While politicians present it as alien, a new exhibition in Florence reveals historic exchange and dialogue with the east
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.