June 06, 2007

Tales of the Arabesque

Not quite a year ago, further to a post here about the grotesque in art, Marly asked if I might also write something similar about the arabesque. This idea rested on a cold back-burner until a couple of weeks ago, when I acquired a booklet entitled Some Main Streams and Tributaries in European Ornament from 1500 to 1750 by Peter Ward-Jackson, in which are reprinted some articles that had first been published in a 1967 issue of The Victoria and Albert Museum Bulletin. One of these articles was specifically concerned with the arabesque, and is my source for the images (and for most of the information) below.

Fig. 1: detail view of a damascened brass dish: Venetian-Saracenic; early sixteenth-century.


Fig. 2: detail of arabesque designs by Francesco Pellegrini, from his 'La fleur de la science de pourtraicture...,' Paris, 1530.

The very term arabesque is a rather diffuse one, sometimes used broadly to denote almost any style of geometric ornamentation prevalent in Islamic nations, but here I will take it as referring more specifically to stylised vegetal decoration ‘in which plants and leaves grow according to the laws of geometry rather than nature,’ forming ‘interlaced straps, zizags, spirals, scrolls and knots’ which tend to fall into complicated polygonal shapes, in turn forming separate frames for other patterns inside them. Use of this type of decoration, which apparently originated in 10th-Century Baghdad, became widespread throughout the Islamic world in the following centuries.

Fig. 3: detail of arabesque design (i) by Jean Gourmont, (d. 1551).


Fig. 4: detail of arabesque design (ii) by Jean Gourmont, (d. 1551).

While stylised, interlaced ornament was not unknown in classical and mediæval Europe, the arabesque proper seems to have made a relatively sudden appearance in Renaissance Italy ca. 1530, with Venice as its likely point of entry. ‘Venice was a great market for Islamic wares, some of which were made in Venice itself by the Moslem community that lived there.’ The first image above shows part of a damascened brass vessel thought to have been made by a Venetian Moslem craftsman in the early 16th Century. Similar patterns, known even then as Arabesque, (or Moresque, or Saracenic) were used in the decoration of book-bindings, manuscripts, textiles and pottery.

Fig. 5: detail of a design for a cup decorated with arabesques by Holbein (1497-1543) - from a later etching by Hollar (1645).


Fig. 6: detail of a design for a pilgrim bottle decorated with arabesques by Wenzel Jamnitzer (1508-85).

‘This then,’ writes Ward-Jackson, ‘was the Saracenic ornament which certain Italian artists began to study and to copy during the 1530s, precisely in the decade when a new kind of scrollwork […] was beginning to emerge in the palace of Fontainebleau under the direction of Rosso Fiorentino.’ ‘It so happens,’ he continues ‘that the author of one of the first books of Moresque ornaments to be published in Europe, the Italian artist Francesco Pellegrini, was one of Rosso's assistants in the work of decorating the Palace.’ Ward-Jackson then speculates that Pellegrini ‘may have introduced Rosso to the Moresque, and Rosso’s knowledge of this free linear ornament may have encouraged him in his own experiments with bands and scrolls, [although] the Saracenic influence is not very perceptible in Rosso’s own work.’

Fig. 7: detail of a design for a dish decorated with arabesques by Pierre Firens (1601-90).


Fig. 8: detail of some arabesque designs (incorporating grotesque elements) by Balthasar Sylvius (1518-80), from his 'Variarum protractionum quas vulgo Maurusias vocant,' Paris, 1554.

This novel style was quickly circulated throughout Europe by means of pattern-books illustrating arabesques on needlework, jewellery, furniture, weaponry, etc., etc. The designs reproduced in Pellegrini’s volume (fig. 2), were intended for embroiderers. Some similar patterns were printed without a specific decorative context, such as the mid-16th-Century designs by the engraver Jean Gourmont (figs. 3 & 4). Others were shown in situ as embellishments on finished objects, such as the decoration on the cup designed by Hans Holbein the Younger shown above (fig. 5) in a later print by Wenceslas Hollar, or the pattern on the ‘pilgrim bottle’ (fig. 6), designed by the Nuremberg goldsmith Wenzel Jamnitzer.

Fig. 9: design for an ewer decorated with arabesque-influenced strapwork, by Georg Wechter the Elder, from his 'Stück zum Verzachnen...,' Nuremberg, 1579.


Fig. 10: grotesque design with arabesque-influenced strapwork, by Lucas Kilian, from his 'Newes Gradesca Beuchlein...,' Augsburg, 1607.

By the mid-17th Century, the vogue for ‘pure’ arabesque had faded—Pierre Firens’s design for a dish (fig. 7) being a relatively late example. Arabesques, though seldom used any more in isolation, came to be an essential part of the design vocabulary of the 18th-Century rococo style, having been proved ‘capable of combining harmoniously with traditional classical motifs, above all with the grotesque.’ Even in the 16th Century, some designers had begun to combine grotesque and arabesque elements together: the patterns by Balthasar Sylvius in fig. 8, above, are an example. The ewer by Georg Wechter shown in fig. 9 is another hybrid design, where Fontainebleau-style strapwork is interlaced in an arabesque-like manner.

Fig. 11: grotesque design with arabesque influences, by Jean Berain, late 17th Century.


Fig. 12: rococo design with arabesque influences, by François de Cuviliés the Elder, ca. 1750.

The design by Lucas Kilian (fig. 10) foreshadows the rococo deployment of grotesque elements following vaguely arabesque patterns around a central frame. The next image (by Jean Berain, fig. 11) is another example of what is, ostensibly, a grotesque, but again, one in which the ‘movement of the lines, the ogival patterns which they form when intersecting, and above all, the tendency of the bands to fall into polygonal patterns within the design’ we see ‘features typical of the arabesque.’ The final image above, a mid-18th Century ceiling design by François de Cuviliés the Elder seems no less distant from the the origins of the arabesque, but even so (according to Ward-Jackson) ‘the same basic features are still there: the lines of bandwork, alternately straight and scrolled, the acanthus foliage sprouting from them at intervals, the complex interlacements, and the tendency of the lines to form separate polygonal compartments.’

Posted by misteraitch at June 6, 2007 10:30 AM

In Spain and Portugal arabesque came from our moorish tradition, and was combined with classical elements in our early renaissance styles in architecture, the plateresco (Spain) and the manuelino (portugal)

Posted by: C. Rancio on June 6, 2007 06:54 PM

Señor Rancio—it’s unfortunate that Mr. Ward-Jackson’s account hardly mentions the Iberian countries at all. When he writes ‘Europe’ he really means ‘Italy, France, Germany (and England)…’ Do you know if there was any transmission of the earlier Iberian arabesque tradition from Spain and Portugal to other parts of Europe; in architecture, or any other of the decorative arts?

Posted by: misteraitch on June 7, 2007 09:07 AM

Go away for 29 days, and one is terribly behind on return. But here that's good: so much pleasure still to catch up on. And I thank you for the "arabesque" post. The definition and examples are interesting--all those flourishing lines.

(Now, of course, you could nail down what happens when "grotesque" meets "arabesque"! Something demonic, I suppose.)

Reading it, I was wondering (being wayward in my thoughts) whether the fashion for Pompeiian-style arabesque influenced Poe (I was also thinking about him when I asked for arabesque, I believe) not just in his dreams and nightmares but in his obsession with those who are "buried alive." Surely he would have thought about those ash-covered Pompeiian designs with a kind of special horror...

Posted by: marlyat2 on June 7, 2007 05:09 PM

I think there can be some influence in the Low Lands, but through crafts and minor arts better than architecture (in architecture, the links worked in the opposite direction)

But i'm talking as an amateur, i'm not a scholar on this filed.

Posted by: C. Rancio on June 8, 2007 12:35 PM

Your article is wonderful and I envy your procurement of beautiful ancient books. However, there's more to the geometric appeal of Arabesque. What really makes the work hypnotic is the employment of symmetry. Much of the Arabesque decoration uses reflection symmetry--mirror images. This repetition of the edges, vortices, plants and shapes is what makes the patterns of Arabesque so powerfully enchanting.

Posted by: G on June 11, 2007 03:20 PM

... in the Low Countries, sorry.

Posted by: C. Rancio on June 13, 2007 08:41 AM

Marlyat2 writes:
Now, of course, you could nail down what happens when "grotesque" meets "arabesque"! Something demonic, I suppose.

In fact, you get Edgar Allan Poe, whose Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque was published in 1840.

Posted by: Bob the Ape on June 13, 2007 01:41 PM

As an aside: while arabesque may 'have made a relatively sudden appearance in Renaissance Italy ca. 1530', Europe had long been fond of Islamic artifacts, which were often finer than anything Europe could produce at the time. This is why you see sham Arabic script on the hems of many a Gothic Madonna's tunic.
One of the ironies of these imported products' prestige is that the holy relics of Christian saints in the Middle Ages have sometimes been found wrapped in fine Egyptian cloths, adorned with the words: 'There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God'...

Posted by: Michelangelo on June 13, 2007 04:01 PM

How nice to know that someone else is plying the same remote field of the internet highland. I have put Ward-Jackson on my shopping list. I would like to read more about Nodes -- or "Knots" as they are sometimes known -- Durer did a rather famous dozen -- a related phenomenon, perhaps a special case of the Arabesque. Any pointers where to turn? Sir G

Posted by: Gawain on June 18, 2007 02:41 PM

i tried to leave a comment but it seems i have not succeeded!

Posted by: Gawain on June 18, 2007 02:44 PM

Gawain—Apologies for my dodgy, half-broken commenting system: in this case working while appearing not to. Ward-Jackson’s is an interesting account, but, as others’s comments above suggest, perhaps a little too limited in focus. As for knots, I’m drawing a blank at the moment, but will get back to you if something comes to mind.

Posted by: misteraitch on June 19, 2007 10:14 AM

I believe Dürer's knots were based on examples by Leonardo da Vinci (halfway down the page; sorry, bad reproduction). He used some of those ideas for the frescoes in the Sala delle Asse in Milan's Castello Sforzesco, in which trees are made to bend following knot patterns.

Posted by: Michelangelo on June 19, 2007 05:04 PM

All plants and nature have a mathematical formula (even us humans!) if you know your science? So by depicting plants and flowers mathematically as an art form, is not a new idea, ask any scientist! Islam and the Middle East have known that for years!

Posted by: RUKY Chandia on August 28, 2007 11:50 PM
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