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Florence and Baghdad: Renaissance Art and Arab Science Hardcover – Aug 31 2011

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Image-Making as a Way of Seeing: Hans Belting Bridges the Gap between Eastern and Western Perspectives on Art Dec 2 2013
By Betty Ann Jordan - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I like this book so much I'm leading a seminar on it. This handsome, beautifully illustrated book addresses questions about Middle Eastern cultures in which there is a prohibition on realistic imagery. Westerners tend to believe that seeing is the "royal road to knowledge," while in the East, especially those of Muslim heritage, privilege aspects of existence that are invisible. Small wonder efforts at dialogue are so fraught. Art historian Hans Belting proffers essential insights, zeroing in on "the gaze" as the root of major East-West divergence around the issue of who gets to look at what: it transpires that it is not a universally acknowledged right to gaze unrestrictedly upon the world. In Islamic cultures, only God is free to exercise the divine, all-encompassing purview. Belting demonstrates, with respect and estimable scholarship, how East-West attitudes towards images have become polarized since the early Italian Renaissance. Italian artists such as Piero della Francesca devised illusionistic three-point perspective drawing to simulate the process of seeing, fuelling a human-centred ethos and an appetite for mimetic imagery that to this day infuses the West's "ocular-centrism." By contrast, 10th-century Arab mathematician Alhazen and his cohorts, informed by Middle-Eastern understandings of beauty, human nature and the divine, used math to pursue a very different vein of optical research and theorizing. Islamic prohibitions against depicting living entities with souls, led to an embrace of abstraction, especially geometric ornamentation that came to be known as the "arabesque" style in the West. Belting elucidates why exquisitely ornamented objects hold such elevated cultural status in Islamic culture, comparable to the awe that accrues to Old Master paintings in the West. Florence and Baghdad familiarizes the committed general reader with key East-West cultural paradigms and symbolic forms while avoiding valorizing one worldview over the other. It's a compelling incitement to greater mutual knowledge.
41 of 58 people found the following review helpful
A (quite boring) "begat" history of Renaissance perspective Jan. 9 2012
By Agnostic500 - Published on
Format: Hardcover
The author, an eminent German art historian, is curious about how perspective emerged in Florence, Italy: it was such a transformative event. His worldview is one of heroic geniuses begetting theories (plus artistic skills) to the next generation, so he has gone out looking for the "begetter" of perspective.

He discovers Alhazen, an Arab scientist and mathematician who lived around the turn of the millennium, and who developed a theory of sight. This theory arrived in Europe, was taken up by Alberti, and presto! The Renaissance emerged with its paintings representing a "window" on reality. Of course, the Renaissance transformed Alhazen's theory - and once in Italy it became its "symbolic form".

The window-image could never have emerged as symbolic form in Baghdad, says the author, for Islam frowned on the representation of reality and images. The very PC author is concerned that the transformation of Al Hazen's theory into the glory of perspective be taken as "superiority" of the West over the Orient. This leads him to discover the mashrabiya, the wooden screens that cover windows in the Middle East, on which he bestows the title of "symbolic form". So the dialogue between East and West is on an equal and mutually respectful footing.

The author does not ask himself whether the "absence of windows" might be the consequence of nomads living in tents, or whether the "eye as viewer" possibly conflict with the culture of the evil eye, which is very much widespread. As for the mashrabiya - the word originally meant "place of drinking". Water jugs were put to cool behind these screens (a rather prosaic and functional origin), which may allow a question mark behind the author's argument. In other words, the author flattens the very rich and multifarious Arab culture into its religion - to me a grievous error whose main spokesman is HUNTINGTON with his equation of civilization with religion.

The author believes in efficient causes - hence Alhazen as the cause for Alberti and perspective. Admittedly Alberti knew Alhazen, but he knew many other things. In the first half of the fourteenth century the West was drawing maps in accordance with a grid work of lines developed by Ptolemy. Numerology (the main interest of Piero della Francesca) came to the West both through the Arabs and the re-discovery of the ancients. Alberti's friend Luca Pacioli was the master of double-entry book-keeping. The author equates the vanishing point to the naught - a Hindu-Arab invention - but the naught already existed as pause in Western polyphonic music. In other words, the emergence of perspective in Europe may have more to do with what Alfred W. CROSBY calls "change in mentalité" than with the painstakingly reconstructed genealogy of an idea. Theory tends to lag behind practice, and the Middle Ages was a period of robust artisanal experimenting and tinkering well before "high culture" appropriated it all and declared it to be its own accomplishment.

As for the "exchange of gazes" - exchange presumes separation, and I'd tend to reject the very idea that neighboring cultures are separate. Like redwoods cultures are rhyzomic, hence always intertwined in ways we are no longer able to reconstruct (if it was ever possible) - not top-down affairs where heroes and genius lead the way, or beget each other. So I'm uneasy with the whole approach.

At 312 pages the book is way overlong. It does not help that the texts are transcriptions from lectures - they drone on and on, repetitious, long-winded, and imprecise in terminology. It could have been shortened by one third with great improvement in the arguments. In order to liven up the story the author inserts "exchange of glances" at the end of each chapter - but they are not properly integrated.

If curiosity may kill the cat, too much theory may kill a good book. As the adage says: If one tortures words long enough, they'll admit to anything. Complex the book certainly is - but is it "brilliant"? Pace Jerry BROTTON in Literary Review - Alhazen's role has been documented before, so it is nothing new. Do we need the author's intellectual apparatus to understand the emergence of perspective? I'd read CROSBY The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600 instead.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
The Renaissance from a New (to me anyway) Angle Aug. 16 2013
By Robert E. Fitzpatrick - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
By coincidence, I was reading Belting's Florence and Baghdad: Renaissance Art and Arab Science, and Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red at the same time. What luck! Belting gave me a new perspective (forgive me) on renaissance art, and Pamuk introduced me to Persian miniatures. Both opened my eyes to the inevitable clashes occurring during the development of these seemingly, and perhaps truly, incompatible traditions. And both gave me valuable insight into the social tensions crucial to a deeper appreciation of each. I had borrowed Florence and Baghdad from the library but then bought a copy knowing I'll be going back to it from time to time. Either title is fascinating, but reading both together delivers a welcome synergy.
A wonderful resource Sept. 6 2013
By Judith Duquemin - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This book is a wonderful resource for arts practitioners. It is succinct, clearly written, thought provoking, a useful aid for the creative process. Judith Duquemin [...]