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Ugo Monneret de Villard (1881–1954) and the Establishment of Islamic Art Studies in Italy

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Ugo Monneret de Villard was the main Italian scholar of Islamic art in the twentieth century. Where and why did this engineer from Milan start cultivating this interest? How did his work come to be appreciated at the highest academic levels? This article delineates Monneret’s long training through an examination of his readings and writings, travels, and exchanges with other scholars, all of which influenced his working methodology, leading him to archaeological missions in Africa and predisposing his discovery of Islamic art.
A fundamental focus is given to the idea of studying Islamic art objects and monuments in Italy. Unpublished archival sources reveal that in the mid-1930s Monneret was the essential point of reference of a group of intellectuals, distant from the academic Scienza ufficiale, whose intention was to promote the study of Islamic art in Italy. These intellectuals had the double goal of instituting a chair of Islamic art and of preserving the Islamic artistic heritage of southern Italy. Newly discovered documents reveal the early civic engagement and nature of a project that manifested itself years later in Monneret’s catalogue “Opere di arte islamica in Italia,” unfortunately still unpublished. 
The missed opportunity of creating an academic post demonstrates the scant attention given to the discipline by Italian public institutions. On the other hand, Monneret’s original interest in the Cappella Palatina ceilings is seen to be part of his broader project. A fresh look at already known sources allows us to reconstruct the editorial phases of Monneret’s masterpiece and discloses the fundamental role played by American institutions and scholars. 
Monneret de Villard’s multifaceted scientific profile is the “lens” through which it is possible to examine the history of Islamic art studies in Italy in the first half of the twentieth century.


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