Skip to Content

Members' Research Report Archive

Islamic Art and the Making of the Spanish Enlightenment

Razan Francis [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]
Twenty-Four-Month Chester Dale Fellow, 2010–2012

Although regarded as lagging behind in the Enlightenment, during the eighteenth century Spain sought a prestigious place among European nations, laying claim to a vital contribution to the advancement of the arts and sciences. Recent institutional transformations, along with ongoing economic and social reforms, allowed Spanish artists, architects, natural philosophers, and policymakers to engage in lively debates that led to reevaluation of Spain’s literary and artistic production relative to the new science. Spain’s own Enlightenment involved a reassessment of prevailing classifications of the arts as liberal or mechanical, high or low, intellectual or manual. Because Spain’s Islamic heritage constituted an important component of both its natural science and craft traditions, it was also subject to reconsideration. The quest for recognition as a contributor to the Enlightenment, I argue, reveals Spain’s profound ambivalence toward its Islamic past, which represented both a source of artistic prestige and a discordant element in national identity.

In 1734 in Madrid, Bernardo Montón (dates unknown) published Secretos de artes liberales y mecánicas, an encyclopedic book treating painting, architecture, and mechanical and optical devices and even including scientific formulas for preparation of architectural materials. In this tome, hitherto unstudied, Montón celebrates the achievements of the Spanish use of ornamental Islamic tiles, or azulejos, through an unprecedented application of the mathematical theory of probability (as developed in Jakob Bernoulli’s Ars conjectandi of 1713) to the design of a potentially infinite number of ornamental compositions. In treating these subjects, Secretos speaks to the broader reaches of the European Enlightenment, endeavoring to unify empirical knowledge of the crafts and the arts in accordance with a rationalizing, Newtonian mathematical rigor. Secretos was published in more than ten editions within eighty years. During this period the contents gradually evolved, moving from one paradigm of science to another, and eventually omitting alchemy and magic.

In Montón’s time, architectural crafts were still viewed as belonging to the hand, not the mind, and as inferior to the liberal arts, the domain of intellectual activity. With an increasing emphasis on the rationality embedded in “making,” the redactions of Secretos gradually suppressed Islamic, material, and craft elements. Despite Montón’s intention to bring ornament, by recourse to the new mathematics, into the province of abstract knowledge, subsequent editions were purged of any Islamic content, a process concurrent with the gradual disappearance of azulejos from architectural ornament. Architectural historians have traced the eclipse of forms and manifestations of Arab artistic influence that had survived after the Christian reconquest of Spain, known as Mudéjar, as well as their resurgence in mid-nineteenth-century Spain. My project explores the neglected period between the eclipse and the resurgence.

In 1752 the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando was established in Madrid. It was intended to reinvigorate the “high” arts apparently also while excluding crafts, together with their Arab residues surviving in practice — an undertaking seemingly facilitated by royal support granting the academy control over Spanish artistic and architectural works. In these circumstances, the academy’s early decision to document Spain’s Arab monuments in measured drawings seems an unlikely and illogical choice. However, my research shows that what had begun as a national pedagogical project for the academy’s students expanded into an aspiration to attain international influence. The academy soon decided to produce a comprehensive volume, Antigüedades árabes de España, to bring to Europe a new knowledge of Islamic art and architecture in Spain.

The production of such a work proved arduous; the first part of Antigüedades was not published until 1787. The project underwent changes in authorship, media, and subjects of representation, causing successive delays that illustrate not only an ongoing process of revision but also an unreconciled schism between royal agendas oriented to the international arena and local academic and pedagogical projects and ideals. By presenting Spain’s Islamic heritage as “ancient” despite its medieval origins, the academy in effect laid claim to a distinctive tradition whose asserted antiquity placed it in the same category as the classical art of ancient Greece and Rome. The term “antiquities” also created a historical distance that afforded the academy a privileged place relative to these monuments.

Despite their dissemination throughout Europe, both Antigüedades and Secretos have remained obscure and scarcely acknowledged among scholars of the Enlightenment as the impetus for a renewed interest in Islamic arts. Nonetheless, the knowledge these works conveyed was integral to Spanish architecture and ornament, with cultural and intellectual significance that must be grasped if this body of architecture and thought is to be understood in its fuller Enlightenment context.

Center 32 (includes image not shown here)