Influences of Islamic Art on European Art: Trade & Diplomacy

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  • 0:04 Europe and the Islamic World
  • 0:34 The Backstory
  • 1:56 Islamic Influences on…
  • 5:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, learn about the influences of the Islamic world on European art. Explore the importance that was given to Islamic art in medieval Europe and discover how trade and diplomacy allowed Christian art to be influenced by Islamic art.

Europe and the Islamic World

During the Middle Ages, Europe was mostly Christian and the neighboring regions of Northern Africa and the Middle East were mostly Islamic. However, the regions weren't isolated. Diplomacy and trade created a constant exchange of products and ideas. The beauty and mystery of Islamic art captivated many Europeans, and Islamic elements were soon incorporated into local art. And it wasn't just art that captivated Europeans. Foodstuff, medicines, and sciences were also admired and valued.

The Backstory

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century CE, Europe faced difficult times and there were few advances in sciences and art. Economies went back to small feudal systems and there was a decline in trade. It took almost three centuries for the scattered European kingdoms to regain political and economic importance.

In the meantime, Islam was flourishing. Old Roman provinces in the Middle East, the North of Africa, and Persia were conquered by Muslims and became Islamic territories. The Eastern Roman Empire continued to be a powerful state known as Byzantine Empire until it was conquered by the Islamic armies and became the Ottoman Empire.

As European powers reconsolidated, important trade routes with the Islamic world emerged. States in the territories of today's Italy had an advantageous position for commerce. Venice and Sicily were particularly important in European-Islamic exchange.

Carpets, silks, porcelain, glasswork, and other Islamic artistic objects were highly valued. Those beautiful and luxurious items were popular and had high demand among members of the European courts and elites. They were also sought after because of their quality, which was often better than that of objects produced in Europe. Finally, Islamic items did not offend Christian sensibilities because decoration was mostly geometric and floral, and calligraphic inscriptions were rarely understood.

Islamic Influences on European Art

Venice was a key point for trade with the Islamic World. It was the commercial center for most imports coming from the Islamic World into Europe. Good diplomatic relations also developed and commercial enclaves were created in the major Islamic cities, overseen by a Venetian consul.

Imported valuable artistic objects were used for decoration and utilitarian purposes. Carpets became a cherished element for the nobility, and they were often represented as the background of many oil paintings done from the 13th century on.

Venetian architecture also incorporated some Islamic elements. The Doge's Palace is a good example, where pointed arches were used for decorating the facades. The arches share more similarities to the Islamic arches than to their Gothic counterparts. Merlons, the vertical elements crowning the uppermost part of the facade, were common in Islamic military architecture. In the Palace, they were incorporated as decoration. The upper section of the facade has a brickwork resembling the geometric patterns found in Islamic mosaics.

Sicily was occupied during the Muslim expansion in the 9th century. After two centuries, the Normans conquered the island and settled there. They incorporated Islamic traditions and combined those with influences adopted from the Byzantine Empire. Many Muslim artisans and scientists worked for the Norman kings. Sicily was also an important port for trade.

Numerous techniques from Islamic art were incorporated into the creation of Arab-Norman art. Some of them were the mosaics, the sculpture of ivory and hard stones, bronze foundries, and the manufacture of silk.

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