The Arab Influence on the Italian Renaissance


Beetle Juice, anyone?

Since much of it happened by way of southern Italy, I think I can justify sneaking it in, here.

This is an early-15th-century Persian copy of the opening page of Book Four of Ibn Sina’s (Avicenna) Canon of Medicine, written in the 11th century, parts of which were used in European medical schools as late as the 19th century.

arabmedDangling in the southern winter sky and very visible from my balcony in Naples is the great equatorial constellation of Orion. The second brightest star in that constellation is the red supergiant, Betelgeuse. (This is the first of a few familiar names coming up that no one knows how to pronounce. Another one is “Averroës.”) Betelgeuse is 390 light years from my balcony and, thus, remote from the various fields of human conflict that are responsible for my knowing neither the pronunciation nor the original name of the star—thus, our high school astronomy club’s cutesy mnemonic of “Beetle Juice.” I don’t recall ever learning that the name came from the Arabic bayt al jauza, meaning “in the house of the twins,” referring to the Heavenly Twins, Castor and Pollux, hanging out right above Orion.

Speaking of high school, I did not do well in mathematics, but I am willing to give Al-Khwarizmi (known to us as Algorizm!) (770 – 840) his credit if he takes a bit of my blame. I will take all the blame for not knowing who Chaucer was talking about in the Canterbury Tales, when, in praising the knowledge of the doctor on the trip, he reminded us that ye olde pilgrim sawbones was familiar not only with Hippocrates and Galen, but “Rhazes, Hali, Averroës and Avicenna.”

It is convenient—but not a good idea—to pigeonhole our own cultural history into tidy episodes: The Renaissance, The Age of Reason, The Enlightenment, The This & That, as if they had happened all of a sudden with no connection to anything else—as if Leonardo woke up one fine morning in 1500, looked at his homemade (obviously) hour-glass and said “Gee, it’s the Renaissance; I’d better build a helicopter.” The point of this entry, then, is simply to draw your attention to how interconnected European and Arabic culture used to be, and how there is a link between the glorious age of Arab science and culture (800-1100) and the beginnings of the Italian Renaissance. (I am not making the post hoc, ergo propter hoc mistake of saying that that which comes first necessarily causes that which comes second. I am simply saying it’s a good idea to know what came before you—Bonum est quod ante te evenit scire (I think).

After Islam’s rapid spread from Spain to India, Muslims founded the city of Baghdad in 800, and it is here that the Muslim quest for knowledge begins, the manifestation of an insatiable curiosity (to use Einstein’s choice phrase from many centuries later) “to figure out how the Old Man runs the universe.” It is in Baghdad that the Muslims founded their great school of translation, the incredible ambition of which was to translate as much as they could find of science, astronomy, mathematics, music, geography and philosophy—whatever remained of Classical Greek knowledge. It meant going even further afield—to India—to study the mathematics and philosophy of those who had written in classical Sanskrit centuries earlier.

In 800 this was by no means an easy task. Much classical Greek writing had not survived the centuries of neglect by Christians inimical to “pagan” thought. As early as the year 500, the great library at Alexandria was a ruin and, a few years later, Justinian closed Plato’s Academy in Athens because it was a hotbed of pagan (non-Christian) philosophy. Arab scholars, then, translated into Arabic the few Greek texts that remained, or translated from languages into which the Greek originals had previously been translated by scholars who had left Greece for parts east. These were mainly exiled Nestorian Christians from Greece, and Classical Greek scholars from Plato’s academy who had fled to Persia, where they founded a great center of learning at Jundishapur (before the coming of Islam) and translated much of their material into Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Middle East at the time. After Baghdad, the Arabs later started equally fine centers of scholarship in Spain at Cordoba and Toledo.

Transmission of this glorious knowledge from the Muslim world into Italy happened primarily through Spain and Sicily; that is, the great courts of learning in Cordoba and the pre-Crusades court of Norman Sicily in the 12th century. It is in Sicily, particularly, that Norman tolerance provided for the coexistence of Byzantine Greek, Italian Christian, and Arab scholars. It was, perhaps, the last great period of human tolerance in European history.


One of the great medical translators from Arabic into Latin was Constantine of Carthage (known as “The African”). In the middle of the 11th century, he came to teach at the medical school in Salerno, the first of its kind in Europe, bringing with him his vast library of Arabic medical works, including, no doubt, Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine. That work was translated into Latin and used as a text in European medical schools well into the 17th century, and parts of it were current as late as the early 19th century! In 1127, a European translator, Stefano of Pisa, reported that scholars of medicine were all still found in Sicily and Salerno, and were generally persons who knew Arabic. Again, we shouldn’t set up a necessary chain of cause and effect; yet, there is surely a link between earlier Muslim medical thought (the view that “God has provided a cure for all disease”; therefore, it is our rational duty to find those cures) and the final abandoning by the Christian west of the view that prayer and mortification of the flesh cured illness. [Also see 2011 update in bibliography, below.]

Frederick II

frednewIn Palermo, Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), in spite of the Crusades, was driven by his own enormous intellectual curiosity to explore Arabic culture. He is known for his exchanges of letters on philosophy and science with Arab scholars. A prominent member of the court of Frederick in Palermo was the great Italian mathematician, Leonardo Fibonacci, the inventor of the arithmetic series that bears his name. (Quick! what is the next number in this series: 4, 1, 5, 6, 11, 17…)? He had studied with Arab mathematicians, and he is also the reason you don’t have to do that last problem as “IV, I, V, VI, XI, XVII…”; that is, he introduced “Arabic” numerals into Europe (they were really Indian numerals, which the Arabs had picked up in their wanderings).

Frederick’s court is also responsible for giving us a Latin translation (from the Arabic translation of the Greek) of Ptolemy’s Almagest, and for translating the original works of the great Arab astronomer, Al-Farghini. Frederick II’s interests are so wide ranging that it is no wonder he was well read in Arab philosophy and science. He expanded the medical school in Salerno and started the University of Naples, which, today, still bears his name.

Michael Scot (1217-1240) was perhaps the finest mind at the court of Frederick in Palermo. From Scotland, he had worked at the great Arab translation center in Toledo and is responsible for giving us Latin versions of the philosophical works of Avicenna and Averroës, particularly the latter’s commentaries on Aristotle. From royal courts to fledgling universities, Italy in the 1100s and 1200s, then, seems to be a scene of Europeans scurrying to read the next installments of Arab works, particularly in philosophy, medicine and astronomy. Scot also assisted Frederick II in the drawing up of the Constitution of Melfi.


Muslim religious philosophy is of particular interest. Al-Kindi (d. after 870) was the first important Muslim philosopher. He held and taught that revealed truth (religion) and rational truth were not in conflict, but were complementary—even identical. Then, Al-Farabi (874-950) elevated philosophy even above the revealed truth of the sharia, the religious law of Islam, and held that our goal is to develop our rational faculty.

Ibn Sina (981-1037), known in the west by the Latin name, Avicenna, is often called by Westerners the “Arab Leonardo” (although he was Persian!) for the amazing breadth of his knowledge in medicine, philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy. In addition to his Canon of Medicine (mentioned above), he is certainly one of the most remarkable thinkers of the Middle Ages and the most important and original of all Muslim philosophers. His held that religion was a kind of philosophy for the masses; the goal of all revealed truth (including his own Islam) was to lead us to our highest state—one of philosophic contemplation. He held the particularly original idea that intellectual discovery implies an intuitive act of knowledge. The idea of the intuitive intellect working outside of the methodical process of collecting facts and deduction has again become quite modern.


averoisPerhaps Ibn-Rushid (Averroës) (1128 -1198) is also of great interest to us. He wrote many commentaries on Aristotle and is known in Arab philosophy simply as “The Commentator.” His works in religious philosophy were widely read in Europe, especially by Thomas Aquinas, the point, of course, being not that one was right and the other wrong, but that one of the greatest of European medieval philosophers honed his own sharp intellect by dealing with his Muslim predecessor. Averroës’ work in law, medicine, and astronomy were also highly regarded.


Norman-Arab design within
the Villa Rufolo in Ravello

ravnormarabEuropean fascination with Arab and other Muslim architecture— from the Alhambra to the Taj Mahal to the simple kiosk (from the Turkish word for “pavilion”) has been very evident since von Erlach’s general history of architecture in 1721. That work included examples of Arab, Turkish and Persian architecture and led to the design of several “Oriental” structures in Europe. But within the “Renaissance” scope of this article, can we say that there is earlier influence?
Since Islam forbids depictions of God and, indeed, discourages rendering any human or animal life at all, there developed great attention to geometric design in Arab art and architecture. It is the same principle that led to the various schools of intricate and flowing—but abstract—Arabic script used to write the Koran. Obviously, a similar proscription does not obtain in Christianity or in the art of the European Renaissance.

The mixture of those two approaches to faith and art is fascinating. The most obvious place in Europe to look for Muslin design—mixed with Christian—is in Sicily well before our Renaissance, the so-called Arab-Norman- Byzantine school (from the 11th century), manifestations of which, among many others (photo, above) are the cathedral of Palermo and the tomb of Holy Roman emperor Frederick II. Even with the reconquest of Sicily and the gradual re-Christianization of the population, the ornate geometries of the Muslims remained and their evidence is seen throughout southern Italy. When I look at the restored, original version of the church of Santa Chiara—a Gothic box with a roof on top—and compare it to excessively ornamental design of the votive spires in Naples and the decorative geometries of churches built in the Renaissance (and after) in Naples, I can’t help but recall Christopher Wren’s (the architect of St. Paul’s cathedral in London) judgment on Muslim architecture and its relation to our own :

…let us appeal to any one who has seen the mosques and palaces of Fez, or some of the cathedrals in Spain, built by the Moors: one model of this sort is the church of Burgos; and even in this island there are not wanting several examples of the same: such buildings have been vulgarly called Modern Gothic, but their true appellation is Arabic, Saracenic, or Moresque. This manner was introduced into Europe through Spain; learning flourished among the Arabian all the time that their dominion was in full power; they studied philosophy, mathematics, physics, and poetry. The love of learning was at once excited, in all places that were not at too great distance from Spain these authors were read, and such of the Greek authors as they had translated into Arabic, were from thence turned into Latin. The physics and philosophy of the Arabians spread themselves in Europe, and with these their architecture: many churches were built after the Saracenic mode…

(Cited in, Wren, Christopher, the Junior (1675-1747), ‘Parentalia: or, Memoirs of the family of the Wrens’, viz. of Mathew Bishop, printed for T. Osborn; and R. Dodsley, London, 1750.)


Hardly mentioned at all when you read about the Arab influence in European thought is the extent to which Arab literature might have had any influence on European medieval literature. There are a number of possibilities. It may be that the Arab habit of composing popular poetry in vernacular Arabic in Sicily and Spain had some influence on the subsequent “vernacularization” of not only European court poetry and song in the Provence (the Troubadours) and Sicily, but even in the beginnings of great European vernacular literature.

In A History of Islamic Sicily, Aziz Ahmad dwells on the controversial connection between Dante’s Divine Comedy and prior Islamic works of the same nature. There is no real conclusion to be drawn, except the possibility that our great originator of non-Latin Romance literature got some inspiration from somewhere. Dante certainly knew of Avicenna and Averroës through Latin translation; in the Divine Comedy, he places them both in Purgatory with the great pre-Christian scholars of ancient Greece. (Dante was not so kind to Mohammed, himself, though, who, in Canto 28, is in Hell as a Sower of Discord). Did Dante also know (through its Latin or Early French translations) of The Book of the Scale, an earlier Arab eschatological work that has interesting parallels in the Divine Comedy? Again, we should beware of post hoc reasoning, but it is an intriguing possibility. (The Book of the Scale is the common English translation of Liber Scale Machometi, the Latin translation of the Arabic Kitab al Miraj, the Muslim book about Muhammad’s miraculous night journey into the heavens. The Latin version would have been available to Dante; the graphic descriptions in the book of the punishments in Hell are what have lead some scholars to make the comparison to The Divine Comedy.)

It was the contributions of minds such as those mentioned, above, that prompted Robert Briffault (in The Making of Humanity) to write:

It was under the influence of the Arabs and Moorish revival of culture and not in the 15th century, that a real renaissance took place… After steadily sinking lower and lower into barbarism, it [Europe] had reached the darkest depths of ignorance and degradation when cities of the Saracenic world, Baghdad, Cairo, Cordova, and Toledo, were growing centers of civilization and intellectual activity. It was there that the new life arose which was to grow into a new phase of human evolution. From the time when the influence of their culture made itself felt, began the stirring of new life.
Those are strong words that I do not entirely accept. Yet they remind us that our ethnocentric view of our own cultural history as a straightforward chain of events is not very helpful. Perhaps we should step back and view all of culture as a vast web of ideas; they may spring forth in different places at different times—or many of them at the same time, unnoticed elsewhere.

Ahmad, Aziz. A History of Islamic Sicily. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1979.
Blair, Sheila S. & Jonathan M. Boom. The Art and Architecture of Islam, 1250-1800. Yale University Press, 1994.

Briffault, Robert. The Making of Humanity. London: 1938.
Gutas, Dimitri. Greek Thought, Arabic Culture. London: Routledge, 1998.
Lunde, Paul. “Ishbiliyah: Islamic Seville.” Aramco World 44.1 (Jan/Feb) 1993.
Marmura, Micahel E. “Avicenna.” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: MacMillan, 1967.
Rahman, Fazlur. “Islamic Philosophy.” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: MacMillan, 1967.
Rosenthal, Franz. The Classical Heritage in Islam. Trans. Emile and Jenny Marmorstein. In series: Arabic Thought and Culture. London: Routledge, 1992.
Sarton George. Introduction to the History of Science, Vol. I-III. Baltimore: Wilkins and Wilkens, 1950.

Tschanz, David W. “The Arab Roots of European Medicine.” Aramco World May/June 1997.
Unesco Courier, The. September, 1986. Title of issue: “Averroes and Maimonides: Two Master Minds of the 12th Century”. Paris: Unesco, 1986.
Wilson, N.G. From Byzantium to Italy; Greek Studies in the Italian Renaissance. London: Duckworth, 1992.
2011 update: See “Pioneer Physicians” by David Tschanz in the journal, Saudi Aramco World, January/February 2011, at this link.