Water and Islamic Art in Italy

Round bucket, Eastern Iran, probably Heart, 15th/16th century, brass, cast, engraved and inlaid with silver, height 10 cm, diam. 20.4 cm. Courtesy of the LA Mayer Museum for Islamic Art, Jerusalem. Photo: Avshalom Avital

The Islamic religion was born in the Arabian Peninsula when it was virtual a desert, where water was greatly valued from the earliest of times. Water, known as ‘ma’ in Arabic, is probably the single vital resource that has been referred to repeatedly in the Qur’an: ‘from Water we have created every Living Thing’ (21,30), being perhaps the best known. In time, Islamic societies stretching from the Muslim heartland to the shores of the Mediterranean supported an entire material culture that was based on their shared attitude to water. This exhibition in Turin explores the relationship between water and Islamic art.

The interlocking relationships between water, the Islamic world and artistic expression form the subject of an exceptional exhibition at the Museo d’Arte Orientale (MAO) in Turin. ‘Until recently, we have not had significant exhibitions to do with the Islamic world,’ says Director Marco Guglielminotti Trivel. Water, Islam and Art is one of the most important exhibitions we have ever mounted in terms of resources, the number of prestigious museums lending their artworks, and the originality of subject matter. We hope it will form the basis of a travelling exhibition, and look forward to organising one such major show annually from now on.’

Water in Islamic Art

The exhibition exploring water in Islamic art was conceived and curated by Alessandro Vanoli, a historian of the medieval Mediterranean and scholar of the Ancient Near and Middle East, formerly at the University of Bologna and now an independent researcher: ‘As a historian I am always on the lookout for elements that allow us to show the past and the present from an original point of view. One day I found myself looking at a small fountainhead from Damascus and realised that water might provide the focus from which to consider the history of Islamic societies.’

‘The value that Islam gave water transformed it into one of the pillars of human existence,’ says Dr Vanoli. This phenomenon went on to influence social, technological and cultural innovations that shaped the fabric of art and artistic expression in the mediaeval Muslim world. Its effects were felt in the lands surrounding the Mediterranean – Morocco, Spain, Turkey and Syria – which inherited and adapted the achievements of the Graeco-Roman world and Byzantium; and also in Iran and Iraq, where the legacy of ancient Persia prevailed, to Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent.

Vatican Apostolic Library

Despite their varied foundations and characteristics, these societies were united by a ‘common narrative’, explored in the exhibition through the themes of religion, hammam, ‘bath’, city and palace, and garden. They are illustrated by 100 objects, including artefacts, manuscripts and textiles from the MAO and the foremost Italian collections, augmented by those from Belgium, England, Greece, Israel and Spain. The renowned ‘Oriental Sections’ of the Vatican Apostolic Library, moreover, have offered two exclusive manuscripts.

The art and the forms that Islam created were dependent on certain rules that shaped their making. The religion is averse to figurative decoration, being fundamentally opposed to representation of living things because they challenge the existence of God. Arabic calligraphy – used in the Qur’an – and the highest of art forms, was used for inscriptions that became an integral part of an object. Its decorative possibilities were employed on those at the service of the faith, as well as on utilitarian and artistic objects.

Pilgrim’s Flasks

Among the believers, pilgrim’s flasks were used to carry water, oil and unguents from pilgrimage sites. A sample from 12th/14th-century Iran has a globular body, short tubular neck, and looped handles on its shoulder, suggesting an imitation of metalwork. It is distinguished, moreover, by a centralised roundel encircled by stylised Arabic calligraphy on its surface. ‘The style of the inscription is a thuluth; these inscriptions generally refer to water, but pseudo-inscriptions are also frequently used,’ says Giovanni Curatola, a leading expert of Islamic art at the University of Udine, who heads the exhibition committee. ‘The object has been produced with a mould. The flask is made of earthenware, not glazed and the colour of the body might qualify as “buff”.’

Magic Bowls from Medieval Syria

‘Magic’ bowls of tin-plated bronze from medieval Syria were also engraved by Arabic inscriptions. However the pseudo-texts and magic symbols they carried suggest a transfer and diffusion of pre-Islamic technologies. ‘Islam adopted and adapted the idea of talismanic objects,’ says Prof Curatola. ‘Magic’ or better, ‘Divination’ bowls have a very long history, in that they are pre-Islamic pottery containers produced for a long time throughout the Middle East. Actually they were produced in metalwork not only in Syria (the workshops remain active not so many years ago), but also in Egypt, and elsewhere.’

The arid nature of many lands under Muslim control saw the hammam ‘bath’ derived from the Arabic hamm for ‘heat’, surfacing as an institution in its cities. It was the most important feature in palaces, and a symbol of social status, which transformed a secular building into a place for rest and pleasure.

The hammam’s foundations were derived from the hydraulic achievements of the Graeco-Roman and Persian civilisations. The principles of the Roman thermae, ‘imperial bath complexes’ supplied by water from aqueducts, contributed to its heating and water distribution systems. In Jordan, an 8th-century hammam – perhaps a private space for the powerful – excavated from the Umayyad (661-750) palatial complex of Qusayr ’Amra, was found to have adopted the construction techniques of Rome and early Byzantium.

Ancient Persia and Water in Islamic Art

Ancient Persia had developed a special technology from the qanat, Arabic for ‘channel’, using a network of underground canals to transport water to the surface. It led to sustainable water sharing and distribution in Islamic lands, and supplied the hammam in cities like Baghdad and Isfahan, alongside fountains and wells.

Visiting the hammam was a social rite for those who believed in its curative powers. The use of exquisite accoutrements such as a brass bucket from Safavid Iran (1501-1736) was the preserve of the privileged. The bucket was cast, engraved and inlaid with silver; a dense pattern of chased arabesques and cartouches cover its body, dragon-monster figures surround its handle. It was probably from Herat in Khurasan, eastern Iran, the main production centre for metalwork, whose artisans were known to sign objects as works of art commissioned by patrons at court, sometimes as gifts. This practice, special to Iran, attests to the sophistication of its mercantile cities.

Hammam Accessories

Outside its immediate confines, the hammam’s accessories reflect the constant exchange of goods and services between the Islamic and Mediterranean worlds. The medieval ports of al-Andalus regularly introduced innovations from the Near East to those parts of the Iberian peninsula under Muslim rule. They led, among others, to advances in the ceramic art of Islamic Spain. ‘The cuerda seca technique was used in pottery in mediaeval Spain but also in other Islamic countries, such as those in Central Asia – during the Timurid period – and also in Safavid Iran,’ says Prof Curatola. ‘The problem for potters was that different colours have different temperatures of ‘fusion’, and if used together they sometimes risked overlapping each other. The use of a greasy line, called cuerda seca avoided this and solved the problem.’

First Europeans to the Ottoman Empire

The first European visitors to the Ottoman empire (1299-1922) were introduced to the hammam only in the 16th century. They were called ‘Turkish baths’ and the fascination for what was an ‘Oriental’ institution generated a ready market for manuscript illustrations. ‘During the 18th century, Ottoman Istanbul produced several albums of drawings of Oriental (Turkish) customs, illustrating several aspects of Turkish life,’ says Prof Curatola. ‘Some of these drawings (tempera on paper) were prepared as ‘souvenirs’ for Western visitors to the Empire, and several of them are kept in the most important libraries in western countries.’

Indeed Italy played a dominant role in the mediaeval textile trade that crisscrossed the Mediterranean. It had been synonymous with silk in the 16th century, however, the advent of cotton, around the 18th century, led to new, high-quality fabrics being produced, often with a mixture of both. ‘These kind of towels were widely used in the hammam. The exchange of textiles has been the basis for the commercial trade between Europe (and especially Italy) and the Near and Middle East,’ says Prof Curatola.

Cross-Fertilisation of Ideas

In the cities and palaces of the Islamic world, the mingling of cultures and of peoples led to a cross-fertilisation of shapes and forms. The art of Umayyad Spain (756-1031), for instance, grew out of traditions established in the Muslim world as well as those that preceded it. They contributed to the character of utilitarian pouring vessels called aquamaniles used in palaces for washing hands, probably before and after meals and are part of the exhibition of water and Islamic art in Turin. These objects had a prominent ‘bird of prey’ form influenced by Abbasid (750-1258) bird and animal sculpture which had roots in pre-Islamic, Sassanian Persian (224-651) metal traditions.


An exceptional 11th- or 12th-century bronze aquamanile consists of a large bird supporting a smaller stylised companion perched on its back. It was densely engraved, its intricate workmanship targeted at rich and powerful patrons. ‘This is one very rare specimen of metalwork produced in Islamic Spain, which has very few comparable pieces, the most famous being in the collection of the Louvre,’ says Prof Curatola. ‘Aquamanile went on to deeply influence the contemporary medieval metalwork industry of Europe.’

The Fatamids

When the Fatimids (909-1171) conquered Egypt in 969, they made Cairo their capital and embarked on a massive building programme. By the 11th century, it had become one of the largest urban concentrations of the mediaeval world, sustaining a huge population that made enormous demands on water. This situation was addressed somewhat by an ingenious object that was unique to mediaeval Cairo, which also fulfilled in principle, the Prophet Muhammad’s call: ‘The best form of charity is to give someone water’. ‘There are some matters which are obligatory in the Islamic world,’ says Prof Curatola. ‘One is to offer fresh water to large numbers of people. The kilga is a marble base stand for a jar – usually made of unglazed pottery to maintain the freshness of the liquid – and was used in the street to refresh passing pilgrims.’

As Muslim societies waxed and waned, the flight of artisans across borders set in motion a flow of ideas and techniques that varied from place to place, and from medium to medium. Kashan, the major ceramic centre in central Iran witnessed one of the most important innovations: Fritware, or stonepaste, wherein quartz was incorporated into the ceramic body, enabling Iranian potters to make strong, but thin walled ceramics. The intention it has been speculated, was to imitate Chinese, Song-dynasty (960-1279) ceramics. Kashan, where creativity reached a peak between 1204 to 1216, went on to produce in the 13th century, a spectacular rooster-shaped ewer: Its inner body containing the actual receptacle, is surrounded by an outer body of openwork, highlighted by black contours under turquoise glaze.

The Garden in Islam and Water in Islamic Art

The notion of the garden was introduced to Islam by the 7th-century Arab invasion of Persia. The principal elements of the traditional Persian garden were water and foliage which were intended to create a perfect sanctuary known as pairidaeza, from which ‘paradise’ is derived. According to the Qur’an, ‘God has promised believers, both men and women, gardens through which rivers flow’ (9,72).

Palace gardens were retreats in the Muslim world providing shelter against the elements in desert environments. Some were landscaped to reproduce an image of paradise, the best known being the formal chahar bagh, which was divided into four sections by water channels. Water also featured in fountains and pools often surrounded by aromatic plants and fruit-bearing trees for fragrance and shade.

Fountain Basin in the Exhibition

A fountain basin with polylobate shaped pool from Ghazni, Afghanistan offers a wealth of information. It was excavated by the Italian Archaeological Mission led by Alessio Bombaci and Umberto Scerrato (1956-66) from Sultan Mas’ud III’s (d 1115) palace garden, which established, among other things that the Ghaznavid (977-1163) capital was once a leading Asian city, and that marble slabs used for building were often conserved to be reused. Moreover, the square block carved with confronting pairs of swans was part of a series of marble basins found in palaces along the Dasht i-Manara plain that led to India. These architectural elements suggest the art of mediaeval Afghanistan had a far greater impact on the culture of the Indian subcontinent then was previously thought.

The Mughal Emperors

The Mughal emperors (1527-1857) introduced the Persian garden to India and the courtly tradition of miniature painting from book and manuscript illustrations. The miniature’s non-religious nature, was reflected in its figurative and naturalistic elements painted by opaque watercolour on paper. A folio from 1680 depicts ladies from the zenana, ‘women’s quarters’ frolicking in a pool with lotus flowers. At its edge, two ladies, one smoking a huqqa, ‘water pipe’, are juxtaposed against palatial marble pavilions in the background.

Fascination with the ‘garden of paradise’ and its floral attributes had long permeated artistic traditions of the pre-Islamic world. However, a new visual language began to dominate textile design in the Ottoman court. In the 14th century, the Ottomans had been middlemen in the raw-silk trade that Iran exported to Europe via Italy and by the 16th century, Ottoman silk was one of the most sought-after in the Islamic world.

Production of Silk Textiles

‘The production of silk textiles became one of the main industries of Ottoman Turkey, especially in the old capital Bursa and also, later on, in Istanbul,’ says Prof Curatola. ‘Flowers – especially the four typologies: carnation, tulip, hyacinth and rosette – were the main subjects of the Ottoman nakkashkhane, the ‘House of Drawings’; imperial ateliers specialised in preparing patterns used in various media, which were inspired by the garden, that is, Paradise.’

This exhibition exploring water in Islamic art has been described by curator Alessandro Vanoli as ‘just a way to look at Islamic history with new eyes. To reflect upon some continuities and upon the many elements that connect cultures and civilisations’. However, it is much more than that. As an original and comprehensive overview of water, religion and Islamic art, it has no peer, offering insights into the past which are entirely relevant today.


Water, Islam and Art, until 1 September at the Museo d’Arte Orientale (MAO), via San Domenico 9, Turin, maotorino.it