By Kenan Malik
8 Jul 2018
Details of the Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano, 1423. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
The Adoration of the Magi is an early 15th-century altarpiece painting by the Italian painter Gentile da Fabriano. Housed in the Uffizi gallery in Florence, it is considered by many art historians as Fabriano’s finest work and as the culmination of the International Gothic style of the late 14th and early 15th centuries.
Look closely at figures of the Virgin Mary and Joseph, and you will notice something odd. Their halos feature Arabic script. That might seem sacrilege in a Christian religious painting. Yet as a new exhibition in Florence, at the Uffizi and the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, sets out to show, such cultural and religious cross-dressing was common at the time. Entitled “Islamic Art and Florence from the Medici to the 20th Century”, the show explores “the knowledge, exchange, dialogue and mutual influence that existed between the arts of east and west”.
Embodied in the Renaissance view is certainly a sense of Islam as the other. But it is intertwined with curiosity, respect, even awe. There is a willingness, too, to reach beyond the otherness of Islam and to see the Muslim world not as demonic or exotic but as a variant of the European experience.
“I believe that the more we know of each other culturally, the easier things are,” suggests Giovanni Curatola, a curator of the Florence exhibition. That seems a pious hope. To transform contemporary sentiments about Muslims or migrants will require far more than an exhibition. Yet, at a time when many politicians present Islam as alien to the European experience, such shows are a useful reminder of how historically deeply intertwined are the worlds of Europe and Islam.
As the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak observed in an introduction to the 2015 exhibition, “The Ottoman Orient in Renaissance Art”, “the distance between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ has less to do with the world outside than with the world inside our minds”.