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Arts & Architecture

Exchange of Glances: Florence and Baghdad

by Jerry Brotton

It is hard to do justice to the brilliance and complexity of this book, which provides no less than a complete re-evaluation of the origins of perspective in Western art. Hans Belting, an internationally recognised authority on the theory of art from Hieronymus Bosch to Marcel Duchamp, argues that the scientific and artistic genesis of linear perspective did not come out of the Florence of Giotto and Brunelleschi as we are usually told by art historians, but instead first emerged in eleventh-century Baghdad in the work of Ibn al-Haytham (965-1040), a mathematician born in Basra who became known in the West as Alhazen, ‘the Arab Archimedes’. Educated in Baghdad, Alhazen spent most of his life in Cairo, where he invented the camera obscura and wrote his Kit?b al-Man?zir, or Book of Optics, begun in 1028. The book circulated under the title Perspectivae before it was printed in Latin in 1572, and exerted an enormous influence on Western science, from the work on optics by Roger Bacon (1214-94) to the rediscovery of the camera obscura by Johannes Kepler (1571-1630).

The Ideal City, attrib. to Fra Carnevale, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (by arrangement with Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

However, Belting is at pains to point out that Florence and Baghdad is not just a clichéd argument about how Arab and Islamic thinkers got there first in the discovery of perspective. He acknowledges that ‘Islam has become a hot topic in today’s intense debates’, and that ‘crossing the boundaries of disciplines’ between East and West is fraught with intellectual and ideological dangers. The question that Belting poses is more profound than simply proving cultural primacy. He wants to know why it was that Alhazen developed the visual principles of perspective in the eleventh century but did not translate them into an artistic theory, and why none of his Muslim contemporaries in mathematics or painting did either. Instead, it was another two hundred years before first Giotto and then Brunelleschi grasped the importance of Alhazen’s scientific theory of the geometry of light for their artistic practice in Florence, and went on to revolutionise Western painting. For Belting the answer lies in painstaking historical detective work in the study of transculturation, or the extent to which different cultures are transformed by their mutual encounters (or if they are not significantly affected by such encounters, then why should this be). Belting recreates different moments in the early histories of Islam and Christianity when both tried to understand their relations to visual culture, to produce what he calls a Blickwechsel, an ‘exchange of glances’, that throws both cultures into relief, and may, he hopes, ‘result in seeing both in a better light’.

Nakkas Osman: Sultan Selim II receiving Seyyid Lokman in the Çorlu-Palace in Edirne (ca. 1580s) / public domain, Wikimedia Commons

His starting point is an exhaustive rehearsal of the history and theory of perspective, taking in the complex arguments of, among others, Erwin Panofsky, in which perspective became a ‘symbolic form’, a way of organising a culturally specific world view. It was critics such as Panofksy, taking his lead from Ernst Cassirer, who established that perspective develops a ‘gaze’ which not only offers a powerfully illusionistic ‘window’ into a version of reality but also allows the viewer to discover himself in the process. Not only is perspective the dominant and enduring method for organising perceptions of spatial reality in the West, it is also central to the creation of modern subjectivity. In contrast, Islamic visual theory is predominantly aniconic, and has traditionally relegated pictures to the realm of the mind, insisting that the eye could be easily deceived and that images should not be copied or reproduced in corporeal form. Belting is careful to resist accepting this belief tout court, pointing to various exceptions in Safavid and Mughal art, but he is correct in pointing to the pervasive belief in early Arabic science that regarded ‘vision as a process whose end result was always uncertain’, and therefore ‘found suspect any pictures that stabilized perception and reified it as an artifact’. Such aniconic tendencies were only intensified under Islam. In one of his moments of Blickwechsel, Belting draws on Orhan Pamuk’s 1998 novel My Name is Red and its fictional Ottoman miniaturists, who scoff at how Venetian painters replace the Islamic representation of the world from an elevated God-like position with ‘the simple perspective of a mutt’ in the street. Belting uses Pamuk’s witty example to explain that Islam’s indifference to linear perspective is the result not of a refusal to embrace innovation – and here there is a veiled attack on Bernard Lewis’s infamous 2002 ‘What Went Wrong?’ thesis – but of a profoundly different cultural attitude towards vision and the gaze.

Ibn al-Haytham (965-1040), known as Alhazen (public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

This attitude is explored most clearly through Belting’s reading of Alhazen’s Book of Optics. Conducting experiments to measure light using the first known example of a camera obscura, Alhazen revised the classical belief that physical bodies left images of themselves in the eye. He proposed a new theory of optics in which light could be measured using geometrical principles, but this did not inevitably lead him – as it would his later Florentine disciples – to develop a pictorial theory of perspective. For Alhazen, images originated in the imagination, not the eye, and could not be made visible because they did not occur in the external world. Instead of confirming the importance of pictures, Alhazen’s theory reconfirmed how Islamic art raised mathematics and geometry to a cosmic, inner law. In contrast, by the time Alhazen’s theory of optics reached Florence, with its admiration for all things visual inherited from the Greco-Roman world, it was a small step to turn such tenets of Islamic science into Christian art, which would ultimately displace the power of the church and crown the subjective gaze of the picture’s viewer as sovereign.

Belting goes on to examine how various examples of non-figurative Islamic art – calligraphy, the muqarnas (a honeycombed surface decoration) and the mashrabiyya (a latticework window screen) – become examples of Cassirer and Panofsky’s ‘symbolic forms’. These Islamic forms, representing a specific cultural world-view, reflect an inner, divine geometry to the world, and are as valid and coherent as Western perspective. They even offer an implicit criticism of the aggressive gaze of Western perspective, ‘where the aim is not to create barriers for the gaze as to encode the sensory world through the use of script and geometry’. Without privileging Baghdad over Florence, Belting wants to ‘understand the particular natures of both cultures rather than to emphasize yet again what separates them’, and argues that we should not see Western cultural artefacts and innovations as ‘universal and assign a merely local status to all others’.

Florence and Baghdad is a remarkable and brave book which takes on a highly contentious area of East-West artistic, scientific and political exchange. As a consequence it is a dense and sometimes difficult read, but it repays the effort. It reads like a cross-cultural Ways of Seeing: it is about art and science, painting and mathematics, politics and religion, hermeneutics and phenomenology. Ultimately it is the book of a very fine scholar learning to think across cultures and resist simplistic separations at a time when this is most needed.

Hans Belting: Florence and Baghdad. Renaissance Art and Arab Science
Translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider
Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 2012.
ISBN 9780674050044.
Hardcover, 312 pages, 111 illustrations, US$39.95.

Jerry Brotton is Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London. He is the author of A History of the World in Twelve Maps (Penguin, 2012).

This article was first published in the Literary Review, Issue 393 (November 2011), pp. 41-42; it is here reproduced with kind permission from the publisher.

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