The Renaissance has been well charted as a period of European history that presents civilization as a development from the achievements of ancient Greece and Rome.
All this ground is expertly covered in a new title in an admirable series from Oxford University Press. “The Oxford illustrated history of the Renaissance” brings together a distinguished panel of scholars, mostly but not all from UK universities and institutes, whose essays range over the rich gamut of cultural topics that define our understanding of the Renaissance.
One of the chapters, by Felipe Fernández-Armesto and Peter Burke, shows how a series of international encounters and exchanges effectively dismisses the now embarrassing notion that Europe is the centre of world civilization.
In pre-Renaissance ages, ancient and medieval, there were periods when trade routes and cultural influences developed across continents but never to the extent that became possible with the ‘discovery’ of the Americas and previously unknown regions of Africa and Asia.
The question arises as to what extent the origins of the Renaissance are to be found in Italy in isolation or from influences outside Europe.
If in isolation, Eurocentrism can justifiably regard the Renaissance as a gift, bestowed by Europe on the rest of the world: the vanguard of modernism and progenitor of the progressive spreading of liberal, humanist values to the rest of the world.
Such a Grand Narrative does not hold up.
Muslim scholars had access to texts from the ancient world because Islamic conquests included territory at the heart of classical antiquity. One result of this is that some of the texts that found their way to Latin Christendom came through Muslim southern Spain and the Ottoman Empire. Piero della Francesca studied perspective with the help of Euclid in a translation from Arabic.
The picaresque romance in early Spanish literature is related to an earlier Arab tradition.
The visual arts also reflect Islamic influences, with mosque architecture in Damascus and elsewhere affecting the design of buildings and squares in Florence, Milan and Venice.
Renaissance painters depended on pigments imported from Muslim countries and their repertoire of decorative motifs, from the floral to the geometric, are linked to the Islamic world.
Fernández-Armesto and Burke also look at influences from east Asia in the making of the Renaissance, showing how Muslims provided a cultural bridge between China and the West.
After Colombus, America made a dramatic impact on the Renaissance; and Portuguese trips brought back examples of art from Africa.
Terms like syncretism and ‘cultural translation’ are appropriate while also recognising the unique nature of what happened in Italy between the 14th to the 16th centuries.
Fernández-Armesto and Burke conclude that ‘the Renaissance was a hybrid of European initiatives with transplantations of extra-European culture that originated in or passed through the Islamic world’.
Part of the pleasure in reading their chapter – in common with the book as a whole – derives from the wealth of illustrations that supplement the text.
“The Oxford illustrated history of the Renaissance”, edited by Gordon Campbell, is published by Oxford University Press.