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Museum Showcases the Blending of Islamic and Western Cultures

Islamic art show drawing crowds to Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York


An anonymous Venetian painting entitled The Reception of the Venetian
Ambassadors in Damascus
painted in 1511, oil on canvas from the
Musée du Louvre, Paris
(Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

New York -- A new exhibition that examines the blending of Western and Islamic cultures through the art of Venice is drawing large crowds to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797, explores the exchange of ideas and art objects between the great Italian maritime city and her Islamic neighbors.

The exhibition "is an important step ... because Venice is a Western city that had a fruitful and open and positive relationship with the Islamic world for so many, many centuries.  It is important we try to convey this message ... and educate the American public," Stefano Carboni, administrator of the museum's Department of Islamic Art and the exhibition's curator, told USINFO.

The exhibition demonstrates the blending of cultures through trade and diplomacy as reflected in textiles, carpets, arms and armor, ceramics, sculptures, metalwork, furniture, paintings, drawings, prints and manuscripts. The three-month show, which includes nearly 200 works of art from more than 60 public and private collections around the world, closes on July 8.

A related exhibition, Europe and the Islamic World: Prints, Drawings and Books, is showing in adjacent galleries through July 15.

Examining the relationship between Venice and the Islamic world over a thousand-year period, the exhibition focuses on the artistic and cultural ideas that originated in the Near East and were absorbed and elaborated in Venice, a city that was a commercial, political and diplomatic magnet, says Carboni.

"Pragmatism is probably the term that best defines Venice's relations with the Muslim Middle East," Carboni says.  "Despite all of the wars, Venice remained a privileged partner, thanks to an almost perfect balance between religious spirit, chameleon-like diplomacy and acute business sense."

Some of the most startling pieces in the exhibition demonstrate the integration that occurred in religion: a carpet the same layout and size as Islamic prayer rugs incorporates Hebrew objects and Jewish symbols; a green glass cup made in Iran or Egypt and mounted as a chalice in Constantinople is from St. Mark's Basilica in Venice; Christian church vestments have Turkish designs; and Persian carpets are displayed that had once draped the fronts of high altars during religious festivals.

Not only were Islamic objects collected by the wealthy of Venice, but Islamic themes and influences were woven into European paintings, portraits, religious objects and glassware -- all displayed in exhibition rooms painted in the rich colors taken from the objects.  Islamic textiles appear in the patterned cloak worn by a figure representing the Virgin Mary in a 14th-century altarpiece and in the robes of doges and other Venetian aristocracy.  The center of a Venetian family portrait shows a table covered by a Persian carpet; the leather bindings on the classical texts of Renaissance scholar Fra Giocondo mimic those on Egyptian Qurans.

The glass for which Venice is now famous had its roots in Syria, and the exhibition has Eastern glass imported to Venice as well as Venetian glass commissioned for Ottoman mosques.


An 1832 painting by Eugene Delacroix (French, 1798-1863) entitled A Moorish
Couple on Their Terrace,
watercolor over graphite, from The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York, The Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ittleson Jr. Purchase Fund,
(Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)


Carboni expects that nearly 200,000 visitors will have seen the show before it closes, and reports a growing interest in Islamic art in the last few years, especially since September 11, 2001.

On that day, Glass of the Sultans, an overview of Islamic glass, was packed and "the trucks were ready to leave" the Corning Museum (in New York) to be installed at the Met, he said.

"Disaster happened and immediately we had to make a decision whether to take it or not, basically considering it was an Islamic art exhibition," Carboni recalled.  "We decided we should do it because art can give consolation, can heal things."

"We had more visitors than we expected.  I think it was exactly because people were trying to find some meaning in an exhibition of Islamic art," Carboni said.

The Metropolitan Museum sees education, which includes "gallery talks" and lectures by museum staff, as part of its mission.  One indication of the exhibition's popularity has been the number of people seeking to learn more about Islamic art, he said.  Carboni and his staff have been giving talks to the public and college groups almost daily on the topic.


The Metropolitan's permanent galleries dedicated to Islamic art, currently closed for renovation, house works that reflect the diversity and range of Islamic culture and offer what the curator feels is "one of the top collections in the world."

One strength of the collection is that it contains all mediums, from miniature paintings to pottery, glass and textiles.  "We have been collecting miniature paintings and books and illustrated manuscripts from the beginning of the 20th century.  This is quite unusual for a museum collection," Carboni said.

"We are quite proud of the fact that whoever comes to see our own collection in our galleries can really have a complete overview of Islamic art from the very beginning of the seventh century all the way to the 19th century," he said.

The Metropolitan acquired its first Islamic treasures -- seals and jewelry -- in 1874 and received its first major group of Islamic objects in 1891 as a bequest.  Since then its collection has grown to almost 12,000 objects.

Founded in 1870, the Metropolitan Museum has more than 2 million works of art in its collection from all over the world, from ancient through modern times. About 6,500 objects, including 50 from the Islamic art collection, can be seen online at

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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