Islamic Art in a European Lens at the Uffizi & Bargello

Until September 23: ISLAMIC ART AND FLORENCE FROM THE MEDICI TO THE 20th CENTURY Uffizi Gallery, Bargello National Museum. Uffizi open 8:15 am – 6:50 pm Tuesday – Sunday; Bargello open 8:15 am – 4:20 pm. Admission: combined ticket 29, valid for three days.

A towering stuffed giraffe stands to the left of the entrance of the Uffizi’s Aula Magliabechiana room. Sent as a gift by the Viceroy of Egypt to Grand Duke Leopoldo II in the 1830s, it is a testament to political connections between the Medici court and the Islamic world.

Organized by the Uffizi in partnership with the Museo Nazionale del Bargello and curated by Giovanni Curatola, the exhibition Islam and Florence highlights the relationship between the Islamic world and Italy from the 15th to the 20th century. Islam and Florence displays Florence’s collection of almost 3,300 pieces of Islamic art at both the Uffizi and the Bargello.

The show focuses on the trade relations between Florence and the Islamic world, which increased with Medici rule and the Renaissance. Goods from Alexandria, Cairo, Damascus Aleppo and Constantinople drove Florentine markets and taste, and Florentine art and crafts filled bazaar booths in the Mediterranean world. Metal filigree, opalescent Islamic glass and vibrant carpets were much sought-after along the banks of the Arno by Florence’s wealthiest families. In the 19th century, antique dealers, collectors and merchants working in Florence reinvigorated Italian interest in Islamic goods.

UFFIZI

The Uffizi’s display includes rare illuminated manuscripts, ceramics, and textiles. Other objects include a powder blue child’s caftan brocaded with golden thread, and gold-filigreed objects which resemble Medieval Christian crosses but are actually Turkish bridle parts, and vibrant, detailed carpets that testify to the Eastern artisans’ skill.

Florentine exhibits are also on display. A portrait of Eleonora di Toledo wearing a dress of Florentine brocade hangs next to a case displaying 16th century Florentine textiles of similar design. A late 14th century chest with clear Islamic motifs demonstrates the exchange of ideas between the Islamic and Florentine world occurring during that period.  Fifteenth century Italian paintings, including a Fabriano painting depicting the Adoration of the Magi, Rossellino’s Young St. John the Baptist, and a late 14th century chest with clear Islamic design influences and motifs demonstrate the exchange of ideas between the Islamic and Florentine world occurring during that period.   

Perhaps the most impressive artifacts in the Uffizi section are the massive carpets. One room features an elevated platform where fragments of a 31 by 15 ft. carpet are reconstructed. In another, an Egyptian medallion carpet from a 16th century Mamluk workshop spans the length of the space. Vibrant and detailed, these carpets serve as testaments to the Eastern artisans’ unparalleled mastery of the craft.

BARGELLO

Spanning two floors, the Bargello’s sector of the exhibition explores Islamic art collecting and museography at the turn of the 19th century and includes the Bargello’s permanent Islamic art collection. The Bargello’s ground and first floor boast glittering Islamic artifacts: filigree lamps, bejeweled ivory boxes, painted manuscripts were once part of private collections belonging to Stefano Bardini, Frederick Stibbert, Louis Carrand, Giulio Franchetti, and the Medici family.

Stefano Bardini, known as the Prince of Antique dealers, donated 20 carpets to the Bargello Museum, and another 30 were left to the museum after his son Ugo’s death.  The Florentine villa of Englishman Frederick Stibbert housed a fabulous collection of Islamic objects, textiles, arms and armor from the Ottoman Empire, Mamluk Egypt, the Caucasus and Persia consisting of 1,500 pieces. Consisting of items such as jade-hilted daggers, engraved helmets and filigree chalices; pieces from the Stibbert collection are on display.

Baron Giulio Franchetti donated his collection of over 600 textile items to the Bargello in 1906. Hanging behind the glass cases are Franchetti’s red brocades woven through with gold and aqua thread and luscious tapestried velvets patterned with vines and medallions. The Carrand Collection: artifacts collected by a father and son Jean-Baptist and Louis Carrand, includes Islamic ivory chess pieces, an enameled glass mosque lamp, painted tiles, and tulip-patterned fabrics.

PRESENTATION AND PREJUDICE

Eike Schmidt, director of the Uffizi gallery, stated that the exhibition serves as a testament to the “unprejudiced aesthetic fascination with the Orient that has always permeated European art.” It must be acknowledged that the “aesthetic fascination with the Orient” was not, in fact, unprejudiced, and neither is Islam and Florence.

Perhaps this is due to the English translation, but the wall text heavily features the words “Orient” and “Orientalist,” even though “Orient” and its like-words have been put to disuse in recent decades. The terms assume a Western-centric gaze and an area of study centered around an exotic “Other.”

“The Orient,” Edward Said writes in his canonical 1977 article Orientalism, “seems to be… theatrical staged affixed to Europe.” The Uffizi show employs the very problematic staging that Said describes: The Islamic world is meant to stand beside the perceived “greater” European one. One wall text describing the superb metalwork of the Islamic world begins: “Florence’s important goldsmith’s tradition was second to none,” establishing that however great the Islamic world’s metalwork was, Florence’s was better.

The Bargello’s collections are organized by the artifacts’ Christian European collectors rather than by the objects’ own cultural merit and significance. The exhibition would have done well to mediate its Western-centric framework by acknowledging the acts of brutality done by Florence to the East, such as Florence’s involvement with the Crusades in Constantinople during the mid-15th century.

The exhibition brings together impressive collections of Islamic art featuring beautiful and rare objects: it is a show worth seeing. However, it seems to be that Islam and Florence is organized more with a local gaze rather than by culturally sensitive scholarship that provides the Islamic world with its own individualized worth. (isabelle blank)