A splendid tradition of glassware

One of the most fascinating aspects in the study of art is developing an awareness of how often it is the product of cultural crossbreeding, and teasing out the various influences in a single work of art. In the field of the so-called decorative arts, where appreciation of art objects is not so much bound by the criterion of originality as it is in paintings, distinguishing the various cultural strands helps unravel much of their beauty. Which is exactly what an exhibit currently on at the Benaki Museum does with respect to glassware. «Glass of the Sultans» at the Benaki Museum, an exhibit on Islamic glass from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, organized by the Corning Museum of Glass and the Metropolitan Museum of New York where it was originally shown (the Benaki Museum is the only European venue for the exhibit), is wonderfully revealing of how age-old motifs, patterns and techniques in glassmaking which developed in the Arab world spread all over the globe, mainly through trade and the exchange of diplomatic gifts, and helped build a rich and diverse tradition whose far-reaching influence is still around today. The impact that glassmaking in the Arab world had on the Western finds its most eloquent expression in Venetian 15th-century glassware. Most scholars believe that the knowledge of enameling on glass reached Venice from the Islamic world. So did much of the raw material necessary for producing glass products that was exported to Venice from the 13th century onward. Venetian glassware flooded the Near Eastern markets and interestingly enough, from that period onward (the so-called Age of Empires), the influence became two-way. European glass from Venice, Holland, Bohemia and England, whose production was based on Eastern techniques, was exported en masse to the East, catering to a growing taste for foreign imports. The European influence on Eastern glassware culminated centuries later, in the so-called Beykoz glassware produced in the late 18th century under Ottoman rule. The floral motifs of Beykoz glass objects (specimens of which are included in the exhibit) as well as the shapes used largely echo Viennese and Venetian glassware styles. Much of Beykoz glassware is an odd mix of Western and Eastern styles, a mix which has its European parallels in 19th-century eclecticism as expressed in the work of famous glass-makers such as Emile Galle, Philippe-Joseph Brocard or Antonio Salviati – all of whom were inspired by Islamic motifs. The manufactured glassware which was produced by them is included in the exhibit and is in fact a copy of the original Islamic mosque lamps, specimens of which are also in the exhibit, thus allowing direct comparison. Indeed, «Glass of the Sultans» offers plenty of opportunities for visual contemplation. In fact, this is an exhibit about beautiful shapes, colors, decorative motifs and unusual techniques and should primarily be appreciated for its visual variety rather than the exhaustive placing of its displays in a historical or cultural context (this is left to the specialized texts in the exhibit’s catalog). This is probably because the time frame covered is far too broad and the so-called Islamic world far too culturally diverse (the so-called Islamic period, for example, includes both the Arab and the Ottoman cultures) to be covered in a single exhibit. The exhibit is therefore structured around techniques of glassmaking rather than regional or chronological divisions. The choice of a title that is more metaphorical than literal echoes a similar, historically elastic approach. The term sultans was not used until the Seljuk Turks in the 11th century AD (Caliph was the Arabic term before that) but many of the exhibit’s holdings precede the term’s coinage. «Glass of the Sultans» suggests glassware of an artistic merit worthy of the attention of the sultans rather than glassware actually commissioned by the court. Indeed, as the essays in the catalog explain, Islamic glassware was generally speaking not dependent on court patronage or interests, and contrary to other types of craftsmanship such as ceramics or miniature art, it cannot be classified according to dynasties but more in terms of time periods and geographical regions. There are of course some bright exceptions of gold and enamel glassware which bear the inscription of the sultans that commissioned them. These are mostly 13th- and 14th-century mosque lamps – a mid-14th-century lamp decorated with lotus flower motifs is among the exhibit’s most beautiful – that come from Egypt and Syria, the regions controlled at the time by the Ayubbids and the Mamelukes respectively. It was in fact during their reign that splendid glassware of a royal style, mostly enameled and gilded glass, was much in demand. Enameled and gilded glass is the best-known and most treasured type of Islamic glass and has a separate section in the current exhibit. Apart from another section that brings together the finds excavated in the important archaeological sites of Samarra in Iraq and Nishapur in northeastern Iran, the rest of the exhibit follows the same categorization by technique. Although the exhibit focuses on the Arab world, on those finds that follow the seventh-century Arab conquest in other words, it also reminds us of how many of the techniques developed by the Arabs were in fact inherited from a long tradition of glassmaking that dates back to the Byzantine and Sassanid empires. Blown glass, for instance, originated in the first century BC in the Syro-Palestinian region, and molds which were to serve as the most common tools for glass makers were introduced by the Romans in first century AD. Mosaic glass, which the Venetians termed millefiori in the 15th century, first appeared in Egypt around 1400 BC and was produced in Hellenistic times as well as in Rome and Alexandria in the fourth century AD. The technique was revived in the Islamic world during the eighth century and enjoyed great popularity for one more century afterward in Mesopotamia and Syria. A prevalent technique during the early Islamic period was cut and engraved glass; this includes decorative patterns that are scratch-engraved (with fine incisions carved on the surface) or with raised outlines. A fine specimen in this section and in fact one of the exhibit’s rarest works is a ninth-century Iranian bowl that in accordance with tradition was sent as a diplomatic gift to Venice in 1472. Stained or luster-painted glass was another technique used in Islamic glassware. What is most impressive about the glass objects in this section are their beautiful colors of amber, ruby or yellow hues as well as their elaborate decorative motifs. Seen with the rest of the glassware presented in the exhibit, these decorative objects show the broad range and artistic excellence that typified Islamic glassware. Long neglected by scholars, unlike Islamic calligraphy or ceramics, glassware reached a level of excellence in the Arab world that had a worldwide impact. The comprehensive assemblage of glass objects at the Benaki Museum exhibit hints at that impact while also offering a visual display of beauty and variety.