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Florence and Baghdad

Florence and Baghdad

Renaissance Art and Arab Science

Hans Belting

Translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider

ISBN 9780674050044

Publication date: 08/31/2011

The use of perspective in Renaissance painting caused a revolution in the history of seeing, allowing artists to depict the world from a spectator’s point of view. But the theory of perspective that changed the course of Western art originated elsewhere—it was formulated in Baghdad by the eleventh-century mathematician Ibn al Haithan, known in the West as Alhazen. Using the metaphor of the mutual gaze, or exchanged glances, Hans Belting—preeminent historian and theorist of medieval, Renaissance, and contemporary art—narrates the historical encounter between science and art, between Arab Baghdad and Renaissance Florence, that has had a lasting effect on the culture of the West.

In this lavishly illustrated study, Belting deals with the double history of perspective, as a visual theory based on geometrical abstraction (in the Middle East) and as pictorial theory (in Europe). How could geometrical abstraction be reconceived as a theory for making pictures? During the Middle Ages, Arab mathematics, free from religious discourse, gave rise to a theory of perspective that, later in the West, was transformed into art when European painters adopted the human gaze as their focal point. In the Islamic world, where theology and the visual arts remained closely intertwined, the science of perspective did not become the cornerstone of Islamic art. Florence and Baghdad addresses a provocative question that reaches beyond the realm of aesthetics and mathematics: What happens when Muslims and Christians look upon each other and find their way of viewing the world transformed as a result?


  • It is hard to do justice to the brilliance and complexity of this book, which provides no less than a complete re-evaluation of the origins of perspective in Western art. Hans Belting, an internationally recognized authority on the theory of art from Hieronymus Bosch to Marcel Duchamp, argues that the scientific and artistic genesis of linear perspective did not come out of the Florence of Giotto and Brunelleschi as we are usually told by art historians, but instead first emerged in eleventh-century Baghdad in the work of Ibn al-Haytham (965–1040), a mathematician born in Basra who became known in the West as Alhazen, ‘the Arab Archimedes’… Florence and Baghdad is a remarkable and brave book which takes on a highly contentious area of East-West artistic, scientific and political exchange… It reads like a cross-cultural Ways of Seeing: it is about art and science, painting and mathematics, politics and religion, hermeneutics and phenomenology. Ultimately it is the book of a very fine scholar learning to think across cultures and resist simplistic separations at a time when this is most needed.

    —Jerry Brotton, Literary Review


  • Hans Belting is Professor for Art History and Media Theory at the Academy for Design in Karlsruhe, Germany.

Book Details

  • 312 pages
  • 6-11/16 x 9-7/16 inches
  • Belknap Press