Islamic influences in Florence

Tehran Bureau | passport

Visitors flock to the marvel of Renaissance expression, an ebullient city which, between the 14 to 16th centuries, led the world in artistic, literary and scientific development. Florence, was founded by the Romans and then prospered as a centre for textiles and commerce, giving the continent one of its first currencies with the ‘florin’ and developing the first modern banking system.

Along with these riches came the greatest thinkers of the age. Wealthy Florentine families sought to ensure their place in heaven by funding sacred art and architecture as well as to build edifices that testified to their own power and glory. Names such as Giotto, Dante, Petrarch, Donatello, Masaccio, Boticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli head the list of greats that lived and worked here. Unlike other Italian cities such as Rome, Florence is cohesive, most of her glories date from the Renaissance — the rebirth — in which classical Greek texts were rediscovered and translated into Latin and classical methods were revived. It is for this reason that UNESCO, in 1982, made the whole of the centro storico (the historic center) a World Heritage Site.

Muslim visitors to Florence might detect something familiar under the Renaissance gilding. In walking the narrow alleyways bounded by tall walls and bridged by arches, one is reminded of the medinas of great Islamic cities such as Marrakech and Damascus. The high-walled palazzos all harbor courtyards and inner gardens with fragrant flowers, tall trees and tinkling fountains, much like the traditional houses found in the Middle East and north Africa, not to mention Moorish Southern Spain. And the city’s skyline is pierced not just by the great dome and campanile of the Duomo, but by many bell towers that bear an uncanny resemblance to minarets.

Perhaps the greatest connection with the Islamic world comes with the achievements of Brunelleschi, the architect and engineer whose construction of the great dome of the Duomo drew on Muslim sources. Scholars have identified the mausoleum of Oljeitu Khodabanda in Soltanyeh, near Zanjan in Iran as bearing the blueprint that Brunelleschi followed. The Soltanyeh mausoleum was built between 1304-1313, predating the construction of the Duomo’s dome by 150 years. Brunelleschi’s use of the double dome to support the vast drum of the structure and herringbone pattern of brickwork within is the first such instance in Europe — but can be found throughout great mosques of the Muslim world.

Another church that displays clear Islamic influences is San Miniato al Monte, a jewel of a church that stands in the hills to the south of the city, giving panoramic views across town. This 11th-century church is filled with intricate marble work — and the inlaid patterns that cover the floor and the walls around the splendid marble pulpit are geometric in design and employ arabesques and floral motifs so beloved of Islamic art. It is impossible to stand in this church and not be convinced of the influence of Islamic art on this church.

Although Florence herself has no direct links with the Muslim world, it was an important commercial center and a typically successful Florentine merchant would have exploited all potential new markets — including Jerusalem and, after the fall of Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire. Slaves and spices picked up on trade routes were sold here and Florence’s proximity to Pisa — which was a maritime city state which both traded and warred with the East — connected Florence to the rest of the world and the flourishing exchange of goods and ideas that characterized the Mediterranean at the time. With the Crusades bringing back Muslim ideas and people to Europe, the presence of Moorish Spain, and the cross-fertilization of styles that was happening in another important maritime city state, Venice, Florence was another hub for the melding of ideas.

Modern scholarship attributes the magnificence of Renaissance Florence to a re-evaluation of Roman and Greek classical forms and ideas. What it misses is how much those very ideas were shaped in Greek exchange with the other great empire at the time — the Persian Empire, and how, subsequently, the eminent Muslim Empire that swept the known world, embedded the best of Islamic thinking, scholarship and knowledge in the West. For example, Galileo’s innovations in the theory of heliocentrism (that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa) came centuries after Muslim scientists had posited the same theory, and the Renaissance masters’ mastering of perspective in both art and architecture developed Muslim mathematician Alhazen’s optical theory which he published in the 10th-century Book of Optics. This book was translated into Latin by an unknown scholar at the start of 13th century and it is fascinating to speculate on whether the likes of Brunelleschi read this work.

An informed Muslim visitor to Florence will see what is apparent in all the splendor and beauty here — that in the flowering of human thought and aesthetic that Renaissance Florence represented, many different cultures and past achievements played a part, and that Muslim art and scholarship has played a crucial role in the development of the Western world. Florence will show those who care to look that it is impossible to separate the East from the West and, whether Catholic or Muslim, we all share in Florence’s triumphs.

Contemporary Florence for Muslims

The mosque. Although the plan to build a mosque for the city’s many Muslims was approved in 2005, new buildings famously take a long time to appear in Florence. For the moment, the city’s mosque is squeezed into a former furniture workshop in the Piazza dei Ciompi. Phone: +39 055 2381411.

The hammam. Soul Space is a luxurious and contemporary day spa owned by a Florentine/Turkish couple with a wonderful hammam and bellydancing classes on offer. Soul Space, 12 Via S. Egidio, Florence; Phone +39 055 2001794;

The restaurant. Darvish has a menu that features dishes from across the Middle East. Darvish, 76 Via Ghibellina, Florence; Phone: +39 055 3900742

The Tea House. Mago Merlino Tea House serves exotic teas along with stories of the owner’s travels in Marrakech. Mago Merlino Tea House, 31 via de Pilastri, Florence; Phone: + 39 055 242970.

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