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Engraved Brass Parade Plate, Venice, circa 1550

Engraved Brass Parade Plate, Venice, circa 1550

This wonderful parade plate belongs to the category of bronze and brass objects, which, until some decades ago, were labelled as “Veneto-Saracenic”: dishes, candlesticks, ewers, bowls, buckets usually considered made in the Middle East area between 15th and 17th century for European customers, mainly Venetian.
This unusual definition was typical of the 19th century Romantic spirit, where the “Saracenic” adjective brought to mind Saladin, the epic of the Crusades and the Knighthood age.
Only in the seventies of 20th century new studies began to reveal a different theory: not all these objects were made in the Middle East and traded in Europe, but it’s possible to distinguish different styles, areas and periods. This subject, peripherally debated during the years by famous art historians as Bernard Berenson,  Ernst Gombrich and Souren Melikian, has found a summary in the recent studies by another important English scholar, Sylvia Auld, which has published, only few years ago, a significant essay titled “Renaissance Venice, Islam and Mahmud the Kurd. A metalworking enigma”, where she introduces a partition in three periods of the “Veneto-Saracenic” production: a first phase where the objects were made from Egypt to Syria, a second one associated to the Turkish-Iranian masters, in particular to the famous Mahmud al-Kurdi and his circle, and a third one where the works were made in Venice.

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Starting with the assumption, taken for granted, that the Arabic masters were active in Venice since the beginning of the 16th century, and that they taught to the local craftsmen the metal-working skills, Sylvia Auld highlights the cultural differences among all the masters working in Venice, underlining fundamental diversities in the approach to the decorative schemes.
European design remains deeply indebted to its Classical origins: the work starts with the division of the space which has to be filled, the motifs are arranged in self-contained bands, which neither link to neighbouring area, nor do they reflect the shape of the object they adorn, for example “if a wheel-like design is used, the spokes have the same function as columns in architecture – they support an “entablature” in the guise of an encircling band, rather than being part of it”: only then the motifs are tailored to fit.
On the contrary the Islamic designer did not subdivide the space into which the pattern has to be slotted, but the design prevails; the pattern, traditionally repeated until the rim, ends at a border with a quarter- or half- motif, depending on its position. So “it is vital to distinguish between the European concept of space as being “defined” or finite, and the Arab idea of infinite space that allows a viewer to envisage endless repeats continuing into infinity.” On the contrary, “in an European design even in one which is non-architectural, the pattern is presented to the viewer as complete.”

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The plate with the Francesco Donà Doge coat of arms, here showed, is an extraordinary example of the so called “third category”: created around 1550, it’s undoubtedly a work by a Venetian master, which has  absorbed from an Arabic craftsman the metal-working skill and style, and his talent is evident in the achievement of an object fully belonging to the 16th century Western taste on the front (battle scenes from classical mythology), but offering on the back a decorative scheme yet completely ascribable to an Arabic spirit.

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