A procession of majestically robed men and women make their way down from atop a hill, flanked by horses, to greet the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus. The incorporation of gold richly accents the painting and illuminates in particular the three kings, their ornate dress signalling their exotic origins—they came from afar, from the Orient.
Gentile da Fabiano’s Adoration of the Magi (1423) lights up the beginning of the Uffizi’s exhibition Islamic Art and Florence from the Medici to the 20th Century, a rare look into the artistic exchanges between Florence and the Islamic world since the Medici rule in Florence. Great art patrons of their age, the banking family supported artistic luminaries of the time such as Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo Buonarotti. Their prestigious collection forms the heart of the Galleria degli Uffizi. Largely unknown to most is their connection to the Islamic world, the subject of this unique exhibition taking place in the Uffizi and in the Bargello museums.
Parade jacket (brigandine). Egypt, Mamluk dynasty, 1438-53. Parade jacket in silk velvet. Florence Museo Nazionale del Bargello
Florence’s relationship with the Muslim world began during the middle ages. However, it was with the Medici family, who controlled the city from the 15th to the 18th centuries, that the interest in the Orient heightened. Florence’s prosperity was due in great part to the export of textiles, especially velvet and silk, to the Middle East. In exchange, the city imported carpets, raw silk, spices, glassware, metalwork and ceramics, building cultural and artistic ties through trade that would last until the 20th century.
“This [exhibition] has been a consequence of historical studies about the formation of the collections and when and how these objects arrived in Florence,” says Giovanni Curatola, an Islamic art specialist at the University of Udine who organised the two-part exhibition. “It tells of relations between Florence and the Muslim empires, especially the Mamluk in Egypt and Syria (1250-1517) and the Ottoman (1299-1923) dynasties during the 15th and 16th centuries.” Nearby da Fabiano’s renowned painting is a life-size stuffed giraffe commemorating the gift of a live one from Sultan Qaitbay in 1487, setting the scene for what is to follow.
Albarello vase with heraldic lily Syria, first half of the 15th century Enamelled ceramic. Paris, Musée des Arts Decoratifs (on permanent loan to the Musée du Louvre)
The first part of the exhibition takes place in the Uffizi and focuses on the relations between the Islamic world and Florence during the 15th and 17th centuries, displaying a sequence of around 150 objects derived from Italian and international institutions, including elegant Syrian glass vessels, elaborate carpets, historic Persian manuscripts such as the Shahnama, enamelled glass and metalwork pieces and ceramics from Moorish Spain.
The second part, which takes place at the Bargello, has been devoted to the Islamic art revival during the 19th and 20th centuries. Best known for its sculpture, the Bargello also has the most important Islamic art collection in Italy. While many objects were owned by the Medicis, the majority were donated by collectors. Curatola explains how the revival in Islamic art is based on the work of four of these “emblematic” collectors: Frenchman Louis Carrand; Giulio Franchetti, who established one of the most comprehensive collections of textiles (not only from Islamic lands) and left more than 600 pieces to the Bargello; antiquarian Stefano Bardini; and Englishman Frederick Stibbert. “The most impressive group of objects, about 250, was part of the gift that the French antiquarian and collector Louis Carrand gave as his will to Florence in 1888,” adds Curatola. “He gave to the Bargello 3,300 objects, most of them masterpieces of decorative arts.”
Plate with spiral decoration (T rakes ,spiral style); Iznik (Turkey), c.1525-35; Enamelled ceramic. Kuwait City, Al-Sabah Collection, Dar Al Athar al Islamiyaah
What many do not know is how the Medicis looked at Islamic culture with admiration. “They collected not just works of art because they were beautiful and because they were the best of the best, but they also collected books and illuminated manuscripts that were interesting because there was Islamic philosophy and theology in them,” says Eike Schmidt, the director of the Uffizi galleries. “The Medici had people at the court, humanists, who knew Arabic and Farsi and Hebrew as well. This is something that today is difficult for people to imagine but it was really fundamental.”
Some of the greatest masterpieces of Islamic art are in Florence, but until this exhibition they were hardly known or seen. “These treasures were totally unknown until the 1980,” adds Schmidt. “And since then they have been shown once to a Florentine audience and once or twice to international exhibition. This is the largest show ever on the subject with a lot of scholarly research behind it.”
Standing in a row of vitrines are five ceramic jars made in Syria six centuries ago. Called the Albarelli jars, they once contained various ointments and scents from the Orient. At the centre of their interlacing pattern of foliage and flower stems is a lily, the emblem of Florence, capturing perfectly the aesthetic union of the Orient with Florence.
Spherical perfume-burner; Mosul, 1317-35; Brass with damascening in silver and gold; Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello
“There was this openness and receptiveness towards the Islamic countries that we see not just in one particular moment but across centuries, and then from the 18th and 19th centuries the Hapsburgs who came in had a similar interest in Islamic cultures,” explains Schmidt. “Orientalism was born out of a fascination with those cultures and not just out of imperialist motifs.”
With the current crisis in museums—the many closures and financial challenges—this exhibition signals how important international and inter-cultural contexts were and are. Through such a cross-cultural display perhaps newfound cultural empathy can be shared. Amid today’s anti-Islamic sentiment, the Uffizi and the Bargello make a case for understanding. Through such objects, the tales of trade, history and culture are told—tales we can still live by today.
Islamic Art and Florence from the Medici to the 20th Century runs until 23 September. uffizi.i