Marking Centuries of Creativity and Connections

Marking Centuries of Creativity and Connections

‘Islam and Florence, Collecting Art, from the Medici to the 20th Century’ reveals a rich relationship of trade and cultural activity that goes deeper and much further back than many realise, as Giovanni Curatola, the exhibition’s curator and professor of archaeology and history of Islamic art at the University of Udine, explains


The ‘Islam and Florence, Collecting Art, from the Medici to the 20th Century’ exhibition has certainly created a buzz since its launch in June, attracting visitors to both the Uffizi Gallery and the Bargello National Museum whose interests are as diverse as the precious items on display.

From the range of beautifully crafted metalware collected by Lorenzo de Medici and exquisite carpets amassed by Stefano Baldini to documents that include the oldest manuscript of Persian King Firdūsī's Shahnameh, dated 1217, the artefacts each have their own story to tell, while providing a fascinating glimpse into a historically significant relationship of trade and cultural activity.

Carpet with the arms of one of Sultan Qa’it Bay’s emirs
Cairo, Mamluk workshop, last quarter of the 15th century
Wool pile on wool warp
Florence, Museo e Galleria di Palazzo Mozzi Bardini on display in the Villa Medicea di Cerreto Guidi



Professor Giovanni Curatola, curator of the exhibition and professor of archaeology and history of Islamic art at the University of Udine, told Artscoops that the broad objective was to show the deep-rooted connection between Florence and Islamic decorative art that has long been overlooked. 

“We had a wonderful collection of decorative arts from a broad spectrum of Islamic centres which is almost unknown,” he said. “The idea was to bring the pieces that were scattered across Florence together in these two historic venues, while enriching the displays with several equally exciting items loaned from abroad.”

Giovanni Curatola, Professor of Islamic Archaeology and Art History of Department of History and Preservation of Cultural Heritage, University of Udine


The exhibition also highlights just how popular Islamic artefacts were with collectors in Florence, who appreciated the skill involved in creating them, according to the professor.

“It’s important to remember that Florence’s dealers and collectors didn’t need to buy these decorative arts, since there were already many exquisite pieces available locally,” he explained. “But they recognised that many collectibles from the Middle East displayed wonderful workmanship and unusual, attractive elements, such as their use of the Arabic script. These and other elements were fascinating to collectors in the West.” 

The exhibition is divided into two areas of focus, with each of the historic venues concentrating on a different aspect of the theme. 

Florence’s historical relationship with Persia and the interaction between East and West in art, most notably during the Mamluk and Ottoman eras, when regional activity was at its height, is explored at the Uffizi.  

The Bargello, meanwhile, is devoted to the revival of interest in oriental collectibles witnessed at the turn of the 19th century, when Florence became the capital city of the nascent Italian kingdom.

The pieces on show at the Uffizi are displayed under a variety of banners, which range from broad themes, such as exoticism, to specific categories, including pottery displaying coats of arms.

Pitcher with the Buondelmonti coat-of-arms and the Cross of the People
Manises (Valencia), middle to third quarter of the 15th century
London, The British Museum



Visitors are greeted by the somewhat unexpected sight of a stuffed giraffe, which dates back to 1865, when the then-living animal was gifted to the Grand Duke of Tuscany. The giraffe lived out its life in the Boboli Gardens, faring better than a predecessor, which Prof. Curatola explained was shipped across as a gift from the Sultan of Egypt, Qait Bey, to Lorenzo de Medici and arrived in Piazza della Signoria in November, 1487, but unfortunately died in Florence at the beginning of January.

Other, perhaps less surprising but equally noteworthy pieces on display in this section include a sumptuous collection of precious and elaborately designed textiles, encompassing beautifully embroidered silk and velvet pieces, many of which have been embellished with gold. 

“The Italians were selling a great deal of these textiles at the time, since they were in huge demand,” Prof. Curatola explained. “Indeed, the balance of payments was on the side of the Florentines, although there were plenty of collectibles being produced in the Middle East that were proving popular as a means of exchange.”

Large-size carpets, woven at the turn of the 15th century, were among the most sought-after items proffered by Middle Eastern traders to the Medici Grand Dukes, in part because there were probably only a very few looms operating across Europe at the time, he noted. 

“Capponi carpet”, medallion carpet with animals and human figures
Central Persia (Isfahan), Safavid workshop, second half of the 16th century
Wool pile on silk and cotton warp
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art


One of the highlights on display at the Uffizi is a formidable such example from the Mamluk period, which measures an impressive 40 square metres.

Prof. Curatola told Artscoops that two other carpets on display from Doha are significant for their unusual round shape. “The vast majority of carpets coming out of the Middle East at this time had corners, since they were made to fit a room in which people routinely sat on the floor to eat,” he said.

The many other exhibits of note at the gallery include a delightful array of ceramics, from the East or from Moorish Spain, some of which are decorated with the coats-of-arms of Florentine aristocratic families.

Prof. Curatola is particularly proud of the five blue and white porcelain pieces in the Albarerri line, which have been brought together for the exhibition from Florence, Qatar and the Aga Khan collection. “We managed to find five of the six that exist, which isn’t at all bad,” he said with a smile. 

Plate with spiral decoration (Tug˘rakes¸spiral style”)
Iznik (Turkey), c. 1525–35
Enamelled ceramic
Kuwait City, Al-Sabah collection, Dar Al Athar al Islamiyaah


Islamic metalwork, including pieces from the sizeable collection of Lorenzo de Medici is naturally a key focus.

“Lorenzo de Medici’s love of metalware from the Middle East, which heavily influenced coeval Italian production, is well documented,” he noted. “In 1594, the Medici owned 160 Islamic metalwork objects, most of which had been collected by Lorenzo, so it was only right to give them prominence.” 

Highlights include Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration of the Magi (1423), complete with Arabic script in the haloes of the Virgin Mary and St Joseph, and Cristofano dell’ Altissimo’s series of portraits, commissioned by Paolo Giovio.

Across at the Bargello, the exhibition is divided into four categories, each of which focuses on a key player who made a significant contribution to Middle Eastern artefacts at the time.

These are: Stefano Bardini, the Tuscan connoisseur whose name will always be associated with glorious examples of masterfully crafted oriental carpets; fellow Tuscan, Giulio Franchetti, the famous baron who collected sumptuous silks and other textiles; the celebrated English collector Frederick Stibert, who was born in Florence to a wealthy British family and owned a large collection of Islamic art; and Luis Carrand, the antiquarian, dealer and collector who came to Tuscany from his native France and changed the Bagello’s future by leaving an outstanding collection of 3300 pieces artefacts to it in his will.

Baraki (chanfron)
Turkey, 16th century
Gilded copper embossed and engraved with a burin
Florence, Museo Stibbert



Prof. Curatola told Artscoops that while significant on many levels, the exhibition is especially important for highlighting the depth and range of exchange between East and West over the centuries.

“The interaction and interrelations were much greater and longstanding than is often envisaged, spanning goods, money, knowledge and philosophy, including, of course, art and culture, and one of our aims was to celebrate those relations,” he said. “But of course, there are so many messages that we want to relay, including the key role art can play as an ambassador between regions and across waters.” 


The ‘Islam and Florence, Collecting Art, from the Medici to the 20th Century’ exhibition runs until September 23, 2018
Galleria degli Uffizi
Museo Nazionale del Bargello

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