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Realities in the Arts of the Medieval Mediterranean, 800–1500

Byzantine Symposium, 2002, Symposiarchs: Anthony Cutler and Angeliki Laiou

Art History has come a long way in the thirty years since Otto Demus' Byzantine Art and the West. We think now in terms of communications rather than influences, regions rather than centers and peripheries, demand rather than supply, consumption and reception rather than the role of magisterial models. These innovations are more than matters of wording: they reflect shifts in the conceptual foundations of our discipline, prompted as much by critical theory as by the discovery of new evidence.

But in the wake (and light) of the theoretical "revolution", it is perhaps time to reconsider fundamental questions about the means by which motifs, techniques and ideas traveled from one region to another. What, for example, is the relation between mosaic workshops attested in the Holy Land and those of Constantinople? Can we make sense of the tangled relations between Arab and Byzantine silk and ceramic production? How, and from where, did Western historiated initials arrive to grace Greek books? When and how did Byzantine methods of ivory carving reach Egypt? By what means were Ayyubid metal-working practices disseminated? Can we assess the impact of Venetian industrial arts upon the Central and Eastern Mediterranean? What were the mechanisms that allowed the apparent confluence of Latin and Greek themes in "Crusader" wall painting and manuscripts? Is it useful to distinguish between economic and non-economic exchange, or separate this from more broadly based clientèles?

Some answers can be derived, as recent research has shown, from scrutiny of the objects themselves. But given the limited survival of many, these need to be viewed against the background of the written sources. While documents such as the Geniza archives have been exploited, others - notably the terms of trade treaties, Italian commercial documents and Arab gift lists - would seem to throw light upon the filiations between objects of allegedly very different origin that art historians recognize on stylistic and technical grounds. All in all, we are calling for the integration of the artifactual and historical evidence, the former providing clues to what may be significant in the documents, the latter furnishing a context for and quite possibly a pattern to the distribution of goods in the Mediterranean between the ninth and fifteenth centuries.

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