Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 29, 2013
Beyond the Western Mediterranean: Materials, Techniques and Artistic Production, 650–1500
Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre, Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London, April 20, 2013

The publication of Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000) marked the rebirth of the Mediterranean, both as an object of study and as the space characterizing a given object of study. Since then, the sea and its many corruptions, from antiquity to early modernity, has fallen under the lens of historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists, as well as art and architectural historians. Mediterranean Studies became increasingly multi- and interdisciplinary, with a growing number of scholars interested in cross-cultural interaction and exchange. Indeed, it has grown so exponentially that one can easily use the analogy of a giant star, and ask whether the incredibly bright light of Mediterranean Studies is the result of a fast-burning and disappearing core. After all, many interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and transdisciplinary trends come and go like one-hit wonders. Luckily, most scholars working on the Mediterranean or on things from the Mediterranean are aware of the dangers of a rapidly burgeoning field, especially when that field is yet to define what lies at its core: the Mediterranean. Does it refer to a geographical space? If so, where does it begin and where does it end? How does it connect to and interact with other geographies? Or does the Mediterranean refer to a cultural space? If so, what are its characteristics? Can we talk about a Mediterranean culture, or are there multiple cultures of the Mediterranean? If there are multiple cultures, how do they interact with one another? Sarah Guérin (Courtauld Institute of Art) and Mariam Rosser Owen (Victoria and Albert Museum) organized this one-day symposium, entitled “Beyond the Western Mediterranean: Materials, Techniques and Artistic Production, 650–1500,” with these and similar questions in mind, upon which they have also reflected in their individual work.

The persistent paradigm of the Mediterranean has long been an East-West/medieval European-Islamic binary, whether taken for granted as a norm or seen as a problem to overcome. As a result, the title of the symposium might at first give the impression of an eastward turn. However, the intention of the organizers was to pull attention to a far less pronounced binary: the one between the north and the south of the sea. The symposium highlighted the role of not just North Africa, but also Sub-Saharan Africa, in the art and architecture of the Mediterranean from the seventh to the sixteenth centuries. Bringing together art and architectural historians and archeologists, the three sessions of the symposium, each with four to five speakers, discussed the dynamics of the south-north movement of “materials, techniques and artistic production.” Although the focus was primarily on the western half of the Mediterranean, this was a well-justified choice, since the connections between Sub-Saharan East Africa and the Mediterranean via the Red Sea and the Nile are more thoroughly explored than those in West Africa.

The symposium opened with a keynote address by Michael Brett, a prominent historian of medieval North Africa at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Underlining war, conquest, and slave trade as important components of the south-north connection during the Roman period, Brett questioned whether the presence of Roman artifacts in Sub-Saharan Africa was a necessary criteria to prove trans-Saharan exchange. As an alternative, he proposed to look at the indisputable presence of Sub-Saharan Africans in Rome as slaves, and in Roman art as increasingly represented subjects. Brett left the question of Sub-Saharan influence on Roman art open, but his proposal to switch from a north-centered to a more nuanced and slightly south-centered perspective continued throughout the symposium.

In the first session, “Archaeology of Sand and Sea: Uncovering Interregional Connections,” Sam Nixon (University of East Anglia) unraveled trans-Saharan exchange on the micro level of glass and ceramics, ivory and copper traveling back and forth between Morocco and Mali during the Fatimid (tenth–twelfth centuries) and Almoravid (eleventh–twelfth centuries) periods. Conversely, a joint presentation by Ronald A. Messier (Vanderbilt University) and Chloé Capel (Université de la Sorbonne) expanded interaction to the macro level of urban planning and topography by comparing Sijilmasa under the Almoravids with the Sub-Saharan cities of Tegdaoust and Kumbi Saleh. Due to the preliminary state of their research and excavation difficulties in the region, Messier and Capel could not yet provide precise building dates. However, the highly probable chronological overlap between the three cities and topographical similarities between them promised a critical contribution to the “Islamic city” debate as they suggested the mutuality of influence between the three sites. Kathleen Bickford Berzock (Art Institute of Chicago) moved away from materials and design to iconography by focusing on medieval sculptures from the Niger Basin depicting riders on horseback with daggers and large bracelets. Earlier scholarship had argued that the importation of Arabic horses from North Africa, coinciding with the rise of powerful Muslim states in the region, was the source of this iconography. Berzock refuted this argument by demonstrating that the similarities between the rider images of the Niger Basin and those of Morocco and al-Andalus resulted from a shared visual language of power, rather than the one-way influence of North African and Iberian Muslim art on the south. If the complex nature of trans-Saharan communication expressed in the three presentations further problematized the already contested category of “Islamic,” Matthew Harpster’s (Texas A&M University) Mediterranean-wide study of shipwrecks broadened this to all potentially monolithic cultural designations. Although his research was on the extent of maritime trade and its regional divisions from the seventh to twelfth centuries, his point that shipwrecks are unique archaeological sites because they are by definition multicultural stimulated the question of whether one could consider all sites and objects multicultural, especially in geographies with so many lively trade routes.

The next session, “Mediating Materials,” focused primarily on the movement of materials and techniques from North Africa to Sicily, Italy, and Iberia. Sylvia Armando (Università di Urbino) shared her work on the transfer of ivory casket craftsmanship from Fatimid North Africa to Southern Italy. Anna McSweeney (SOAS) talked about how the ceramic tin-glazing technique that emerged in Abbasid Bagdad moved to North Africa, al-Andalus, and Sicily in the tenth to thirteenth centuries. Elise Morero and Jeremy Johns (University of Oxford) focused on the transfer of Fatimid rock-crystal carving technique to Norman Sicily, while Emma Rogers (Courtauld Institute of Art) discussed the importation of silk and silk designs from North Africa to Sicily. Finally, Tom Nickson (Courtauld Institute of Art) presented his research on the Almoravid bronze sand-casting technology in Morocco and al-Andalus. Unfortunately, the detailed technicality of the three papers, and an emphasis on determining the origin of a given technique or material rather than the dynamics of its movement from one locality to another, hampered the potential of the session. Thus, although the papers were all about movement, they felt disconnected to the Mediterranean. In order to talk about Mediterranean art or question its possibility, it seems necessary to connect the specialized knowledge of particular techniques and materials to wider art-historical debates in a manner that echoes the historical interaction of the local and the “global” in the medieval Mediterranean.

The final session, “Spanning the Straits: North Africa and Europe,” more productively built upon the premises of the first session. In Rose Walker’s (Courtauld Institute of Art) talk on artistic communication across the Strait of Gibraltar in the early Middle Ages, the shell-niche appeared as a ubiquitous design element whose travel from Syria to Iberia and from book covers to relief sculptures made any search for origin superfluous. Although Jonathan Bloom (Boston College) eventually argued for the minaret as the probable source of bell-towers in southern Europe, his talk too was marked by a nuanced approach to the transmission of architectural design between North Africa and Europe, more related to secular politics than specifically religious concerns. In a similar manner, Jessica Streit (Cornell University) demonstrated how twelfth-century Almohad asceticism in religious architecture could be translated into Cistercian austerity in the Assumption Chapel of King Alfonso VIII (d. 1214). Marta Caroscio (Harvard University, Villa I Tatti) provided a well-thought conclusion to the last session of the symposium, as she focused on Ceuta in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when first the eastern, then the larger, Atlantic were transforming both the extent and nature of travel and exchange.

Despite the overall success of the symposium, it had one serious shortcoming: lack of a theory or conceptualization of the Mediterranean that would have linked individual papers to a larger framework and facilitate communication between them. To refer back to the analogy of a giant star, although all of the speakers were working on the Mediterranean in one way or another, their papers did not appear to be radiating from a common core or to be held together by the same gravitational force. Without a shared framework, it becomes extremely optimistic to expect any generative dialogue between the work of a nautical archaeologist and that of a specialist in medieval bronze sand-casting. However, the concluding roundtable led by Peregrine Horden (Royal Holloway, University of London) suggested that probably one intention of the symposium was to build such a framework. Horden opened the roundtable with seven questions, all related to his major concern to dispense with the romanticized notion of Mediterranean as culture. He underlined that in order to understand what, when, and where the Mediterranean was, it was necessary to compare it with where, when, and what it was not. The next one hour or so revealed that not just the speakers, but also the audience, were more than willing to follow his lead. Yet, among all contributions to the discussion, one stood out as particularly crucial, since it related to an issue that missed everyone’s attention. It is certainly necessary to define where, when, and what is and is not the Mediterranean, but it is also necessary to define whose Mediterranean is being talked about. As one member of the audience pointed out, all of the papers concerned elite culture. They did not refer to everyday life and to the experiences of common people. In order to dispense with the notion of Mediterranean as culture, what is perhaps needed is an understanding of not necessarily the Mediterranean, but of being in the Mediterranean at a given time and observing a given work of art or architecture from a particular social position. It then becomes possible to see whether that given work of art or architecture has any unique quality that would clearly separate it from a comparable counterpart that is not from the Mediterranean, but observed from the same social position. In turn, one might discern whether or not the idea of Mediterranean art is itself an elitist art-historiographical position.

Although the symposium did not provide definite answers to these questions, or agree upon a common theoretical/conceptual framework, it was a necessary and welcomed contribution to scholarship on Mediterranean art by bringing both disciplinary and geographical depth. Hopefully, the next conference or publication on the Mediterranean will take over where “Beyond the Western Mediterranean” left off and move us closer to an understanding of what really lies at the core of Mediterranean Studies.

Saygin Salgirli
Visiting Faculty, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences / Foundations Development Directorate, Sabanci University