Published: al-Mursi, the Andalusi Saint of Alexandria

“I was once at the kuttab (Quranic school) scribbling in my sheet when a man approached and told me “a Sufi never smears the whiteness of a sheet with black ink.” I replied: “You don’t get it right. A Sufi is one who never smears the whiteness of his records with the darkness of his sins.” — Al-Mursi on his childhood

Abul Abbas Al-Mursi
is a 13th-century Sufi saint that left his hometown, Murcia (present-day Spain), and traveled to North Africa, where he finally settled in Alexandria. His is a very interesting tale, and his mausoleum remains to be venerated by the people in Alexandria.

Here is an article of mine about his story, published by Ahram Online:

The Mosque of Abul Abbas al-Mursi

The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance

The Medici Family is a Florentine family that left a profound mark in the history of Europe. The family is most famous for being Europe’s bankers and patrons of Renaissance art, but the family also yielded princes and rulers, humanists and artists, and even popes! Below is an excerpt about their curious beginnings:

“On 1 October 1397 Giovanni di Bicci de Medici established a head office (for his bank) in Florence, and this is generally accepted as the date for the founding of the great Medici Bank. In its first year’s trading the bank made around 10% profit. The Medici Bank never underwent rapid expansion, and even at its height was not as extensive as any of the other three great Florentine banks of the previous century, those owned by the Bardi, the Peruzzi and Acciaiuoli families – the Medici did not believe in overstretching themselves. Giovanni not only founded the Medici Bank, and the Medici banking code of practice, but also laid foundations of the extensive family fortune that was to become its power base.

The Head of the Medici Bank soon became a prominent figure in Florence, and as early as 1401 Giovanni di Bicci saved on the committee of leading citizens that was to judge the winner of an international competition to create new doors for the Baptistery. This was the first instance of a Medici being involved in artistic patronage, though in this
case the patron was the city itself. The artist who received the commission for the bronze doors was Lorenzo Ghiberti, a young Florentine sculptor who was later to become one of the founders of Renaissance art, just as Giovanni was to become the founder of the Medici patronage that did so much to engender this movement. It is not exaggerated to say that this occasion launched Ghiberti on the road to greatness, but at the same time it may well have opened Giovanni di Bicci’s eyes to something greater
that the accumulation of wealth.

In 1402 Giovanni di Bicci became prior of the Florentine guild of bankers and moneychangers and had a seat on the ruling Signoria. During this period, a bank usually consisted of a single largish room, divided by the banco or counter that gave it its name (bank), and behind the counter sat the clerks, together with the bookkeeper and his abacus.

Despite all his caution, Giovanni was not above the odd lapse of judgement himself.
This is certainly the case with Baldassare Cossa, whom Giovanni befriended in Rome.
Baldassare was descended from impoverished Neapolitan nobility, and as young man had run off to sea, where he made a fortune as a pirate. Back on land he used this money to obtain a doctorate in law at the University of Bologna; he then bought himself a position in the Church, where he soon began to prosper. In 1402 he decided to buy a cardinal’s hat, and approached Giovanni for a loan of 10,000 ducats. Astonishingly, Giovanni agreed –and this decision becomes even more surprising when one considers Baldassare Cossa’s character. According to a contemporary writer, during Baldassare’s nine years as cardinal legate at Bologna, his spiritual qualities were ‘zero or minus zero’.
So why did the cagey Giovanni become involved with an unscrupulous profligate like Baldassare? Let alone ‘loan’ him such a large sum? The answer was simple:
Giovanni took a gamble on Baldassare Cossa because he knew that he was in the running for the papacy, and Giovanni had worked long enough in Rome to understand that being banker to the pope was the biggest financial prize of all. If the Medici Bank could handle the financial affairs of the Curia, it could establish itself as one of the major commercial institutions in Europe.

For eight long years Giovanni di Bicci befriended Baldassare Cossa and acted as his banker, regularly corresponding with him and doing his best to limit Baldassare’s extravagances, which remained a constant drain on the Medici Bank’s resources. Then in 1410 it all paid off: Baldassare Cossa was elected pontiff, becoming Pope John XXIII, and the Medici Bank took over the handling of the Curia’s finances.

By the early fifteenth century, banking had become an essential arm of the papal executive. Unlike any other European power of this period, most of its revenues were earned abroad, coming largely in the form of remittances from the vast number of sees through Europe. These sees extended to the very limits of the Western World – as far as Iceland and even Greenland (whose bishop paid in sealskins and whalebones, which were converted into cash in Bruges). Another source of income was the selling of holy relics, which often fetched an enormous price, as they had the power to transform an entire economy, turning the region that possessed them into a centre of pilgrimage.
Even more lucrative was the trade in indulgences, which offered the purchaser the pope’s pardon for his sins, the price increasing dependent upon the magnitude of the sin involved.

The sums involved in this continent-wide commercial enterprise were enormous – proportionately far larger than those accumulated by any present-day multinational – and the bank that handled them would of course receive its commissions, which would amount to a huge annual income. The Medici Rome branch yielded no less than 30% on investment for Giovanni di Bicci and his partners.

Later on, Giovanni would begin to devote much of his time and money to patronage. In 1421, in company with seven other neighbourhood families, Giovanni commissioned the rebuilding of the church of San Lorenzo after it was damaged by fire in 1417. This venture into patronage was to be part of the Medici bid for a social status to match their growing political influence. The man commissioned was redesign San Lorenzo was Brunelleschi, then the most prominent architect in Florence, and one of the pioneers of the Renaissance. It was he who rediscovered the rules of perspective, which had been lost since classical times.

It was only in his later years that Giovanni di Bicci had begun to understand that (…) money could be turned into the permanence of art by patronage, and in the exercise of this patronage one gained access to another world of timeless values, which appeared free from the devious politic of power and banking. His son, Cosimo de Medici, would be aware of this other world from his earliest years; his education made him a humanist. Cosimo became actively involved both in increasing the family wealth and in spending it to enrich Florence through his patronage of art and culture.
He was the patron of such Renaissance Masters as Fra Angelico, Fra Lippi, and Donatello, among others. Donatello’s masterpieces, David, and Brunelleschi’s wonderwork, the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, were possible thanks to Cosimo.

Source: The Medici, Godfathers of the Renaissance – Paul Strathern (Pilmico edition 2005).

Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici

Lorenzo de Medici

Art History as told by a Goddess: Venus through the Ages

Yesterday brought my art course in Cairo to an end. The course, titled ‘Fifty Immortal Masterpieces’ took place over two sessions during which I presented masterpieces of art from as far back in time as Prehistory and all the way to Modern Art.

There are several ways to track the progress of art throughout history (if you consider it to be a progress), and one such way is to see how the representation of one and the same theme has changed over time. Venus is a perfect example.

From the Prehistoric Venus of Willendorf and the Classical Venus of Milo, followed by Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (Renaissance) and all the way to Pistoletto’s Venus of the Rags (Modern Art), the goddess has a lot to tell us about human creativity and its ‘tools’.

First comes Venus of Willendorf, one of several little statuettes representing a female goddess commonly referred to as ‘Venus Figurines’ (even though Venus was not ‘invented’ yet at the time!). A symbol of fertility, Venus of Willendorf shows exaggerated proportions for everything feminine and motherly: swollen pubic area and abdomen, huge breasts ready for feeding the newborn, and a face with no features, proper of a goddess whose face is unlike anything you know.

Then comes Venus of Milo, a masterpiece of Classical Antiquity. Her contapposto position lends her grace, while the contrast between her smooth skin and the drapery of her clothes, all rendered in white marble, adds an erotic quality that is far from exaggerated. Physical and spiritual beauty become one, the material and sensual leads us to the divine imprint.

Third comes the Venus of Botticelli (from his Birth of Venus), a revival of the classical ideals of balance, harmony and proportion, a goddess featured in a fancy realm, born from the sea foam and reaching land on a seashell. Still, her features summarize the aesthetic ideals of Florence in the Quattrocento.

Finally comes the modern Venus of Pistoletto, a perfect metaphor of our time. With her back to us, she is indifferent to the viewer, and seems to be only concerned with the heap of clothes in front of her. The choices are countless and the decision is nothing easy. The viewer can wait all he wants.

Venus through the Ages

Sudan: Pyramids, Pharaohs and More

Sudan has –among other attractions- over 200 pyramids distributed over two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These are excerpts from my travel account of the Kushite Kingdom Tour in search for the Black Pharaohs and the capitals of Kush.

1- Meroe: Pyramids, Sand Dunes and Sands of Time

I have never in my life seen as many pyramids in such compact a space…tens of pyramids, all partly in ruins to varying degrees, dominate the horizon. At a distance, they look like a row of broken teeth, but as we approached them they started coming into shape, interrupted only by beautiful and mighty sand dunes whose gold yellow seemed to conspire with the reddish brown hues of the pyramids to lend the site an unearthly feel: We are at Meroe, the third (and last) Kushite capital, and the most extensive pyramid field in Sudan. It doesn’t get more exotic (or so we thought).
How many times did I dream of visiting this site? I can’t remember, and it doesn’t matter. I am here now, contemplating the work of man when man was god.

Unlike their Pharaonic (Egyptian) counterparts, the Kushite (Sudanese) pyramids are much smaller, rising from a narrow base in a steep angle…a ‘trick of composition’ to create a false sense of verticality. Each with its funerary temple attached to it and giving access to its inside, the Meroe pyramids casted their shadow on the sand, while their essence remained buried under the sands of time.

Earlier, we had visited the sites of Naga and Musawwarat, where the temples dedicated to Amun and Apedemak (a local lion-headed god) never fail to impress. Clearly inspired by Pharaonic art, the Kushite elements are never lacking, and the images of the King Natakamani are a clear example: posing like a pharaoh, he and his wife have African features: round faces, wide hips and bead necklaces. It all started earlier in Napata.

2- Jebel Barkal: At the House of Amun

The Meroitic Period lasted from the 4th century BC to the 4th century AD. It succeeded an earlier period of the Kushite Civilization, known as the Napatan Period. Jebel Barkal is at the heart of old Napata, standing gracefully as the house of the God Amun and boasting its own pyramids, temples and cult centre.

Today, Jebel Barkal is one of several sites of the Napatan Period that collectively form Sudan’s most recent UNESCO addition, but here the history is more impressive than the archaeology. It was during the 7th century BC that the Kushite Kings, having united their lands, decided to make a move and unite Egypt as well. They had already adopted several elements of the Pharaonic culture as early as the 15th century BC, and were relatively ‘Egyptianized’. The move came in 730 BC when Piankhi conquered and united Egypt under his rule, becoming the first ‘Black Pharaoh’, and establishing the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty in Egypt, which ruled for over 70 years.

He returned to Kush where, upon his request, he was buried in a pyramid…the first in what we know today as Sudan. The burial site (El Kurru) is also the resting place for several other Twenty-Fifth Dynasty’s kings, queens and princes. A nearby site, Nuri, has another cluster of pyramids, the oldest and largest of which is that of Taharqa, the greatest Kushite King/Black Pharaoh. Then comes another cluster around Jebel Barkal.

One can talk forever about the splendors of the Kushite Kingdom, but one also has to capture the moment and start climbing Jebel Barkal for a splendid sunset and an unforgettable view of the Nile Valley and its lush greenery.

3- Khartoum: A Metaphor of a Nation Divided

Probably, the most ‘emotional’ moment that I had in Khartoum was that of contemplating the spot where the White Nile and the Blue Nile meet, becoming one Nile that flows north to Egypt (and whose water quenched the thirst of every Egyptian since the dawn of time). Then came the National Museum, the Mahdy Fortifications and the Tomb of al-Mahdy with its silver domes. Khartoum has a relatively limited offer, but scratching beneath the surface reveals an interesting –though drastic- situation: a recipe for a new civil war.

Being a mini-cosmos where Sudanese people from different regions are concentrated, the ethnic discrimination is ‘institutionalized’. In their IDs as in all their official documents, the Sudanese people have to state their ‘tribe’…and belonging to one tribe or another can open certain doors or lock them. Now, there are around thirty armed groups in Sudan…armed factions on ethnic basis.

For the last 23 years, every president that ruled Sudan came in the name of Islam. Sudan has the largest Salafist group in the Middle East and the second largest Muslim Brotherhood community in the region. In the Nubian Mountains to the North, several international organizations are actively evangelizing, making use of the poverty and the marginalization of the Nubian community. This religious polarization only adds to a paranoid tension in the country, a country that has the largest delegation of UN soldiers anywhere in the world. To the south is the newly born South Sudan, poor and in need, and on the border are several zones whose fate is yet to be decided by international arbitration (like the oil-rich Abyei). No matter what the outcome is, controversy is served and the Sudanese people are very skeptical about their future.

Darfur is still bleeding, fresh violence erupts from time to time, ethnic discrimination is the norm, and the country suffers an alarming brain-drain as more and more qualified people leave to Saudi Arabia and other parts of the world.

I end it here because a more detailed account of the Kushite sites and their history will be published soon.

My lecture on al-Andalus @ Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Jan 2nd)

On 2 January 1492, the last Muslim ruler of Granada, king Boabdil (Abu Abdalla al-Saghir), handed the keys of the Alhambra to the Catholic Monarchs, bringing to an end the rule of Islam in al-Andalus in the present-day Iberian Peninsula.

What followed was a tragedy at all levels and it took the Catholic Monarchs no time at all to violate the vows they had made. The first to suffer were the Jews, then the Muslims, and even those that converted into Christianity did not survive the horrors of the Inquisition Courts. The definitive expulsion of the Moriscos (Muslims that had converted into Christianity) came in 1609 through a royal decree by Felipe III. Over 300,000 moriscos were kicked out, and this marked the beginning of a new episode of pain and passion: the moriscos diaspora in the Mediterranean.

On 2 January 2013, I will be giving a lecture titled ‘The Fall of al-Andalus: Reasons and Consequences’ at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. This is an open invitation. ANDALUS - Copy

Published: The Andalusi Legacy in Alexandria – I (Intro)

Few cities in the world can rival the glory of Alexandria’s radiant past. Throughout its history, Alexandria was always a cosmopolitan city (things changed in the 1950s). Much can be said about the city’s Ptolemaic rulers, its Hellenistic refinement, its Roman importance and its Coptic splendor. Nevertheless, one the most interesting chapters of the city’s history remains to be largely ignored: the Andalusi presence and culture in Alexandria, brought by medieval travelers, intellectuals, scholars and saints from al-Andalus (the name given to the territory governed by Muslims in present-day Spain and Portugal between 711 AD and 1492 AD).

My new series examines this ‘chapter’ as it tracks the footsteps of three of the most important and iconic Andalusi figures that left a lasting legacy in Alexandria and the Delta. Here is the link to the introductory article of the series, published 3 days ago:

Alexandria, the perfect destination for many Andalusi scholars and refugees

Post-Painterly, Post-Medium and Postminimalism in Art

No discussion of Contemporary Art is complete without addressing three “Post’s”: Post-Painterly Abstraction, Post-Medium Condition and Post-Minimalism.

Post-Painterly Abstraction is a term first coined in 1964 by the great art critic Clement Greenberg (one of the three kings of the Cultureburg) for an exhibition that he himself curated in LA. The exhibition featured names like Morris Louis (with his ‘unfurleds’), Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland (with his ‘targets’), among others, and served as an umbrella term for a number of styles that broke away with Abstract Expressionism (which Greenberg called Painterly Abstraction): Color Filed and Hard-Edge Abstraction are the two most important such styles.

linear in design, bright in color, lacking in detail and incident, and open in composition (leading the eye beyond the frame of the canvas). Moreover, and as Greenberg said: “In their reaction against the ‘handwriting’ and ‘gestures’ of Painterly Abstraction, these artists also favor a relatively anonymous execution.”

is a term first used by Robert Pincus-Witten in 1971 in reference to the emerging trend first visible in an exhibition titled Eccentric Abstraction (NY, 1966), featuring works by Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman and Louise Bourgeois. As the name implies, the term refers to a range of styles that appeared after (and in reaction to) Minimalism: Performances, Earth Art, Site-Specific Art, Installations, Conceptual Art (in part), etc.

From Minimalism, Postminimalism borrowed abstraction and anonymity. To that it added emotion and a personal touch, in reaction to the impersonal nature of Minimalist works. The Postminimalists rejected the industrial processes involved in executing Minimalist artworks and decided to allow for softer forms, and hence the term ‘anti-form’.

Post-Medium Condition is a term used by the art critic Rosalind Krauss in her 2000 book “A voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition”, in which she uses the art of Marcel Broodthaers to argue against Clement Greenberg’s notion of medium specificity. This notion, which calls for exploiting aspects specific to a given medium (like flatness in the case of painting on a canvass) lost much of its credit in the postmodern age, in big part due to the rise of countless media –and mixed media- that became commonly used by artists regardless of their ‘specificity’. Postmodernism witnessed the meltdown of many boundaries in art, and the typical media conventionally considered ‘art media’ (like the canvass in case of painting or metal/wood/rock in case of sculpture) are giving way to an art scene in which everything and anything can serve as a medium of artistic expression, from the artist’s own body to video and computer games.

Target by Kenneth NolandWhere by Morris LouisUntitled by Eva HesseThe True Artist by Bruce NaumanCumul I by Louise BourgeoisLa Tour Visuelle by Marcel BroodthaersKufa Gates by Frank Stella