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Renaissance: a recycling, not a rebirth

A Getty Museum exhibition demonstrates the Eastern origins of the vaunted flowering of Western civilization.

June 01, 2004|David Pagel | Special to The Times

In a brilliant little essay from 1890, Oscar Wilde argues that the more a civilization knows about art, the less likely it will be to go to war. A similar argument is made -- with the same stylish indirectness -- in a terrific little exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

"The Arts of Fire: Islamic Influences on the Italian Renaissance" consists of 39 uniformly gorgeous objects logically arranged in a single, dimly lighted room. Brought together by curator Catherine Hess, the fragile and fabulous bowls, flasks, lamps, plates, tiles and textiles make a smart, scholarly point about history, which, given the tenor of our times, has profound political implications.

Put simply, the exhibition demonstrates that the Renaissance began in the Middle East.

Rather than tracing the roots of this high point of Western civilization straight back to their sources in the classical antiquity of Greece and Rome, the show follows a more accurate -- and meandering -- path to what is now Iraq, Iran and Turkey, as well as Syria, Egypt and Islamic Spain. And that's not the end of the trip.

Concise wall labels and an informative catalog with three fact-filled essays take visitors to the far outposts of the Roman Empire (where blown glass was invented) and on to Imperial China (whose porcelain was unparalleled for almost 1,000 years). Both types of vessels made their mark on Islamic ceramics and glassmaking, which in turn influenced the finest Venetian glass before spreading to the rest of Western Europe.

By the time you leave the gallery, it's clear that the tendency to think of the Renaissance as the rebirth of a long-dormant indigenous culture grossly oversimplifies history. It's more truthful to see that golden age -- when art, science and trade led to the development of modern consciousness in historically unprecedented numbers of people -- as an exotic import customized by the locals to serve their own purposes and satisfy their increasingly refined desires.

The exoticism is palpable in the first of six vitrines, which contains three palm-size vessels made between the 6th and 11th centuries. Each is a marvel of materials and design, the charming asymmetry embodying the one-of-a-kind loveliness common to newly discovered techniques, unpolished skills and rudimentary, hands-on technologies. Nevertheless, a sense of user-friendly elegance suffuses these rare, free-blown containers, particularly the translucent, two-tone perfume bottle in the form of a stylized camel. Its demeanor combines aristocratic sophistication with cartoon-character playfulness.

The second vitrine holds the three most magnificent pieces: a goblet, a bottle and a lamp, all made of enameled and gilded glass in Egypt or Syria between the late-13th and mid-14th centuries. Measuring from 1 to 2 feet tall, they're among the largest works displayed.

More important, their bases, walls, stems, necks and lips are made of such thin membranes of translucent glass that they appear to be as delicate as soap bubbles. It's impossible to look at these slightly asymmetrical vessels without thinking of the many individuals who have handled them over the last 750 years. That care and devotion pales in comparison to the talent and virtuosity of the craftsmen who made them, skillfully adorning their warm, smoky surfaces with hand-painted patterns, pictorial flourishes and decorative script.

The next vitrine lays out the show's story line for glass in five carefully chosen works. The first is a four-color glazed tile from 15th century Syria. It depicts a curvaceous ewer silhouetted against a background of loosely painted curlicues that resemble leaves, stems, Arabic script and other decorative elements.

To its right stands a ewer shaped just like the one pictured on the tile. Made of deep blue glass in Italy at the beginning of the 16th century, its impeccably smooth surface has been covered with brightly colored patterns inspired by those in the tile's background. Translating two dimensions into three, the splendid ewer shows how the Italians refined the Syrians' techniques, which jump-started the rising middle class's desires for luxurious objects and cosmopolitan conviviality.

At the vitrine's other end stand two pilgrim flasks -- handcrafted, teardrop-shaped versions of contemporary canteens or water bottles -- which Renaissance travelers strapped over their shoulders or to their horses' saddles. Both are made of pristine, colorless glass around 1500 in Italy.

The first one mimics earlier, Middle Eastern designs in exquisite gold leaf. The second one has been painted. Its in-the-round image depicts two laborers standing in a fertile garden and holding up an unfinished coat of arms.

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