2019 Annual Meeting of the Renaissance Society of America, Toronto
IAS-Sponsored Session

Mamluk Aesthetics and Renaissance Italians, Out from the Ottoman Shadow

Sheraton Centre Toronto, Provincial South
Tuesday March 19, 2019, 11am-12:30pm

Organizer and Chair: Bradley Cavallo, Assistant Professor, Department of Art & Design, Marian University

Organizer and Chair: Sharon C. Smith, Head of Distinctive Collections, Arizona State University

Dealing with Islamic-Italian relations in the Mediterranean, early modern scholars have focused almost exclusively on the attitudes of the Venetians towards the Ottoman Turks. And yet, in contrast to the “barbaric” Turks, the Mamluks did not become the object of Christian Crusader rhetoric. If anything, the religion of the Mamluks seems to have mattered less than their economic stability and potential as allies against the Turks in the political-existential imaginations of Christians. As a result, a material reality of trade and admiration continuously apprised Italians of Mamluk aesthetics as seen in textiles, metalwares, palace designs, and ceramics from Egypt and Syria.

The purpose of this RSA 2019 session is to explore how and to what degree Renaissance Italians adopted and then adapted the aesthetics of power and elegance manifested in artworks and architecture created by Mamluk artisans and architects before the ultimate Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1516–1517.


Vera-Simone Schulz, Kunsthistorisches Intitut in Florenz, Max–Planck–Institut
“Mamluk Aesthetics in and beyond Renaissance Italy. A Transcultural Approach towards the Global Itineraries of and Artistic Responses to Mamluk Art”

Petrarch, Vasari: though Mamluk artifacts were praised by the most renowned Italian authors, their appreciation has rarely been touched upon in art history. This paper will discuss the impact of Mamluk artifacts onto the art production in Renaissance Italy; it will show a major difference in the reception of Mamluk metalwork in comparison to Mamluk silk weavings in Italian painting; and it will discuss these dynamics in relation to Italian art theory of the time. But while this paper will thus show that Mamluk artifacts played a key role in Renaissance Italy, it will also problematize an emphasis on Italian art and art theory regarding Islamic art. Rather than incorporating Mamluk artifacts into an art history still often privileging Italy, this paper seeks to de-center the field around a Syrian and Egyptian center with Italy just being one of the many peripheries where Mamluk artifacts were held in high esteem.

Karen Rose Mathews PhD, Dept. of Art and Art History, University of Miami
“Mamluks, Italians, and Mediterranean Visual Culture as a Marker of Difference”

In the late Middle Ages, the Mamluks emulated Mediterranean visual culture in order to distinguish themselves from other Islamic dynasties to the east. The aesthetic they adopted at this time consisted of rich, encrusted architectural decoration replete with spolia or appropriated objects from past and foreign cultures. The Mamluks emulated the spolia style that was omnipresent in Christian buildings throughout the Mediterranean to display their integration into culture, politics, and commerce across the sea. By the fifteenth century, however, the cultural tides had turned and the Mamluks were no longer the borrowers of pan-Mediterranean forms but arbiters of taste themselves, defining the cultural landscape with the export of metalwork, textiles, glass wares as well as architectural decorative styles to western Europe. The Venetians in particular enthusiastically adopted this “Mamluk visual mode” to connect themselves to a Muslim ally and trading partner and distance themselves from a feared enemy, the Ottomans.

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