Florence and Baghdad

Apr 30, 2020 in Book Review

Book Review Sample

The title of the book Florence and Baghdad represents the contrast between European and Asian art based on the example of the two abovementioned. Florence was chosen for a background as a city of the early Renaissance. Great Italian architect, engineer, and sculptor Filippo Brunelleschi was one of the Renaissance founders. He worked there on his famous Florence Cathedral in the 15th century. As for Baghdad, it was the center of the Arabic world for centuries representing the Islamic cultural peculiar properties of architecture. The paper aims to discuss the period of the Middle Ages in western Europe and the East.

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Hans Belting is a German historian born in 1935 in Andernach. His field of interests includes art of Renaissance as well as medieval art, Byzantium, and image theory in general. Belting’s works are about the image history before the Renaissance era, the history of art, the myths of contemporary art, etc. He previously studied at the universities of Hamburg, Meinz, Munich, and Rome and was a member of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences, Berlin Zentrum für Literatur - und Kulturforschung. In 1992, he became an honorary member of the Academy of Arts and Scientists of America. 

At first, it is a pleasure to admire the design of the book. It contains pictures and illustrations from the mosque-cathedral of Qous and the Annunciation. It shows how two contrasting cultures were mixed together creating a real masterpiece which demonstrates that all differences and particular qualities of Arab and European cultures are irrelevant. As a matter of fact, these two branches of one integrated Mediterranean multi-culture may be considered as a clash of civilizations.

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Lately, the necessity of peaceful co-existence of Euro-Atlantic and Middle East cultures has become very urgent. So, scientists are trying to understand the Islamic world through studying its history, nature of art, and literature. The interests in studying Arabic culture have already become a trend.   

We got used to thinking that Western civilization, science, and the way of life are dominant in the modern world. However, has it always been like that? As we know, the beginning of contemporary culture was first observed in the Antiqity Age and acquired modern forms during the Middle Ages. The Renaissance, like a culmination of this period, was on top of that process and played a major role in it.    

Hans Belting claims that Italians whose compatriots have founded the Renaissance and spread it all over the Europe are sure that the central perspective widely used in medieval art was first invented in Italy. However, the Arab mathematician Ibn Al-Haithan also known as Alhazen had discovered it long before the Europeans in the11th century. He created a camera obscura, studied light rays and geometry of light path. Alhazen, in fact, created the new theory of vision. Later, Europeans turned it into a theory of images that became a visit card of the Renaissance and the whole Western civilization.

The author explains tight connection between the significance of geometry in Arabic art and Arabic worldview. He is trying to understand the Eastern civilization through the lens of art. Belting tried to compare history of art and science in eastern and western ways and propose entirely new essentials. 

Based on arguments and facts about the Islam visual theory, Hans Belting presented the idea that our modern worldview, esthetic sense, and sense of beauty that are still holding us apart have originated not from Italy, Florence, but from the East, particularly from Baghdad. If we want to trace the genealogy of the Renaissance, it is not Europe where we should look for it. Verbal explanation and facts combined with colorful pictures create a great field to think on. Belting puts two different cultures on the same equal footing position with the idea of saving and developing their own cultural features. They have so many differences and so much in common. The book was written from the point of view that all apparent cultural and ideological differences are not just common and temporary phenomena. We mistakenly think that colonialism and so-called “western world” or Eurocentrism are related notions. 

There are some logical questions to a reader’s mind. Is it possible that great optical theory which was a defining form in classic European art for centuries is actually based on Islamic culture, a culture that is aniconic by its nature and does not provide any pictorial images at all? Why was it kept in secret for such a long time? Who benefited from that? And why this became known only now? The last question is easier to answer. Western culture has been suffering from a Narcissus complex for centuries. Now, the paradigms are changing, and we cannot afford to have them around us any longer. In that context, there arises the question “Why did not optical perspective exist in another cultures?” It is better to ask about the specific conditions under which it emerged in the West. 

Actually, the book is an attempt to rewrite the Europe art history and to debunk the monopoly of Europe in the world’s cultural space. The author is not concerned about any influences, his task is just to compare two different cultures. He uses sudden contrasts and shifts of focus to clarify the particularities of one culture with the different position of another.

Florence and Baghdad is designed for a wide audience ranging from high school to academic level. Also, it could be very useful to the people interested in the Middle Ages and medieval art. It could be an eye-opener for those who want to understand the emergence and development of visual art, photography, and films.

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