Amid an anti-Muslim mood, a museum appeals for understanding


A stuffed giraffe that Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Viceroy of Egypt, gave to Grand Duke Leopold II of Tuscany in 1835 is included in “Islamic Art and Florence from the Medici to the 20th Century” at the Uffizi gallery. PHOTO/Gianni Cipriano/The New York Times

They were made in Syria six centuries ago, and stand elegantly in a row of vitrines at the Uffizi Gallery here: five ceramic jars that once contained treatments, ointments and scents from the faraway Orient. These “Albarelli” jars are decorated with an interlacing pattern of flower stems and foliage. And at the center of each one is a lily — the historical emblem of Florence.

The jars tell the story, in a nutshell, of “Islamic Art and Florence from the Medici to the 20th Century,” an exhibition running through Sept. 23 that maps the long-lasting and reciprocal exchanges between the city and the Islamic world. Held at the Uffizi and at the nearby Bargello Museum, it brings together some 250 objects — ceramics, carpets, silks, manuscripts, metalwork and glassware that were given to, commissioned or acquired by people in the city over a 500-year period.

While Florence’s interaction with the Muslim world originated in the Middle Ages, it escalated under the Medici family, who controlled the city between the 15th and the early 18th centuries. Florence prospered, thanks to the export of textiles (chiefly silk and velvet) to the Muslim world. In turn, it imported carpets, spices and raw silk as well as acquiring the finest examples of glassware, ceramics and metalwork. The cultural ties lasted through the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Today, Italians have little exposure to the Islamic world beyond the Muslims living in their midst — many of them recent immigrants — and media reports of Mideast wars and Islamist-inspired terrorism. That tense context has led some to associate Islam with violence and spawned anti-Muslim sentiments which, earlier this year, helped usher in a populist government promising to crack down on immigration.

The Florence exhibition is a scholarly riposte to those developments.

“I felt that among all the possible exhibitions, this would be a particular priority,” said Eike Schmidt, the Uffizi Gallery’s German director, who programmed the show soon after arriving in 2015. “Oftentimes, there is a lack of knowledge about and comprehension of other cultures, especially Islamic culture. There are tensions that come out of the present day, on both sides.”

Mr. Schmidt noted that the Italian Renaissance would not have existed without the contributions of Islamic scholarship — in particular, the discoveries made in the fields of mathematic theory, geometry and optics, which shaped artists’ mastery of perspective in painting.

The show is full of imports that were once the rage in Florence and were acquired from present-day Egypt, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Spain: Ottoman silks and tiles, Mameluke carpets, Persian illuminated manuscripts, Syrian metalwork (of which the Florentine Republic’s ruler, Lorenzo de’ Medici, was said to own more than 100 pieces), and Moorish ceramics adorned with Florentine family crests.

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