Amid an Anti-Muslim Mood, a Museum Appeals for Understanding

A stuffed giraffe that Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Viceroy of Egypt, gave to Grand Duke Leopold II of Tuscany in 1835 is included in “Islamic Art and Florence from the Medici to the 20th Century” at the Uffizi gallery.

FLORENCE, Italy — They were made in Syria six centuries ago, and stand elegantly in a row of vitrines at the Uffizi Gallery here: five ceramic jars that once contained treatments, ointments and scents from the faraway Orient. These “Albarelli” jars are decorated with an interlacing pattern of flower stems and foliage. And at the center of each one is a lily — the historical emblem of Florence.

The jars tell the story, in a nutshell, of “Islamic Art and Florence from the Medici to the 20th Century,” an exhibition running through Sept. 23 that maps the long-lasting and reciprocal exchanges between the city and the Islamic world. Held at the Uffizi and at the nearby Bargello Museum, it brings together some 250 objects — ceramics, carpets, silks, manuscripts, metalwork and glassware that were given to, commissioned or acquired by people in the city over a 500-year period.

While Florence’s interaction with the Muslim world originated in the Middle Ages, it escalated under the Medici family, who controlled the city between the 15th and the early 18th centuries. Florence prospered, thanks to the export of textiles (chiefly silk and velvet) to the Muslim world. In turn, it imported carpets, spices and raw silk as well as acquiring the finest examples of glassware, ceramics and metalwork. The cultural ties lasted through the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Today, Italians have little exposure to the Islamic world beyond the Muslims living in their midst — many of them recent immigrants — and media reports of Mideast wars and Islamist-inspired terrorism. That tense context has led some to associate Islam with violence and spawned anti-Muslim sentiments which, earlier this year, helped usher in a populist government promising to crack down on immigration.

The Florence exhibition is a scholarly riposte to those developments.

“I felt that among all the possible exhibitions, this would be a particular priority,” said Eike Schmidt, the Uffizi Gallery’s German director, who programmed the show soon after arriving in 2015. “Oftentimes, there is a lack of knowledge about and comprehension of other cultures, especially Islamic culture. There are tensions that come out of the present day, on both sides.”

Mr. Schmidt noted that the Italian Renaissance would not have existed without the contributions of Islamic scholarship — in particular, the discoveries made in the fields of mathematic theory, geometry and optics, which shaped artists’ mastery of perspective in painting.

The show is full of imports that were once the rage in Florence and were acquired from present-day Egypt, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Spain: Ottoman silks and tiles, Mameluke carpets, Persian illuminated manuscripts, Syrian metalwork (of which the Florentine Republic’s ruler, Lorenzo de’ Medici, was said to own more than 100 pieces), and Moorish ceramics adorned with Florentine family crests.

The Bargello section of the exhibition focuses on more recent collections: treasures acquired in the 19th century by a number of Florence-based collectors, connoisseurs and dealers.

In the Uffizi half of the show, Renaissance-era Italy’s admiration for Islamic culture is apparent from the very beginning. In Gentile da Fabriano’s 1423 “Adoration of the Magi,” a famous biblical scene, the golden halos of Mary and Joseph are inscribed with Arabic letters, in a strikingly harmonious overlap of cultures and religions.

Nearby are pages from the world’s oldest surviving manuscript of the “Shahnameh,” the epic poem by Ferdowsi. This Persian-language manuscript is dated 1217, and was acquired in the 16th century by an Italian trader.

The many giant carpets on display are reminders of just how popular they were in the 15th and 16th centuries, embellishing wealthy Florentine households and appearing in Renaissance paintings. One of the Mameluke carpets in the exhibition (from the Mameluke dynasty, in power in Egypt and Syria when the Medicis were at their peak), is the largest in the world.

“For us, Islam is nothing new; it’s a culture that we know well,” said Giovanni Curatola, a professor of Islamic art and archaeology at the University of Udine, who curated the exhibition. “Florence has had an uninterrupted relationship with the Islamic worlds from at least 1400 to the present day.”

Mr. Curatola said that because the people of Florence, like those of Venice and Genova, historically had “no inferiority complex” about admiring beautiful objects produced elsewhere, Italy had one of the world’s greatest Islamic art collections. Yet it had only staged one other Islamic art exhibition in recent times (which he also curated): at the Palazzo Ducale in Venice in 1993-4.

The West “pays very little attention to the Islamic world. We still haven’t realized that the world is a little more vast, and that culture is not just a Western prerogative,” he said. “We continue to think that we’re the center of something.”

The Uffizi’s director said that in the last three decades, he had noticed the spread of “anti-Islamic views” in the Western world, and that he felt a duty to counter them. Mr. Schmidt recalled that at the exhibition’s June 21 press event, attended by the Imam of Florence, he called in his opening remarks for construction of a golden-domed mosque in Florence, “inshallah” (“God willing” in Arabic).

The museum director’s words did not go unnoticed by Italy’s new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-immigration League movement (one of the two main parties in the government). Mr. Salvini has ordered Italian ports to turn away boats carrying migrants, and earlier this year voiced strong doubts about Islam’s compatibility with the country’s values. Asked by reporters to comment on Mr. Schmidt’s remarks, he replied: “If I were the director of the Uffizi, I would focus on the great museum that I’m in charge of, rather than on big mosques. I don’t think that’s a priority for Florence or for anyone else.”

Mr. Salvini’s views on Islam appear to be shared by a majority of Italians. According to a May survey published by the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of Italians said Islam was fundamentally incompatible with their culture and values — the second-highest ratio of the 15 countries in Western Europe surveyed.

Asked if they would be willing to accept a Muslim in their family, 57 percent of Italians either said no or were unsure — the highest total of all.

“Negative attitudes toward Islam are more pervasive in Italy than elsewhere in Europe,” said Neha Sahgal, associate director for research at the Pew Center, who was a conductor of the survey. “From a data perspective, what is striking is Italians’ discomfort with Islam in principle, as well as with Muslims in their society.”

That discomfort stems chiefly from a lack of familiarity, according to Italian academics.

“When you say the word ‘Islam,’ the majority of Italians think of peddlers or terrorists,” said Stefano Allievi, a professor of sociology at the University of Padua, who has published a number of books on Islam in Italy.

The Imam of Florence, Izzeddin Elzir, said in an interview that he had tried and failed for 10 years to get a mosque built in Florence. “One of the main reasons is fear: Since the Sept. 11 tragedy, there is a fear of us Muslims,” he said.

As a result, Florence’s main Muslim place of worship, where Mr. Elzir leads Friday prayers for as many as 1,000 people, is in a former parking garage in the center of the city.

The Imam — who heads an umbrella organization representing some 130 prayer halls and Muslim associations across Italy — reported episodes of Islamophobia across Italy which he said were isolated, yet more numerous than five or six years ago. He cited examples of live pigs being taken onto plots of land where mosques were set to be built, of pig’s heads being placed in front of Muslim prayer halls, and of verses from the Quran being drawn over with naked bodies and mailed to members of the Muslim community.

Mr. Elzir described the Uffizi exhibition as “wonderful,” and said it was crucial nowadays to “build bridges, knowing that this is the hardest path to take, but one that will lead us to a peaceful and harmonious coexistence.”

The Uffizi has put together a program aimed at familiarizing visitors of all ages and backgrounds with Islam and its cultures. There are guided visits in both Italian and Arabic, as well as Arabic calligraphy workshops. Special educational programs are being devised for young children on themes such as the Muslim veil, carpets and Islamic science.

“The aim is to inject an intellectual curiosity in these children,” and help them “understand that there is a weapon called culture against racism, sloppiness and ignorance,” said Silvia Mascalchi, the Uffizi’s head of education.

Mr. Allievi, the university professor, said exhibitions could go a long way in enhancing the public image of communities such as the Muslims of Italy.

The Florence exhibition “helps Italians understand that Islam is not something attributed to primitive and illiterate people, but a great civilization that had relations with Italy,” he said. “It also gives Muslims in Italy a reason to be proud, and a sense of belonging.”

In Other News

© 2020 US News. All Rights Reserved.