- BuyFlorence and Baghdad: Renaissance Art and Arab Science by Hans Belting, translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider
Harvard, 303 pp, £25.00, September 2011, ISBN 978 0 674 05004 4
‘A daring undertaking’, the German art historian Hans Belting calls his book. Florence and Baghdad is his attempt to get two civilisations to define each other in terms of their attitudes to eyesight and, more specifically, in terms of what Ernst Cassirer, writing in the 1920s, called ‘symbolic form’. A symbolic form is a cohesive set of symbols within which you might give shape to the world. In classical Islam – Islam, that is, between the tenth and 13th centuries – a set emerged that centred on abstract geometry; in 15th-century Italy a related but different symbolic form came together in pictorial perspective, a principle later mechanised by photography. The hinge to Belting’s argument is that the perspective familiar to Western modernity is an application of a visual geometry devised within classical Islam.