“These tremors were carried along a network that fans out in every direction, routes along which pilgrims and warriors, nomads and merchants have travelled, goods and produce have been bought and sold, and ideas exchanged, adapted and refined…In the late nineteenth-century, this sprawling web of connections was given a name by an eminent German geologist, Ferdinand von Richthofen that has stuck ever since: “Seidenstrafen”- the Silk Roads. (Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads).
This image of 12th century Chinese art showing women making silk embodies the aim of this course, namely to use the Silk Roads as a way of exploring the relationship between Europe, the Near East and Asia in the context of art history. We embark on a journey starting with the “predecessors” of the Silk Roads- Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia before looking at the artistic relations between Greece, Rome and China. After this we look at art and architecture of the Byzantine Empire before taking the road to Oxiana (the title of a famous travel book by art historian Robert Byron) in search of Islamic art and architecture. Then we take two weeks to trace the evolution of art in China looking at landscape, images of court, sculpture, and even the art directly concerned with the phenomenon of the Silk Roads like the above image from the Song Dynasty. One of the most famous Western explorers to travel to Asia was Marco Polo; we follow in his footsteps (and others) to places like Samarkand (below), the court of Kublai Khan, as well as discovering Mongol art and its influence on Chinese art. The next section is devoted to Japanese art, which though superficially similar to China expresses a very different civilisation. No survey of art along the Silk Roads would be complete without India which contains such treasures as the “Cave of the Thousand Buddhas” and the renowned wall painting of the Ajanta Caves seen and compared by Kenneth Clark to the murals of renaissance Siena. And it is Siena, along with Florence and Venice where this course finds its journey’s end. To cap the course we examine the relationship between the art of these three renaissance “sucessors”and the later manifestations of the Silk Roads in the renaissance era bringing out the Arabic and Chinese influences on inventions like perspective and even the art of painting itself.
1) Predecessors: Royal Roads to Ancient Art: Egypt, Mesopotamia & Persia.
2) From Greece to Rome: Art, the Silk Roads & the Hellenistic Era.
3) From Rome to Constantinople: The Art of Faith & Byzantium.
4) The Road to Oxiana: In Search of Islamic Art & Architecture.
5) The Evolution of Chinese Art: Painting, Drawing & Graphic art.
6) The Evolution of Chinese Art: Sculpture, Minor Arts & Architecture.
7) In the Footsteps of Marco Polo, Kublai Khan & the Art of the Mongols & Central Asian Nomadic Tribes.
8) Japanese Art & the Silk Roads.
9) Indian Art & the Silk Roads.
10) Successors: The Renaissance on the Silk Roads: Florence, Siena & Venice.
Some Suggested Reading.
Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (Bloomsbury, 2015).
Frances Wood, The Silk Roads: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia (British Library, 2004).
Liu Xinru, The Silk Roads : a brief history with documents (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
Bjorn Landstrom, The Quest for India: A History of Discovery and Exploration from the Expedition of the Land of Punt in 1493 B.C. to the Discovery of the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 A.D in Words and Pictures, (Allen and Unwin, 1964).
John Boardman, Persia and the West: An Archaeological Investigation of of the Genesis of Achaemenid Persian Art (Thames and Hudson, 2000).
G. M. Meredith-Owens, Persian Illustrated Manuscripts (British Museum, 1965).
David Talbot Rice, Byzantine Art (Penguin, 1935).
Judith Herrin, Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (Penguin, 2008).
Robert Byron, The Byzantine Achievement: An Historical Perspective (Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1987, orig 1929).
Sheila Blair, The Art and Architecture of Islam : 1250-1800, Pelican History of Art (Yale University Press, 1994).
Robert Byron, The Road to Oxiana (Penguin, 2007, orig 1933).
Robert Hillenbrand, Islamic Art and Architecture (Thames and Hudson, 1999).
Lubor Hajek, Chinese Art (Spring Books, London, 1966).
Mary Tregear, Chinese Art (Thames and Hudson, 1980, rev 1997).
Various, Nomads as Agents of Cultural Change : the Mongols and their Eurasian Predecessors / edited by Reuven Amitai and Michal Biran, (University of Hawaii Press, 2015).
Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo, ed. Milton Rugoff ( Signet Classics, 1961).
Rudolph Wittkower, “Marco Polo and the Pictorial Tradition of the Marvels of the East” in Allegory and the Migration of Symbols (Thames and Hudson, 1977).
Various, Along the Asian Silk Routes: Central Asian Art from West Berlin State Museums, (Metropolitan Museum, New York, 1982)
Joan Stanley Baker, Japanese Art, (Thames and Hudson, 1984).
Partha Mitter, Indian Art (Oxford University Press, 2001).
Madanjeet Singh, Ajanta: Painting of the Sacred and Secular (Macmillan, New York, 1965).
Hans Belting, Florence and Baghdad: Renaissance Art and Arab Science (Harvard, 2011).