Asiatic Exoticism in Italian Art of the Early Renaissance

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  • Asiatic Exoticism in Italian Art of the Early RenaissanceAuthor(s): Leonardo OlschkiSource: The Art Bulletin, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Jun., 1944), pp. 95-106Published by: College Art AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 14/06/2014 13:10

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    T HE oriental influence on Italian art of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance has been fre-

    quently discussed during the last decades. It is

    undeniable that some artists of those times were inspired by ornament and iconography of a more or less definitely ori- ental origin. There is sufficient evidence of contacts be- tween the East and the West in Italian paintings, both

    religious and secular. However numerous examples of this orientalism may

    appear to be, they are not always genuine. Therefore, the

    problem will always constitute a border-line case in the

    history of the Italian art of the Renaissance. This circum- stance must be emphasized at the very outset of every in-

    vestigation directed toward the explanation of this puzzling and striking aspect of a general and deep artistic renewal.

    Only a prudent examination of facts and problems can

    prevent the misleading conclusions of those scholars who have attributed to oriental models and motifs a revolu-

    tionary virtue and a decisive influence on the artistic feel-

    ing, technique, and imagination of some leading masters of this great creative epoch.1

    In discussing these border-line cases in art and literature there is always danger of considering them from a limited

    point of view which alters their true proportions. Precisely that fault has led to an overstatement of the oriental influ- ence on the Tuscan painters of the early Renaissance. Yet it would be a mistake to deny this influence or to minimize the interest of the problem. To what extent this artistic orientalism is real or imaginary can be established only after

    carefully examining its different and characteristic aspects, not by relying on fanciful hypotheses or hasty conclusions

    concerning the intellectual exchanges or commercial inter- course between the East and the West.

    There can be no satisfactory results in this vast field of research so long as the idea of the Orient includes all the

    peoples and civilizations from the Nile to the China Sea and from the Bosporus to the Gulf of Bengal. The visit of the

    Greek Emperor and his court to Florence during the Coun- cil of 1439 or the participation of Russian prelates and

    "Ethiopian" envoys in this great ecclesiastical event cannot

    explain to a critical mind the appearance of some unmis-

    takably Mongolian types in the Italian painting of the Ren- aissance. The products of oriental craftsmanship which were imported into Italy and imitated there during the

    Middle Ages and the Renaissance will never explain the

    realism with which contemporary painters represented exotic countenances, traits, and attitudes. There is an essen- tial difference between these products of the minor arts which can be indefinitely reproduced, copied, varied, and commercialized and the individual artistic creation of an

    outstanding pictorial genius. Thus the strange and pictur- esque varieties of human races, including Moors, Negroes, Arabs, Turks, and Tartars, to be found in frescos, paint-

    ings, drawings, and sketches of different hands and schools, do not belong to those currents of taste and style which determined at an earlier epoch the vogue of oriental silk

    garments, Persian textiles, Byzantine mosaics, Sasanid

    sculptures, and architectural details of Syrian and Egyptian origin.'

    The main concern in the investigation of this wide-

    spread orientalism is thus to distinguish carefully between the independent fields of ornament and decoration on the

    one hand, and the pictorial arts on the other. The vague conformity of some stylistic aspects of early Sienese paint- ings to Chinese art of the Yiian epoch (1279-1368) and the few scattered Asiatic types occasionally represented by

    I. Especially Gustave Soulier, Les influences orientales dans la peinture toscane, Paris, 1924, and I. V. Pouzyna, La Chine, l'Italie et les dibuts de la Renaissance, Paris, 1935. Both these books as well as the unimportant articles of J. Plenge, "Die China-Rezeption des Trecento . . .," Forschungen und Fortschritte, Berlin, 1929, pp. 294-295, and A. Renaudet, "Les influences orientales dans la Divine Comidie . . .," Revue de synthtse historique, 1925, Nos.

    SI 8-120, leave much to be desired in criticism and reliable infor- mation.

    2. For this aspect of the problem and reference to bibliography cf. W. F. Volbach, "Oriental Influence in the Animal Sculpture of Campania," ART BULLETIN, XXIV, 1942, pp. I72-1i8o for exam- ples of orientalism in the Paduan school, cf. R. van Marle, The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting, The Hague,

    1923-38, v, pp. 132 ft.

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    Italian painters cannot be compared to the primordial and

    uninterrupted flow of cultural and artistic ideas from the Near East into the Mediterranean sphere. In that instance a very old cultural commonwealth linked together the pro- ductive centers of a domain extending from Bagdad to C6rdoba and corresponding roughly to the ancient world. Some models of Far Eastern craftsmanship may have

    slipped through indirectly, through Persian and Arabian

    mediation, and met with success in Italian workshops and studios from Venice to Palermo.

    The epoch of the consolidation of the Mongolian Em-

    pire, between 1250 and 1368, was especially favorable to the distribution of East Asiatic products along the inter- continental trade routes connecting China with the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. This episode in the history of civilization and commerce has been so frequently and mas-

    terfully described that it is not necessary to insist upon it here.3 There is no doubt that the discovery of Central and Eastern Asia by the Franciscan missionaries and Marco Polo's description of the whole continent brought the Far East into fashion and struck the imagination of European potentates and common people alike.4 It stimulated, too, the spirit of enterprise in tradesmen and artisans. To some extent even creative artists were affected by this interest in the newly discovered continent, but their reaction was iso-

    lated, and determined by individual artistic intentions rather than by a curiosity for exotic aspects of life and na- ture. This fact is confirmed by the development of the con-

    temporary literature inspired by travel. Both fantastic and realistic ideas about the newly ex-

    plored East followed the trends and styles of the first travel accounts. The two oldest descriptions of Inner Asia by the Franciscan missionaries, the Historia Mongalorum of John of Pian del Chrpine (1247) and William of Rubruck's

    Itinerarium (1255), are straightforward reports of facts

    and impressions with little margin left for picturesque imagery.5 Marco Polo's book (1298) keeps the balance between the fanciful pictures of a story teller and the posi- tive interests of a business man. Curiously enough, fantastic

    descriptions of the Asiatic countries and peoples spread, as

    European travellers became better acquainted with the whole continent. The extensive description of the Far East written in 1330 by Odoric of Pordenone after a three years' stay in Peking, already shows a marked inclination toward

    tales of wonders and absurdities.' The fabulous element be- comes preponderant in Jordan de S vtrac's Mirabilia

    (1329 [? ])'7 and it is the chief characteristic of Mande- ville's famous forgery (137 i) which kept alive for centu-

    ries the distorted popular image of the Far East, earlier cre- ated by credulity, ignorance, and intentional mystification.8

    The most popular volume of fictional geography was written in Florence about 1400 by Andrea da Barberino and reprinted in innumerable editions under the title of Guerin Meschino.' In the form and style of a romance of

    chivalry the book contains a fantastic and confused descrip- tion of the countries and wonders of Tartary, India, and other regions of Asia and Africa which was echoed in similar narratives inserted into Italian chronicles of the Quattro- cento and inspired the most successful popular poems de- voted to the marvels of the East.'o Even after the fall of the