Text | Zarminae Ansari
Visuals | As mentioned
In the first part of this article, we shared information about an invaluable resource for architects, scholars, and students: the Bibliotheca Orientalis Attilio Petruccioli. A unique and specialized library in Italy, focusing on the architecture and urbanism of the
Islamic world. In this article, we interview its founder, Architect Attilio Petruccioli, an ICOMOS and UNESCO expert. Petruccioliholds a degree in Oriental Studies from the Università di Venezia Cà Foscari (1980), he is a Full Professor of Landscape Architecture (Alta qualifica), Doctoral School Architettura e Costruzione, Universit‡ di Roma, La Sapienza.
Petruccioli was the Aga Khan Professor of Architecture for Islamic Societies at MIT and director of the Aga Khan Program at MIT and Harvard University (1994 – 98). Full Professor of Landscape Architecture at the Department of Civil Engineering and Architecture, Polytechnic University of Bari, Italy (1998 – 2012), he served as both the Dean and Director of the department, and as the Full Professor of Urban Design and Msheireb Property Chair at Qatar University (2012 -17). He has been the Chief Editor of the Environmental Design Journal of the Islamic Environmental Design Research Centre; as a consultant, he provided professional advice in the field of Islamic heritage and urban development in most of the Arab countries, amongst them: Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Saudi Arabia.
Due to his long-standing, passionate interest in both architectural design and history of Islamic architecture, he has written and edited 34 books and over 210 articles on these topics. Following his retirement, Petruccioli founded this specialized research center based on his extensive private collections. The information available online intrigued me, prompting me to contact Professor Petruccioli to obtain some additional information.
This is an excerpt from my conversation with him:
“I am retired, and I teach in the University of Rome La Sapienza in the Doctoral School. They gave me a very grand-sounding title: Professor of High Qualification, indirectly proportional to the salary, which is zero!” quipped Attilio in his characteristically mischievous manner.
“But I spend time with young students, most of them from Islamic countries; it allows me to keep myself active. The library is my final initiative; through it, I want it to promote some research on Islamic architecture.I hope that one day you can stop by either in Rome, where you could spend a couple of days exploring Roman architecture, or Trani, visiting the library and having a lunch in the harbor, wandering the old town to see some local spectacular architecture”.
I decided to take his advice and visit the library. The following is a transcript of an interview conducted during the course of that visit.
Zarminae Ansari: What intrigues me the most is your motivation to establish the Bibliotheca Orientalis. Why this initiative when you could be retiring in the gorgeous seaside town of Trani?
Attilio Petruccioli: I am old and retired. I believed it to be a good idea to utilize my private library, specialized in Islamic Architecture,and open it to the public, offering a service to the region as well as other scholars. I would not call the library special because of a few rare volumes present within it but rather it is the congregation and the sheer number of books in one place that make the existence of this library special. I saw the opportunity to make a difference and I took it. Contacting the Fondazione SECA, Scripturae Evolutio Cum Arte (the evolution of the art of writing,) the managing body of the Associations of the Museums of Trani, I asked them to assist in setting up this library. The foundation is concentrated in one building in Trani, next to the Cathedral; they have given me one floor including a large space as a reading room and a classroom for approximately thirty people. I strongly believe that this library cannot remain a passive space for book storage or studying, but must be an active force in promoting research; this has been done before under the banner of the Islamic Environmental Design Research Center, and we will continue to do so.
The Islamic Environmental Design Center was a magazine published for twenty years, by the end of the 1980’s it was the only magazine about Islamic Architecture. We have planned a conference for global scholars at the end of October 2020, cultivating a community. Garnering a strong social media presence through video reviews of important books, short interviews with scholars, or of comments about different theories and ideas, we have attempted to create a digital community as well. The videos are named ‘Takeaways’ as reviews, ‘A Coffee With…’ for interviews, and are published on YouTube. Of our ‘fototheca’, photo library, we are scanning and posting a certain selection of the collection – a slow yet steady process. We hope that the publishing of these may stimulate discussions, comments, and ideas; the value of these visuals is not in its aesthetics but in the fact that they depict situations that no longer exist, of monuments that have been destroyed or simply transformed.
The Bibliotheca allows me to create a virtual community of scholars interested in Oriental architecture. Part of our work is to review, in video form, new works or classic books on Islamic Architecture and Cities; we publish video lectures on selected topics related to the architecture, city, and landscape in the Islamic countries, as well as discussions on various theories in the fields. As a result of the community we have gathered here, students and professionals alike, the bibliotheca assists students of Master’s and Ph.D.programs write their theses and have it peer-reviewed by the more senior members of the community. As you can see, it is a very ambitious program but it keeps me alive. I live in Rome but have a second home in Trani, a beautiful city on the shores of Italy, with the library located right in the center, next to a cathedral
Z.A: How many students have you had since it opened? Is it starting to receive recognition?
A.P: There is a sufficient base number of people interested. When I was teaching in the Polytechnic of Bari, I had a course of Islamic Architecture, and more than 200 students graduated through the Islamic Architectural Studies. From all those students, most work and practice in the region, they have preserved a strong interest, which serves the library well. Their presence and interest also ensures that we will have a large participation of the youth in our upcoming conference.
Z.A: Can you tell us more about the conference?
A.P: It is about what I call the “Contaminazione”, which is an Italian term similar to the English word ‘Contamination’, but wider.Contrastingly, the Latin word also has a positive connotation, relating to the interchange between colliding cultures, in specific, the hybridization of architecture and forms. This has occurred throughout history, particularly when one culture occupies the space of another. This theme is extremely important because of the peculiar method in which historians study architecture. Historians have a certain method of classifying and categorizing different sets of objects, so, when a piece of architecture did not fit neatly into a category, they discarded it from their records. As such not many records of hybrid architecture exist. Personally, I feel that now there is no architecture that is not a hybrid. Therefore, to study the aspects of this hybridization is not only interesting but also almost a duty – to view it from a new perspective.
In the vision and idea that cultures are traveling, cultures meet and they influence and are influenced.
This thought process was also influenced by the fact that when I entered into the Foundation, I discovered that therein was a museum of objects from the local Catholic Church, a museum of the Jewish community in a former Synagogue, and now, an Islamic Research Center. The owner of this palace is actually the archbishop of Trani, Leonardo D’Ascenzo, he was extremely excited when I introduced the Islamic Architectural Library to him, in spite of the growing Islamophobia and encouraged me to pursue this direction for the conference.
Z.A: This is so exciting! Will it be a one-day conference or are you still working out those details?
A.P: We are still working on the details because there are several aspects to consider. For instance, the change of function of a building, in accordance with the movement of civilizations. As an example, the Mediterranean is full of churches that became mosques or synagogues that became mosques and so on; that is a very interesting phenomenon. Another example is in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, which was occupied by the Catholic dynasty containing Gothic style buildings, flamboyant and typical of the Ile de France. When the city was taken by the Ottomans and converted to an Islamic Empire, the Gothic churches were converted into mosques. Altering the axis of the church to face the qibla, perpendicular to the original, they moved certain elements, adding the architectural elements of the mihrab and minbar, and a minaret upon the exterior façade. Minimal changes transformed the gothic church into a mosque. It is now known as Jama of Nicosia, the main mosque of Cyprus. There are many situations similar to this, for instance, the encounters that occurred during colonialism. While a bad political, economic, and military phenomenon, Colonialism created intense opportunities of hybridization between the local cultures and the colonizers. As such these situations also require our attention. Recently, during an ICOMOS mission in Salt, Jordan, I came across an incredible case of cohabitation, supporting the theory that we can easily find examples of reciprocal influences between two religions.
Z.A: Sometimes one is prompted by different kinds of research that you wish somebody had done, or you look at some books that you have and say, “This could be a very interesting topic to look at by some more students”. Do you have any such thoughts when surrounded by the treasure trove that is the Bibliotheca Orientalis?
A.P: I remember that my mentor, Ludovico, used to give ideas to anyone that asked, regardless of whether they were a scholar or student. I asked him why he gave such wonderful ideas away; it was then that I realized how simple his thought process was
– he was old, he knew that he had no time to conduct all the research or pursue all those ideas. However, that in itself is not a problem, you have thousands of ideas, you can simply give away as many as you like, so that others are free to pursue them depending on their area of interest or field.
Take the Indian Subcontinent for instance – it was extensively studied, but that is nothing compared to what is present there. The Indian Subcontinent is the only place I know of where you go to a place to see a monument, and you move across the street to seeanother one, yet no one knows anything about it. It is neither reported in guidebooks, nor has it been documented anywhere else. When I was working in Bikenar, Rajasthan, we went with students to visit the outskirts of the city, to the cemetery of the Rajas, crossing the street we found a complex with Madrasahs and pools from the medieval era. Nobody knew anything about it, and I had never heard of it. Similarly, Mandu is a fantastic medieval city that now is an archaeological site, on the border of Rajasthan and Bundelkhand. It was a Capital city during the reign of Mughal Emperor Jahangir. The only structures that have been studied in this site is that which is visible – which is not much – and yet, even that is a lot. It is city that needs a lot of work to be fully understood and uncovered.
Z.A: Pakistani students, researchers of archaeology, of Islamic architecture theory, of history – what do you think they can learn of the buildings that they have inherited from the Indian Subcontinent: Mughal period, Delhi Sultanate, the colonial period, etc.? Could they locate information or visual and theoretical connections with other countries? What could a Pakistani student pursue over here?
A.P: We have a large section on the Indian Subcontinent, much larger than that on Syria or the Middle East. Over five decades this collection has grown, including the Indian Archaeological Survey and a variety of university theses. Many people are of the opinion that student theses are simply repetitions of existing knowledge, yet on occasion the have very intriguing, original ideas. I believe in the circulation of ideas, subsequently it is important to read about a variety of perspectives. In Italy, there is no other place to study Indian architecture; the closest that comes to this is in SOAS, London. Since I am retired, I have the time to be a mentor to student researchers. Today, there is a student in the library working on old Egyptian Urbanism; I am not yet sure what her research goals are but I will attempt to give her some direction. A former assistant from MIT and I will be collaborating to create a summer program that may prove useful. He will bring some of his Indian and Pakistani students for a course of ten days over which we will use the city of Trani as an example to convey the methodology of interpreting medieval structures – of buildings and urban layout. This methodology could be applied to medieval cities across the globe, from Italy to Pakistan.
Z.A: What is the method for students or researchers to apply to come here? Do they have to pay anything to access the library?
A.P: I do not know the bureaucracy for visas and so on; however, once you are here, you can stay in a Bed and Breakfast with very economical food around the city. The rest is free, in the sense that you can study in the library without needing to acquire a membership, but we must be informed of your visit in advance so to organize ourselves in a functioning manner. It is not a problem but a pleasure. Europe has an outstanding catalogue of libraries, but I doubt that you will find one that is as specialized in Islamic architecture like ours. The British Museum may have a fair selection of them but locating the books will consume your time more than the actual study of the materials will. Here, we have open shelves, through which you are free to browse and work at your own pace. One hopes that local art and architectural institutions, as well as scholars of architecture and urban design will utilize this unique resource, choosing to explore a truly beautiful corner of Italy.
About the author:
Zarminae Ansari, equipped with her deep interest in linguistics and her lived experiences, in 12 cities around the globe, cultural tourism and marketing is Ar. Zarminae Ansari’s (MIT, 1997) forte. Currently based in Dubai, she runs ‘Joy of Urdu’, a bilingual initiative for the revitalization of the Urdu language with chapters established all over the world.