Stromata: The Carpet as Artifact, Concept & Metaphor in Literature & the Arts

Stromata: The Carpet as Artifact, Concept & Metaphor in Literature, Science & the Arts 

Florence, Italy, Nov 3-6, 2014

Conference Reviewed by Elena Phipps 

The Museo Bardini carpet collection. Photo Credit: Elena Phipps

The Museo Bardini carpet collection. Photo Credit: Elena Phipps

An ambitious conference in the heart of Italian quattrocento Florence examined the subject of carpets—primarily Turkish and Persian, though extending from east to west, from China to the Americas. Organized by Vera-Simone Schulz and Gerhard Wolf, the vast intellectual territory covered in this special event was extraordinary. As a participant whose pri- mary subject is not standard Middle Eastern carpets—I spoke on Sacred Surfaces: Carpets, Coverings and Mesas in the Colonial Andes—at times I was out of my depth—though the intimate conference honed in on the subject of the role and idea of carpets from many perspectives so that everyone had a role in extending the vision. Stromata—of the title—refers to the writings of Clement of Alexandria—and especially the idea of ‘patchwork’—as the conference itself was intended to bring together these very different approaches to the idea of the carpet in art, history and thought, literature, and science.

Cäcilia Fluck (Berlin), began the conference with a paper on “Ornamental and Pictorial Carpets from Late Antique Egypt” and presented the famous carpet fragment discovered in Fostat, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that references the designs of floor mosaics, though made of weft-looped pile. The subject of Greco-Roman tile designs was repeated throughout the conference, and was especially the focus of Henry Maguire from London, who spoke on the role of knots in floor mosaics. Regine Prange (Frankfurt am Main) spoke about art criticism, Clement Greenberg and the “modernists mythology of ‘flatness’” in modern art. This was a concept that those of us who work with physical objects would, of course, dismiss out of hand—as carpets are truly three-dimensional constructions, and so the idea that they represent flatness compared to its original association with modern paintings was hard to grasp. Many of the speakers—including myself—referred to the representation of carpets in paint- ings—from Medieval and Renaissance periods, including those of course, of Lotto, and the knowledge and detail of carpet designs—some real, some fantasy, in these works of art. Karin Leonhard (Bonn) spoke on Oriental carpets in 17th c. Dutch paintings and Vera-Simone Schulz (Berlin and Florence) spoke about paintings of carpets in medieval Italy and their contexts. Anna Beselin, conservator of carpets at the Berlin Islamic Museum, showed incredible images, pre-war and post, illustrating, among other things, the loss and destruction of masterpieces during the bombing of Berlin and the fires that ensued in the museum storerooms as well as the role of the early curators in Berlin who made the first acquisitions, acknowledging the role of the carpet in the history of art. Two scientists—Dieter Schluter (Zurich) and Markus Lackinger (Munich) both spoke about the science of ‘nano carpets’ and the scientific develop- ments of molecular tiling—which they each metaphorically refer to as carpets.

The history of carpets in China was presented by Michael Franses, who is currently curating an exhibition on ancient carpets for the museum in Doha, and about which he pre- sented a preview for us of some of the earliest and rarest examples. Walter Denney, consultant for the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA), and professor at the University of Massachusetts, spoke about the chronology and context of Islamic carpets in the west. Fredrich Teja Bach, contemporary art historian from Vienna, brought the subject to the human element of carpets by looking at the anomalies of symmetry, accentual design and other features that transform the regularity of carpets into another realm of the hand of the artist. Two field trips to extraordinary carpet collections of the Museo Bardini and the Museo del Bargello were enriched by the expertise of the participants and enabled first hand viewing of masterpieces on which many of the papers in the conference had been focused.