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Encountering “Exotic” Ornament: Arabic Calligraphy and Islamic Luxury Textiles in Jacopo Bellini’s Paintings


Catarina Schmidt Arcangeli


A number of studies and exhibitions have considered the interactions of the Renaissance Venetian painters Gentile and Giovanni Bellini with the East, but less attention has been dedicated to the question whether Jacopo Bellini had already been interested in Islamic art. This essay focuses on Jacopo Bellini’s reception and elaboration of Arabic calligraphy, which was a well-known element of luxury goods circulating in Venice. Several paintings by Jacopo provide us with impressive depictions of Arabic letters, especially on textiles and haloes. However, this kind of decoration did not involve copying precise words, but only single letters, and therefore shall be defined as pseudo-Arabic script. Although Jacopo’s artistic choice can be linked to Venetian traditions, the crucial influence was his teacher and collaborator Gentile da Fabriano, who depicted this “exotic” detail of Arabic script in notable ways, creating various solutions, mostly in his devotional images. A decisive source of inspiration was provided by Florentine artists, when Gentile and Jacopo, during their stay in Florence ca. 1423, were able to perceive different types of decoration with pseudo-Arabic script. Significantly, other fifteenth-century Venetian painters, such as the Vivarini and Francesco Squarcione, then started decorating garments and haloes in their devotional images with pseudo-Arabic script, a manner that continued to fascinate the following generation of painters like Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini.