Europe & the Islamic Mediterranean AD 700–1600
Materials & techniques
Certain artistic techniques produced in the Islamic world were so admired in Europe that they were imported in huge numbers, especially to Italy. Local artisans began to experiment with their own versions of these techniques even, in the case of tin-glazed lustreware, enamelled glass and inlaid brass, eventually surpassing their Islamic models and dominating the market.
Tin-glazing was a ceramic technique invented in Iraq in the 8th century to imitate the appearance of fine white Chinese porcelains. Particles of tin added to the traditional lead glaze remained in suspension when the pot was fired, creating an opaque white effect. Painting in lustre was a further decorative development. Metallic pigments (copper or silver) were painted on to the fired ceramic surface and the object was then re-fired in an atmosphere starved of oxygen. The pigments reacted with the glaze and fixed the metals to the surface in a thin layer. It had the effect of transforming humble ceramic vessels into glamorous objects which 'shone like the sun'.
This technique was widely practised throughout the Islamic world and was being made at Málaga, Spain by the 12th century. A competitive industry was established at Manises, a suburb of Valencia, one of the main western Mediterranean ports where Italian merchants had trading posts. Surviving Italian documents, especially from Florence, detail the huge number of imports via this trade network. These were described as maiolica, a term which only later became applied to the locally-made Italian wares. Many were decorated with the coats of arms of their Italian patrons, which helps date them.
From the late 15th century, Italian potters at Gubbio and Deruta experimented with tin-glaze and lustre to make their own ceramics. They decorated them in the Renaissance style which was then coming into fashion. During the 16th century these home-grown wares overtook Valencian imports in popularity and the Spanish industry began to decline.
Enamelled glass & inlaid brass
Enamelled glass and inlaid brassware were produced in Mamluk Egypt and Syria from the 13th century and widely exported, probably from Damascus, one of the main trading centres in the eastern Mediterranean. The clarity of Mamluk glass exceeded anything that could be made in Europe at the time. Coupled with the complicated and colourful technique of enamelling, these objects were highly valued by their European owners.
Venetian glassmakers responded quickly to the commercial challenge of Islamic glass and by the late 13th century they were also producing glass decorated with enamels. Some of their early products follow exactly the shape and decoration of the Mamluk exports. Venetian glassmakers ground river pebbles to create a silica with almost no impurities, which resulted in a clear colourless glass. Their rise to technical supremacy by the 15th century caused the Islamic industry to decline, and glass mosque lamps were made in Venice for export to the Middle East.
Mamluk brasswares were intricately engraved with plant ornament and bold inscriptions, and inlaid with silver and sometimes coloured resins. These were extremely popular in Italy and so many first came to light in Venice in the 19th century that they were thought to have been made there. In fact many of these pieces were probably made in the Mamluk realm, since some are signed in Arabic. Local imitations were also made in Venice and it can be very difficult to tell these apart from the Islamic imports. Sometimes the shape of the object or the tiny motifs filling the background to the main design suggest a European rather than a Middle Eastern origin.
The Luck of Edenhall
The Luck of Edenhall
Glass beaker: Syria, 1250–1300
Leather case: probably England, 1450–1530
Museum no. C.1-1959
The shape and decoration of this enamelled glass beaker are typical of Mamluk glass production of the late 13th century. It probably found its way to England through trade, where its sophisticated materials made it a prized object. It has been perfectly preserved by the leather case that was made for it, probably after the mid 15th century. The lid of the case is moulded with Christ's monogram, IHS, probably as a protective talisman.
This beaker was a precious family heirloom for the Musgrave family of Cumbria. A legend grew up that it had been left to their ancestor by fairies who cursed him for disturbing their secret banquet, and that if it were damaged or broken, they would lose their family home of Eden Hall.
Museum no. 7536-1861
This beautiful goblet demonstrates the technical supremacy of Venetian glass in the late 15th century, after the invention of a colourless glass, known as cristallo, that was as clear as rock crystal. The form, on a high, bell-shaped foot, and the decoration, of dots of coloured enamels forming simple floral motifs, is characteristic of the drinking vessels and other tableware produced in Venice at this time. These were such luxury products that they were even sent to the Mamluks as diplomatic gifts,and traded to Islamic lands on the luxury market. An almost identical goblet, now in the Corning Museum of Glass, was said to have been found in the Jewish cemetery in Damascus.
Circular tray with inscriptions
Circular tray with inscriptions
Egypt, probably Cairo
Museum no. 420-1854
This impressive tray shows the kind of inlaid metalwork made in the Mamluk empire from the late 13th century. Mamluk art of the 14th century did not usually show figures, and other forms of decoration became more prominent, especially plant ornament and monumental inscriptions such as those which encircle this tray. Most of the silver inlay has been lost, but originally the letters would have stood out boldly against the minutely decorated ground. These inscriptions contain blessings for the reigning sultan, and mention al-Malik al-Mansur, a title borne by two sultans who ruled in 1341 and from 1361 to 1363.
Dishes such as this came to Europe through trade or as diplomatic gifts, and their impressive inscriptions were copied on European-made objects. However, by the end of the 14th century, Mamluk tastes began to change in response to the import of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, and the production of inlaid metalwork declined.
Brass ewer with 'Veneto-Saracenic' ornament
The Molino Ewer
The Netherlands or Germany, decorated in Venice
Museum no. M.32-1946
This fascinating object, known as the Molino Ewer, demonstrates two different patterns of taste in 15th-century Venice: that for Netherlandish brassware, of which this shape with its handle and spout in the form of dragons is typical, and that for Islamic-style decoration, with which this ewer is covered. A brass ewer imported from Northern Europe may have been sent to Egypt for the decoration to be added. The motifs include elaborate pseudo-Kufic inscriptions, and lotus flowers, a Chinese motif which was introduced to Europe via Mamluk trade routes (it is shown here upside down). On the lid is the coat of arms of the Molino family of Venice, for whom this ewer was so luxuriously adapted.
Inlaid brass bowl with cover
Inlaid brass bowl with cover
Egypt or Syria
Signed by Master Mahmud al-Kurdi
Museum no. 2290-1855
Mamluk production of brasswares decoration with silver resumed in the reign of Sultan Qa'itbay (1468–96), who has been credited with the revival of several traditional crafts and the introduction of others. One type of brassware produced in this period is decorated with larger arabesque and knot motifs, slightly raised above the surface and overlaid with silver. The spaces between are filled with a tiny pattern of arabesques.
During the late 15th and early 16th century large numbers of such items were exported to Italy and other European countries. Later these imports were copied by Venetian craftsmen, and it can be difficult to tell the difference between these and the Mamluk originals. This example, however, was signed by its maker, Mahmud al-Kurdi, in Arabic, and it was mostly likely made in Egypt. Mahmud signed several other pieces and seems to have played a leading role in this industry.
Discover Islamic Art
An online project which brings together highlights of Islamic collections in countries around the Mediterranean, together with virtual exhibitions highlighting various themes and periods within Islamic art
Introduction to Islamic Art
Illustrated from the Islamic collections of the LA County Museum of Art website
The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Illustrated from works of art in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
This subject was written by Mariam Rosser-Owen with thanks to Moya Carey, Rosemary Crill, Glyn Davies, Stuart Frost, Ashley Givens, Elisa Sani, Tim Stanley, Helen Persson