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"The Arts of Fire: Islamic Influences on the Italian Renaissance"
2004-05-04 until 2004-09-05
J. Paul Getty Center
Los Angeles, CA, USA

The luxury glass and ceramics that emerged from Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries established taste and were prized by European courts and other collectors for 300 years. These objects signified high points of Renaissance art production, yet their origins date back centuries earlier to the Islamic East. The Arts of Fire: Islamic Influences on the Italian Renaissance, at the Getty Center from May 4 through September 5, 2004, looks at the spread of skills and technologies into Europe that made possible the groundbreaking art forms of Renaissance cristallo and maiolica.

The highly skilled ornamentation techniques that gave Italian luxury glass and ceramics their beauty, color, and luster were developed by Islamic glassmakers and potters in the Middle East between about 800 and 1350. These methods included the glass techniques of gilding and enameling, and the maiolica practices of tin-glaze and luster. The Arts of Fire brings together a wide variety of glass and ceramics from Italy and the Middle East to explore the impact of Islamic influence on Italian technique, as well as decoration and form.  Objects on display include bottles, beakers, jars, lamps, and tiles from the Getty Museum’s own collection as well as those of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. 

Centrally situated on the Mediterranean, Italy was at the heart of a lively sea traffic in the late Middle Ages, surrounded by the Islamic lands of Anatolia (present-day Turkey), Palestine, North Africa, and Spain. Sea routes linked East and West, resulting in a meeting of cultures that brought exposure to varied art forms and technologies. At the time, the Islamic world's power and wealth stimulated a taste for fine things, and its enlightened support for learning provoked great technical and artistic innovations that led to tremendous advancements in mathematics, engineering, chemistry, literature, medicine, astronomy, and art. The Islamic influence contributed to the development of glassblowing, arguably the single most important innovation in the history of vessel glass manufacture, invented by the Syrian glassmakers of the Roman Empire. The spread of new glass and ceramic technologies was accompanied by a diffusion of Islamic decoration and forms. The arrival in Italy of easily transportable objects such as textiles, carpets, metalwork, and ivories, as well as ceramics and glass, helped popularize motifs and styles from the Islamic world. By the time the golden age of medieval Islam was waning in the 1400s, the Italian Renaissance began to flourish, due in part to the impact of Islamic learning and culture. 

The Rise of Italian Luxury Glass and Ceramics, Called Cristallo and Maiolica The origins of fine Italian glass, or cristallo, can be traced back to the 10th  century, when glassmakers in Asia Minor and the Middle East created the first luxury glass since antiquity. These craftsmen used ancient Roman techniques such as enamel painting and gilding, which they may have either revived or rediscovered independently.  Between 1100 and 1200, Egyptian and Syrian artisans refined glass enameling and gilding techniques to such an extent that their works became the finest in the world. These skills reached Italy through Egyptian and Byzantine glassmakers, who arrived in Venice by 1300. Italians not only copied Islamic decoration—such as dense surface ornamentation composed of scrolling foliage, interlacing geometric patterns, and Arabic calligraphy—they also painted decoration that was more typical of the Italian Renaissance, such as landscapes and classically inspired motifs.  

The techniques used to produce Italian luxury ceramics, or maiolica, were also developed in the 10th century. Iraqi potters discovered that by adding tin to their glaze, they could produce both pure white ceramics and clear designs on white, much like Chinese porcelain. At the same time, Egyptian and Syrian glassmakers began decorating objects with metallic stains, producing a shimmering effect. Iraqi potters later adapted this staining technique to clay, creating ceramic luster. Migrating craftspeople brought the skill to other parts of the Islamic world in the Middle East, North Africa, southern Italy, and Spain. Italian potters learned how to decorate from their Islamic counterparts, using color from pigments painted on a tin glaze, and gold from metallic stains on a tin glaze. While initially copying Islamic decoration, Italian artists soon began to feature ornamentation that was characteristic of the Italian Renaissance, such as narrative scenes, which predominated by about 1520.

Italian, Venice, late 1400s or early 1500s
Free-blown colorless glass with gold leaf and enamel decoration
H: 5 7/16 x Diam. [lip]: 3 15/16 x W [base]: 2 7/8 in.

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