“Re-mapping the Renaissance: Exchange between Early Modern Islam and Europe,” a three-week summer institute for college and university teachers funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, was held from June 13 through July 2, 2010, at the University of Maryland. (Schedule is here.) Sessions interrogated pervasive views of the European Renaissance of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries as a purely European rediscovery of Greco-Latin antiquity. Participants considered much wider contact—traveling in both directions—between Renaissance Europe and the world of Islam. Furthermore, the seminar demonstrated that the trade conducted by the Italian city-states was not exclusively an inheritance from the Roman Empire. Rather, it was also the legacy of the civilizations of the Mamluk and the Ottoman empires and their thriving systems of foreign trade. Those trading networks, in turn, became conduits for the export not only of products but also of ideas, scientific discoveries, and artistic exchange. This seminar nvestigated that legacy.
The topic for this seminar grew out of conversations with faculty at the University of Maryland and also out of suggestions from faculty participating in summer institutes hosted by the Center for Renaissance & Baroque Studies from 2004-2009. Those institutes, funded by the Maryland State Department of Education, allowed high school teachers to study a number of cross-cultural exchanges. (Complete program descriptions are here.) In the scholarly presentations associated with each of those institutes, cultural and artistic exchange between European and Muslim societies emerged as a central theme.
The scholarly community had, in its turn, been influenced by the outstanding exhibitions sponsored by art galleries in the Washington, DC, area. These exhibitions illuminated the links between Europe and Islam most tellingly, and were especially fruitful in their illustration of representations of exchange. They included Caliphs & Kings: The Art & Influence of Islamic Spain (Freer and Sackler Galleries, 2004); Artistic Exchange: Europe and the Islamic World (National Gallery of Art, USA, 2004-5); Iraq & China: Ceramics, Trade, and Innovations (Freer and Sackler Galleries, 2004); Fountains of Light: Islamic Metalwork from the Nuhad Es-Said (Freer and Sackler Galleries, 2006-7); Encompassing the Globe: Portugal in the World in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Freer and Sackler Galleries, Museum of African Art, 2007); and Muraqqa’: Imperial Mughal Albums from the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin (Freer and Sackler Galleries, 2008). The cultural artifacts displayed at these exhibitions revealed, again and again, the inspiration provided by Islamic techniques and production practices, either as prototypes for European goods or as the subjects of representation.
During those institutes for secondary school teachers, the faculty members who offered lectures and the curators who designed these exhibitions marveled at the opportunity to learn from one another, across disciplines, and agreed that their colleagues would benefit from a similarly structured program. They noted that professors were increasingly taking an interdisciplinary approach to examine cultural commerce from a global perspective. It is crucial for scholars of the early modern period to grasp the exchanges that occurred between Islamic and European societies, the intertwining nature of encounters between these societies, and the cultural, artistic, and technological transmission that enabled the European Renaissance to take place in the form that it did. This summer seminar was conceived to meet that need.