Europe & the Islamic Mediterranean AD 700–1600

Materials & techniques

Dish with the arms of the Catholic Monarchs, Spain. Museum no. 1680-1855

Dish with the arms of the Catholic Monarchs, Spain. Museum no. 1680-1855

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-glazed lustreware
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.

Bowl with the arms of the Gondi family of Florence, Spain. Museum no. C.2047-1910

Bowl with the arms of the Gondi family of Florence, Spain. Museum no. C.2047-1910

Dish with a crowned eagle, Dish with a crowned eagle. Museum no. 7683-1861

Dish with a crowned eagle, Dish with a crowned eagle. Museum no. 7683-1861

Enamelled glass & inlaid brass

Mosque lamp, Venice, Italy, 1550–1600. Museum no. 332-1900

Mosque lamp, Venice, Italy, 1550–1600. Museum no. 332-1900

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.


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

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