His aim is to effect what he terms a Blickwechsel - a German word that means both changing the way you look at something and exchanging glances with that something - and his whole book, which is densely written, profusely illustrated and enjoyably challenging, constitutes a large scholarly step in that direction.His task is daunting. Tensions - between the West (here represented by Florence) and the Middle East (here represented by Baghdad) are today greater than they have been for many centuries and what is inimical must also be incurious. A group of the most reactionary factions of both worlds is something dangerously close to Belting's central contention here - that East and West actually see the world differently.
Belting, a professor of art history at the Academy for Design in Karlsruhe, Germany, is aware of the peril that his topic will be misunderstood, but he strikes a quintessentially humanist note early on and sticks to it throughout. "One can speak of differences," he calmly tells us, "only where there is common ground."
The differences at the heart of his book centre on "perspective", both as a term of science dealing with mathematics and as a term of art dealing with aesthetics.
Much depends on this twinning of the word's meaning. In its original medieval conception, perspective was an almost purely mathematical concern dealing with the propagation and calculation of light rays. It was to art what the science of acoustics is to the Baroque concerto - you could study the former for a lifetime without ever imagining, much less requiring, the presence of the latter.Crucial to Belting's undertaking here is that readers recall the fact that this medieval conception of perspective was Arabic in origin - it arose from early western translations of the works of the Arab mathematician Abu Ali al-Hasan Ibn Al-Haytham (965-1040), known to early translators by the name Alhazen.One of the many pleasant services Florence & Baghdad performs for its readers is to introduce them to this "Arab Archimedes" and acquaint them with the vast body of his work, including his pivotal text, Kitah Al-Manazir (Book of Optics), in which he not only proved that rays of light could be precisely calculated but also attempted to "close the gap between mathematics and empirical observation".It was only with the advent of such massively influential Renaissance figures as the architect Filippo Brunelleschi and the artist Leon Battista Alberti that perspective took on a definition first allied to and then radically divergent from the original, and Belting is quick to stress that this in no way implies a hierarchy.
"If we wish to examine cultures of both the Middle East and the West without a colonialist bias, there can be no privileged standpoint from which an older culture is admitted to have exercised an 'influence' on a modern one," he tells us. "Cultural studies today should give up on using the West ('modernity') as a universal standard."In Middle Eastern illustrated works, "images and texts entered into an alliance that serves to tame the gaze", whereas in the western adaptation of perspective, images became destinations all by themselves.
Hierarchies here might be illusory but the divergence was all too real and, as Belting points out, largely secular. "The contrast between Arab visual theory and western pictorial theory existed for cultural rather than scientific reasons. In Middle Eastern culture, making pictures in the western sense was long regarded as taboo, while in the West it was celebrated as the royal road to knowledge."In Baghdad, one definition of perspective was used to perfect the arts of calligraphy and geometrical design, with any pictorial representation standing strictly subordinate.
From / The National