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The Arab Influence on the Italian Renaissance
main index © Jeff Matthews entry Oct. 2003 - revised 2014
Since some of this happened by way of southern Italy, I think I can justify sneaking it in here.
Dangling in the southern winter sky and very visible from my balcony in Naples is the great equatorial constellation of Orion. The second brightest star in that constellation is the red supergiant, Betelgeuse. (This is the first of a few familiar names coming up that no one knows how to pronounce. Another one is "Averroës.") Betelgeuse is 390 light years from my balcony and, thus, remote from the various fields of human conflict that are responsible for my knowing neither the pronunciation nor the original name of the star; thus, our high school astronomy club's cutesy mnemonic of "Beetle Juice." I don't recall ever learning that the name came from the Arabic bayt al jauza, meaning "in the house of the twins," referring to the Heavenly Twins, Castor and Pollux, hanging out right above Orion.
Speaking of high school, I did not do well in mathematics, but I am willing to give Al-Khwarizmi (known to us as Algorizm!) (770 - 840) his credit if he takes a bit of my blame. I will take all the blame for not knowing who Chaucer was talking about in the Canterbury Tales, when, in praising the knowledge of the doctor on the trip, he reminded us that ye olde pilgrim sawbones was familiar not only with Hippocrates and Galen, but "Rhazes, Hali, Averroës and Avicenna."
It is convenient, but not a good idea, to pigeonhole our own cultural history into tidy episodes: The Renaissance, The Age of Reason, The Enlightenment, The This & That, as if they had happened all of a sudden with no connection to anything else, as if Leonardo woke up one fine morning in 1500, looked at his homemade (obviously) hour-glass and said "Gee, it's the Renaissance; I'd better build a helicopter." The point of this entry, then, is simply to draw your attention to how interconnected European and Arabic culture used to be, and how there is a link between the glorious age of Arab science and culture (800-1300) and the beginnings of the Italian Renaissance. (I am not making the post hoc, ergo propter hoc mistake of saying that that which comes first necessarily causes that which comes second. I am simply saying it's a good idea to know what came before you—Bonum est quod ante te evenit scire (I think).
After Islam's rapid spread from Spain to India, Muslims founded the city of Baghdad in 800, and it is here that the Muslim quest for knowledge begins, the manifestation of an insatiable curiosity (to use Einstein's choice phrase from many centuries later) "to figure out how the Old Man runs the universe." It is in Baghdad that the Muslims founded their great school of translation, the incredible ambition of which was to translate as much as they could find of science, astronomy, mathematics, music, geography and philosophy—whatever remained of Classical Greek knowledge. It meant going even further afield—to India—to study the mathematics and philosophy of those who had written in classical Sanskrit centuries earlier.
In 800 this was by no means an easy task. Much classical Greek writing had not survived the centuries of neglect by Christians inimical to "pagan" thought. As early as the year 500, the great library at Alexandria was a ruin and, a few years later, Justinian closed Plato's Academy in Athens because it was a hotbed of pagan (non-Christian) philosophy. Arab scholars, then, translated into Arabic the few Greek texts that remained, or translated from languages into which the Greek originals had previously been translated by scholars who had left Greece for parts east. These were mainly exiled Nestorian Christians from Greece, and Classical Greek scholars from Plato's academy who had fled to Persia, where they founded a great center of learning at Jundishapur (before the coming of Islam) and translated much of their material into Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Middle East at the time. After Baghdad, the Arabs later started equally fine centers of scholarship in Spain at Cordoba and Toledo.
Transmission of this glorious knowledge from the Muslim world into Italy happened primarily through Spain and Sicily; that is, the great courts of learning in Cordoba and the pre-Crusades court of Norman Sicily in the 12th century. It is in Sicily, particularly, that Norman tolerance provided for the coexistence of Byzantine Greek, Italian Christian, and Arab scholars. It was, perhaps, the last great period of human tolerance in European history.
One of the great medical translators from Arabic into Latin was Constantine of Carthage (known as "The African"). In the middle of the 11th century, he came to teach at the medical school in Salerno, the first of its kind in Europe, bringing with him his vast library of Arabic medical works, including, no doubt, Avicenna's Canon of Medicine. That work was translated into Latin and used as a text in European medical schools well into the 17th century, and parts of it were current as late as the early 19th century! In 1127, a European translator, Stefano of Pisa, reported that scholars of medicine were all still found in Sicily and Salerno, and were generally persons who knew Arabic. Again, we shouldn't set up a necessary chain of cause and effect; yet, there is surely a link between earlier Muslim medical thought (the view that "God has provided a cure for all disease"; therefore, it is our rational duty to find those cures) and the final abandoning by the Christian west of the view that prayer and mortification of the flesh cured illness. [Also see 2011 update in bibliography, below.]
Palermo, Emperor Frederick II
(1194-1250), in spite of the Crusades, was
driven by his own enormous intellectual
curiosity to explore Arabic culture. He is known
for his exchanges of letters on philosophy and
science with Arab scholars. A prominent member
of the court of Frederick in Palermo was the
great Italian mathematician, Leonardo Fibonacci,
the inventor of the arithmetic series that bears
his name. (Quick! what is the next number in
this series: 4, 1, 5, 6, 11, 17...)? He had
studied with Arab mathematicians, and he
is also the reason you don't have to do that
last problem as "IV, I, V, VI, XI,
XVII..."; that is, he introduced "Arabic"
numerals into Europe (they were really Indian
numerals, which the Arabs had picked up in their
wanderings). [also see: Naples &
Frederick's court is also responsible for giving us a Latin translation (from the Arabic translation of the Greek) of Ptolemy's Almagest, and for translating the original works of the great Arab astronomer, Al-Farghini. Frederick II's interests are so wide ranging that it is no wonder he was well read in Arab philosophy and science. He expanded the medical school in Salerno and started the University of Naples, which, today, still bears his name.
(1217-1240) was perhaps the finest mind at the
court of Frederick in Palermo. From Scotland, he
had worked at the great Arab translation center
in Toledo and is responsible for giving us Latin
versions of the philosophical works of Avicenna
and Averroës, particularly the latter's
commentaries on Aristotle. From royal courts to
fledgling universities, Italy in the 1100s and
1200s, then, seems to be a scene of Europeans
scurrying to read the next installments of Arab
works, particularly in philosophy, medicine and
astronomy. Scot also assisted Frederick II in
the drawing up of the Constitution of Melfi.
Muslim religious philosophy is of particular interest. Al-Kindi (d. after 870) was the first important Muslim philosopher. He held and taught that revealed truth (religion) and rational truth were not in conflict, but were complementary, even identical. Then, Al-Farabi (874-950) elevated philosophy even above the revealed truth of the sharia, the religious law of Islam, and held that our goal is to develop our rational faculty.
(981-1037), known in the west by the Latin name,
is often called by Westerners the "Arab
Leonardo" (although he was Persian!) for the
amazing breadth of his knowledge in medicine,
philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy. In
addition to his Canon of Medicine
(mentioned above), he is certainly one of the
most remarkable thinkers of the Middle Ages and
the most important and original of all Muslim
philosophers. His held that religion was a kind
of philosophy for the masses; the goal of all
revealed truth (including his own Islam) was to
lead us to our highest state, one of philosophic
contemplation. He held the particularly original
idea that intellectual discovery implies an
intuitive act of knowledge. The idea of the
intuitive intellect working outside of the
methodical process of collecting facts and
deduction has again become quite modern.
Abubacer (c. 1105 – 1185) Abubacer Ibn Tofail was an Andalusian Muslim writer, philosopher, Islamic theologian and physician. He is most famous for his philosophical novel, Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, also known as Philosophus Autodidactus in the Western world. It is considered a sort of prototype Robinson Crusoe and tells the story of a feral child living alone on a desert island, who, without contact with other human beings, discovers ultimate truth through a systematic process of reasoned inquiry. It was widely read in translation in Europe and had a profound influence on Renaissance thinkers such as Pico della Mirandola, who is thought to have made the first translation from Arabic into Latin. It was admired by such as Baruch Spinoza and is considered influential in the emergence of European rationalism and empiricism. (Also noted under 'Literature,' below.)
Historian Arnold Toynbee said of the Muqaddimah that it “was undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place.” But unlike the works of other great Arab thinkers, the Muqaddim does not appear to have reached Europe until the early 19th century when some of it appeared in French translation. (A complete French translation was not available until the 1860s.) There had been some translations into Turkish by 16th- and 17th-century Ottoman scholars, but there was no earlier translation done into Latin, as one might have expected. How could they have missed him? (image, right, statue in Tunis)
Burnett of the Warburg Institute in London
has spoken of the...
In other words, he was too late. Indeed, Ibn Khaldun came at the twilight of the great Arab/Islamic culture started by the founding of Baghdad. But 'twilight' is much too romantic a word—it was a violent and brutal nightfall. Ibn Khaldun, himself, lived to see Tamerlane destroy both Damascus and Baghad and then butcher the inhabitants.
Europeans had become swiftly aware that Islam was a dynamic and powerful military force. When the Muslims then founded Bahgdad as a giant clearinghouse of knowledge, translating and also adding original works of their own, Europeans then knew that Islam was a great cultural force, as well. Translation began in earnest just before the year 1000 with Constantine the African (noted above). The burst of translations lasted into the 1300s, and though there are translation later than that from Arabic, somehow they missed Ibn Khaldun. Burnett's suggestion that he was just too late is not a very satisfying one, but I have no alternative.
Norman-Arab design withinEuropean fascination with Arab and other Muslim architecture, from the Alhambra to the Taj Mahal to the simple kiosk (from the Turkish word for "pavilion") has been very evident since von Erlach's general history of architecture in 1721. That work included examples of Arab, Turkish and Persian architecture and led to the design of several "Oriental" structures in Europe. But within the
the Villa Rufolo in Ravello
"Renaissance" scope of this article, can we say that there is earlier influence?
Islam forbids depictions of God and, indeed,
discourages rendering any human or animal life
at all, there developed great attention to
geometric design in Arab art and architecture.
It is the same principle that led to the various
intricate and flowing—but abstract—Arabic script
used to write the Koran. Obviously, a similar
proscription is not part of Christianity or the
art of the European Renaissance.
The mixture of those two approaches to faith and art is fascinating. The most obvious place in Europe to look for Muslin design—mixed with Christian—is in Sicily well before our Renaissance, the so-called Arab-Norman- Byzantine school (from the 11th century), manifestations of which, among many others (photo, above) are the cathedral of Palermo and the tomb of Holy Roman emperor Frederick II. Even with the reconquest of Sicily and the gradual re-Christianization of the population, the ornate geometries of the Muslims remained and their evidence is seen throughout southern Italy. When I look at the restored, original version of the church of Santa Chiara—a Gothic box with a roof on top—and compare it to excessively ornamental design of the votive spires in Naples and the decorative geometries of churches built in the Renaissance (and after) in Naples, I recall Christopher Wren's (the architect of St. Paul's cathedral in London) judgment on Muslim architecture and its relation to our own :
at all when you read about the
Arab influence in European thought is the extent
to which Arab literature might have had any
influence on European medieval literature. There
are a number of possibilities. It may be that
the Arab habit of composing popular poetry in
vernacular Arabic in Sicily and Spain had some
influence on the subsequent "vernacularization"
of not only European court poetry and song in
the Provence (the Troubadours) and Sicily, but
even in the beginnings of great European
[See the paragraph on Abubacer a few paragraphs above this one in the section on Philosophy. His Hayy ibn Yaqdhan is the prototype for all subsequent novels, from Robinson Crusoe to Tarzan, that deal with the isolated individual alone in the world, coming of age and reason.]
A History of Islamic Sicily,
Aziz Ahmad dwells on the controversial
connection between Dante's Divine
Comedy and prior Islamic works
of the same nature. There is no real conclusion
to be drawn, except the possibility that our
great originator of non-Latin Romance literature
got some inspiration from somewhere. Dante
certainly knew of Avicenna and Averroës through
Latin translation; in the Divine
Comedy, he places them both in
Purgatory with the great pre-Christian scholars
of ancient Greece. (Dante was not so kind to
Mohammed, himself, though, who, in Canto 28, is
in Hell as a Sower of Discord). Did Dante also
know (through its Latin or Early French
translations) of The Book of the
Scale, an earlier Arab
eschatological work that has interesting
parallels in the Divine Comedy?
Again, we should beware of post
hoc reasoning, but it is an
intriguing possibility. (The Book of the
Scale is the common English translation
Scale Machometi, the Latin translation
of the Arabic Kitab
al Miraj, the Muslim book about
Muhammad's miraculous night journey into the
heavens. The Latin version would have been
available to Dante; the graphic descriptions in
the book of the punishments in Hell are what
have lead some scholars to make the comparison
to The Divine
Comedy. Also see the entry on Enrico Cerulli.)
was the contributions of minds such as those
mentioned, above, that prompted Robert Briffault
(in The Making of Humanity)
Those are strong words that I do not entirely accept. Yet they remind us that our ethnocentric view of our own cultural history as a straightforward chain of events is not very helpful. Perhaps we should step back and view all of culture as a vast web of ideas; they may spring forth in different places at different times, or many of them at the same time, unnoticed elsewhere.
Aziz. A History of Islamic Sicily.
New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1979.
Blair, Sheila S. &
Jonathan M. Boom. The Art and
Architecture of Islam, 1250-1800.
Yale University Press, 1994.
Dimitri. Greek Thought, Arabic Culture.
London: Routledge, 1998.
Paul. "Ishbiliyah: Islamic Seville". Aramco
World 44.1 (Jan/Feb) 1993.
Micahel E. "Avicenna." The Encyclopedia
of Philosophy. New York: MacMillan,
Fazlur. "Islamic Philosophy." The
Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York:
Franz. The Classical Heritage in Islam.
Trans. Emile and Jenny Marmorstein. In
series: Arabic Thought and Culture.
London: Routledge, 1992.
Hassan. "Ibn Khaldun." The Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
New York: MacMillan, 1967.
Sarton George. Introduction to the History of Science, Vol. I-III. Baltimore: Wilkins and Wilkens, 1950.
David W. "The Arab Roots of European
Medicine." Aramco World May/June
Courier, The. September, 1986. Title
of issue: "Averroes and Maimonides: Two
Master Minds of the 12th Century".
Paris: Unesco, 1986.
N.G. From Byzantium to Italy; Greek
Studies in the Italian Renaissance.
London: Duckworth, 1992.
2011 update: See
"Pioneer Physicians" by David Tschanz in the
journal, Saudi Aramco World,
January/February 2011, at this