Tracking Arab influence and Islamic art in Italy, an Al Arabiya journey

Francesca Astorri

Published: Updated:

When it comes to art, Italy is considered a top destination, but the Arab influence on the Italian artistic production is often underestimated.

Because of the bulky presence of the Roman Empire, of art works by Michelangelo and other Italian masterminds, Islamic art tends to be considered marginal when travelling to Italy. This is a mistake: we now show you why.

Islamic art and Arab architecture are all over the Italian territory from South to North, from Palermo to Venice. Guided by Italian experts, art historians and archeologists, Al Arabiya English draws an itinerary to discover Arab Italy.

Starting from Palermo

“I would definitely start from Palermo, which is the Arab city of Italy”, said Costantino D’Orazio, Italian art historian who worked between the Gulf and the Middle East, including in Beirut and for Dubai Art Fair.

Two centuries of Arab rule brought Islamic arts and sciences to the Italian island of Sicily. Palermo, regional capital of Sicily, was a cultural crossroads where traders from Christian Italian cities were as welcome as Muslim merchants from Africa and the Middle East.

“The Arabs turned Palermo from a tiny harbor village into a real city. Palermo was governed by the Arabs that have defined the urban structure of the city, not just its architecture” D’Orazio said to Al Arabiya English.

UNESCO World Heritage Site Zisa Palace, which name Zisa itself derives from the Arabic term al-Aziz, was built by Arab craftsmen in the 12th century. The 6th century Church of St. John of the Hermits in Palermo was converted into a mosque: its brilliant red domes show Arab influences in Sicily at the time, as also the Arab-style merlons of the Church of Saint Cataldo.

“The peculiarity of the Arab culture in Sicily is its persistence. Arab culture was so appreciated that it was absorbed by the following cultures, like for example by the Normans that came next”, D’Orazio explains. The Palatine Chapel, the royal chapel of the Norman kings of Sicily situated on the first floor at the center of the Royal Palace in Palermo, is a perfect example of how the Arab culture was valued and incorporated by other cultures.

A visitor walks during the exhibition “Reflections from heaven, meditations on earth: modern calligraphic art from the Arab world” at the Mercati di Traiano in Rome on March 21, 2012. (AFP)
A visitor walks during the exhibition “Reflections from heaven, meditations on earth: modern calligraphic art from the Arab world” at the Mercati di Traiano in Rome on March 21, 2012. (AFP)

The chapel in fact combines a variety of styles: the Norman architecture and door decor, the Arab arches and Arabic scripts adorning the roof, the Byzantine dome and mosaics. Clusters of four eight-pointed stars, typical for Muslim design, are arranged on the ceiling so as to form a Christian cross.

Islamic art and Arab-Norman architecture are frequent in Palermo as entire districts of the city have Arab names like Kalsa, from its historic Arab name Al-Khalisa, or Cassaro district from Al-Qasr. The most fascinating and less known treasure of Arab art in Palermo was open to the public this year and it’s known as the room of wonders or the Arab room.

“The room of wonders is a small jewelry that shows how rich of Arab influence our story is”, said Leoluca Orlando, Mayor of Palermo, just before the opening in January this year. Experts tried to study this room with Arabic scripts on the walls, but there are no clear interpretations. Its charm lies in its beauty and mystery.


Leaving Palermo, in the archeological park of Segesta there is the 12th century Mosque of Segesta built by the Muslim community living in the area under Norman domination at the time. Not well connected by public transport, but easily reachable by car, about 25km southeast of Palermo there is a real treasure of Islamic architecture, Cefalà Diana's thermal baths, ḥamma.

“This is the most ancient preserved thermal bath of the Islamic-Mediterranean world,” said Alessandra Bagnera, Italian archeologist specialized in Islamic archeology and history of art with 30-year experience in this field, who is now publishing a monograph on Cefalà Diana. The inscriptions in Arabic and the three acute arches show the Islamic identity of this thermal bath, a precious creation located in a natural reserve where water at 38 degrees used to flow.

“For about 250 years the Sicilian Emirate registered a stable and strong Islamic presence in the island from a political, cultural, economic point of view. Smaller emirates were founded in the cities of Bari and Taranto, both located in the South-East region Puglia, but these settlements were less stable and lasted about 25 years. Arab incursions went up the Tyrrhenian coast till Provence region in France, but with no stable settlements,” Bagnera explained to Al Arabiya English.

Imam Sami Salem (L) and Imam Mohammed ben Mohammed (R) stand during a mass in the church Santa Maria in trastevere in Rome on July 31, 2016. (AFP)
Imam Sami Salem (L) and Imam Mohammed ben Mohammed (R) stand during a mass in the church Santa Maria in trastevere in Rome on July 31, 2016. (AFP)

Moving to the mainland: Calabria and Campania regions

Right in front of Sicily across the Strait of Messina, we can find Arab traces in Calabria region. The domes of the Byzantine Church Cattolica of Stilo have a clear oriental style, but what reveals with no doubts the Arab identity of this church are several inscriptions in Arabic inside the holy site.

Moving a little bit north towards Campania region, we can still find Islamic art influence, but in a different way.

“Campania has been influenced by the Arabs less directly than Sicily, Calabria and Puglia because it wasn’t directly governed by Muslim dynasties. From an artistic point of view, however, the blend of Western and Islamic medieval styles in the region has certainly been prominent”, said Stefano Carboni, who for over 10 years has curated the Department of Islamic Art of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and who is currently the Director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

“Examples of these sort of hybrid decorations can be found on altars and architectural panels scattered in Campania’s churches” Carboni told Al Arabiya English.

The Medieval Cathedral of Amalfi is predominantly of Arab-Norman architectural style, but it has been remodeled several times during the centuries adding elements from other artistic styles, including the Gothic one, creating a very rich mix.

This combination of artistic influences will come up quite frequently in Italian architecture, and Islamic style will keep on being used also centuries after the Arab domination in Southern Italy was over, showing a fascination with this artistic trend.

“Even a long time after the conclusion of the Arab domination in Sicily and in the Italian peninsula, decorative forms inspired by Islamic art were used for centuries as a new trend, but with no real contact with the Arab world. So, in Italy we find buildings and architecture from the Late Middle Ages with Islamic elements, but not built by the Arabs, and often combined with other styles,” said archeologist Bagnera.

An example could be Rufolo Villa in Ravello, in Campania region between Naples and Salerno. This villa from the 13th century has clear Arab and Gothic influences combined.

As we mention Naples, it surely deserves a stop in our itinerary as the city hosts the Center for Arabic and Islamic Studies of the Orientale University of Naples, one of the most prestigious institutions for Arabic studies in Italy, and the Capodimonte Museum, which showcases also Islamic art works.

A woman looks at a rope and cooper life-size reproduction of the ceiling of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo (sec XII, designed by Muslim craftsmen for King Ruggero II, at “Islam in Sicily” exhibition on July 11, 2002. (Reuters)
A woman looks at a rope and cooper life-size reproduction of the ceiling of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo (sec XII, designed by Muslim craftsmen for King Ruggero II, at “Islam in Sicily” exhibition on July 11, 2002. (Reuters)

Stopover in Rome

Arriving in Rome, we find the biggest Mosque of the Western world, with an area of 30,000 square meters that can accommodate more than 12,000 people.

The Mosque, which was financed also by former king of Saudi Arabia, Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, was designed by Italian and Arab architects. Beside the Mosque of Rome, the Italian capital city hosts other Arab treasures in the most unexpected places.

On Via Nomentana, Torlonia Villa, known for being the state residence of Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, hosts what it has been called the Moorish greenhouse. The Arab influence of this building is evident even if it’s currently under renovation and it’s possible to give it a look only from a distance.

If we leave architecture on a side, inside the Vatican Museums, the Islamic and Ethnological sections showcase a collection of Islamic art ceramics, books and artifacts, as also the National Museum of Oriental Art on Via Merulana.

Next stop: Tuscany

Moving to our next stop in the itinerary tracking Islamic art and Arab influences in Italy, we arrive in Tuscany. “One of the most distinctive ornaments in Tuscany results from the Medieval times’ practice of using Islamic plates and bowls to decorate the façades of churches and religious buildings”, said Islamic art historian Carboni.

“The most well-known (churches decorated with Islamic ceramics) are in the area of Pisa even if one can find them almost everywhere between Liguria and Lazio” Carboni explains to Al Arabiya, mentioning as examples also the Basilica of San Piero a Grado in Pisa. The National Museum of San Matteo also contains several ceramic bowls, mostly Islamic, originally used as decorations for the Pisan churches.

As we find Islamic art decorations on different holy sites, also the Synagogue of Florence, which is one of the largest synagogues in South-Central Europe, was made of travertine and pink limestone in the exotic Moorish style with Arab and Byzantine elements.

The Bargello Museum in Florence is also showcasing Islamic art works as, for instance, Islamic examples of damascened bronze, but the most fascinating place when it comes to tracking Arab art in Tuscany is in the countryside. Around 40km south of Florence we find the Castle of Sammezzano built by a Spanish nobleman with a passion for Arab art.

The Moorish architectural style of the castle is clear also from a distance, but the real treasures are inside with its 365 rooms, one for every day of the year and each with its own name.

The White room, for example, has Moroccan mosaic tiled floors, the Peacock room has Arab decorations from top to bottom, and several rooms have precious ceilings with the typical Arab geometrical feature. The castle is currently closed, but thanks to the owner’s disposition, it is possible to organize few guided openings in collaboration with local voluntary organizations.

French Foreign Affairs Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy visits the exhibition “Venise et l’Orient” (Venise and the Arab world), 02 October 2006 at the Paris’ “Institut du monde arabe” (Arab world Institut). (AFP)
French Foreign Affairs Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy visits the exhibition “Venise et l’Orient” (Venise and the Arab world), 02 October 2006 at the Paris’ “Institut du monde arabe” (Arab world Institut). (AFP)

Last stop: Venice

Arab influence was so strong that reached also the symbols and the name of this Italian city. Venice is in fact the only European city that from the year 1,000 has its own Arab name, al-bunduqiya. The symbol of the ancient State of Venice is the Leone Marciano, a lion with an Egyptian origin that comes from a heraldic emblem of a Cairo ruler.

Venice was uniquely situated in terms of its proximity to cultures, right between the Middle East and Europe, open to both worlds especially as a robust center of trade. By virtue of contact with Arab traders, artisans and goods from the Middle East, the city absorbed many of the traditions of Islamic art and culture.

“Islamic influences in Venice have different origins, not only from the Arab world, but also from Turkey and Iran, as Venice had strong diplomatic and trade relations with all the Middle East in general” said Enrico Dal Pozzolo, Professor of history of modern art at the University of Verona, who has also curated the exhibition “Venice and Egypt”, held in the Doge’s Palace in Venice in 2011-2012.

The two-millennia relation between Venice and the Middle East is imprinted in one of the most famous monuments of the city, Saint Mark’s Basilica. Byzantine treasures and spoils of war were displayed amongst mosaics, paintings and sculptures in the famous Basilica of Saint Mark.

The Madonna Nicopeia panel, that is now displayed in the Basilica, was originally located in Constantinople, today Istanbul, and carried into battle by various Byzantine Emperors as it was an icon known as “She who shows the way”.

“Unique finds from the Middle East are in Saint Mark’s Treasury and almost in every church in Venice, but an accurate census and listing of the works of art with Arab and Islamic influences still have to be done”, Dal Pozzolo said to Al Arabiya.

Precious goods from the Middle East as fabrics, glasses, ceramics and jewelry were mostly passing through Venice to reach the European market, but major examples still remain in the city today. So much Islamic art has been accumulated in Venice’s palaces and churches that the city became an important destination for collectors.

It is also generally accepted that the first book printed from movable Arabic type, the Kitāb ṣalāt al‐sawā'ī, usually translated as the Book of Hours, was published in Venice at the beginning of the 16th century.

Perhaps the greatest testament to the esteem of Islamic artifacts in Venice is in the portraits of Venetian patrician families with their most prized acquisition, their oriental carpet.

“With the fall of the Most Serene Republic of Venice in 1797, Venice lost its political autonomy. Its strong diplomatic relations and interactions with the Middle East tend to slow down under the French and the Austrian dominations. Despite this, in the same period we assist at the rise of Arab influences in art with a new orientalism trend that brings back Islamic art in other combined forms” Dal Pozzolo explains to Al Arabiya English.

The Doge’s Palace and the Ca’ d’Oro (translated “Golden House”) overlooking the Grand Canal are the top examples of Venice’s combination of Islamic architecture and Gothic influence: that perfect mix that represents Venice’s mediating identity.

In both buildings we find the pointed arches bow out beneath their peaks in the manner of Islamic horseshoe arches, and also the typical Gothic feature, the quatrefoils.

Moving to contemporary art, this year several Arab countries will be participating with their works of art to the most important art fair hosted by Venice, the Biennale di Venezia. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Lebanon and other Arab countries will have their pavilions at the 57th edition of Venice’s Biennale.

The public inauguration is scheduled on May 13 and the Biennale will be open to the public till November 26. Perfect timing for Eid holiday this year. One more reason to go.