.
The first important centre of production was Malaga, in the kingdom of Granada. The famous ‘Alhambra’ vases (so named for the important collection in Granada) date to this period: large, purely decorative vases that are easily the most famous type of Spanish lustreware object. With the advance of the Catholic reconquest, the Muslim potters moved from Malaga to the region of Valencia, which is rich in argillaceous soil. Although the area had already been reconquered by Christians in the 13th century, the Muslims were allowed to continue to work. And so, phenomena emerged in Spain like Mudejar art, which is to say Muslim art under Christian rule. This period marked the apex of lustreware production, flourishing in particular in Manises and Paterna. The decoration was mainly drawn from the plant kingdom, and one of the most popular patterns in the middle of the 15th century was that of ‘Bryony flowers and leaves’, referred to in Florentine documents as fiordalisi (fleur- de-lis). Later on, the ‘ivy-leaf’ pattern became popular. Generally speaking, the lustre was gold lustre and applied over cobalt blue paint.
The success of lustreware was matched by that of the Spanish tiles known as azulejos, which from the 15th century onwards were embellished with geometric decoration such that when put together they created intertwined shapes comparable to those of the carpets and suggested the infinite repetition of the pattern, cancelling out the distinction between the individual tiles.
The trade of these tiles reached its apex between the second half of the 15th century to the mid 16th century in Genoa, a key Mediterranean port. The fashion for decorating floors and walls with Spanish tiles spread through the homes of the upper and middle classes as well as churches and monasteries. The term ‘azulejo’ derives from the Arabic word Al-zulayj and means glazed terracotta, and indeed the tiles were made of terracotta, with at least one side covered with enamel or glaze. This technique, which probably originated in Persia, was spread by Muslim artisans throughout the countries along the southern coast of the Mediterranean and arrived in Spain with the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.
The objects in the exhibition vibrantly bring together trade and craft to explore how Arabic influences created Hispano-Moresque style and the unique culture of Iberian Spain.
Until 28 May, Museo d’Arte Orientale, Turin, maotorino.it