Last week I attended a Festive Season craft fair and came away with just one item – a beautiful hand-painted ceramic dish that set me back twenty-five rials. It had been love at first sight. As the dish’s creator wrapped the object in tissue paper, she assured me that it was microwave ovenproof and dishwasher proof. “I can assure y that this dish won’t be going anywhere near a microwave oven or a dishwasher,” I replied. “Such a beautiful object must hang on a wall.”
While admiring the dish at home later, it occurred to me that my response to its aesthetic charms and my determination not to put it to any practical use must have been similar responses to those of the anonymous artists or architects of long-past epochs who had similarly concluded that the only fitting place for a beautiful ceramic dish or bowl was on the wall, or more precisely, embedded in the wall. I am, of course, referring to the form of architectural decoration known as bacini.
Italian for ‘bowl’ or ‘basin’ (sing. bacino), in art historical terminology bacini has come to mean ceramic tableware (bowls, plates, dishes, etc.) embedded in the interior or exterior walls of buildings purely for decorative purposes. In the Western tradition, bacini is most associated with the Tuscan city of Pisa, which straddles the River Arno and by which route was able to engage in maritime trade of the Mediterranean Sea until that great river began to change course in the 13th century.
Much of Pisa’s trade had been with Muslim North Africa and sizable quantities of Islamic ceramics had been imported into the city. At some point, someone must have decided that the bowls and dishes were too beautiful and exotic for household use and had the bright idea of attaching them to the facades of public buildings. A recent survey found that there are still 669 such bacini attached to 26 public buildings in Pisa, though many others are now on display in the Museo Nationale de San Matteo in Pisa.
Whether or not the good people of Pisa were the first to decorate their buildings with pretty tableware is a moot point, though I would argue that such a means of architectural adornment is likely to have occurred in any culture that experienced an influx of exotic ceramics. As evidence for this bold assertion, I would point to the long tradition of bacini to be found here in the Sultanate of Oman, which certainly evolved completely independently from European practices.
This earliest extant example of bacini in Oman, a late 15th century Folk Ming dish, is to be seen in a decorated mihrab (prayer niche) in Manah which is dated 909 AH (corresponding to 1504 CE). As that dish was the subject of this column several weeks ago, I include here a photograph of another beautiful example, set in a mihrab dating from just a year later and also to be seen in a mosque in Manah.
The creator of these maharib and, as far as we know, the first person to introduce bacini into the Omani architectural tradition, was Abdullah bin Qasim bim Mohammed Al-Humaimi, a native of Manah who was active in the first two decades of the 16th century. Of the five maharib by Al-Humaimi that have come down to us, four contain bacini, as indeed do most of the twenty or so medieval carved prayer niches still in existence around the Sultanate.
The use of bacini in Oman was not limited to mosques. Indeed, one of the most interesting examples still to be seen today is in the ruins of Bait Kabir, a fortified mansion in Ibra thought to date from the reign of Imam Sultan bin Saif Al-Yaarubi (r.1649 to 1679 CE). In what appears to be the barrel-vaulted ceiling of a staircase, several decorated plates and bowls are embedded (see photo). I took the liberty of sending a photograph of this bacini to a renowned expert on Chinese ceramics in Singapore, asking him if he would kindly suggest a provenance for the pieces. He replied almost immediately that they appeared to be Late Ming, probably from the Wanli/Tianqi Period (1573-1627 CE). (Koh, Nai King, pers. comm.)
As is usually the way of things, the more I look for bacini in Oman, the more I find. I have to date come across examples in other mansions in the Al-Manzafa quarter of Ibra, as well as in more humble dwellings in Al-Hamra and Muttrah. In all cases, the plates, bowls and dishes are of foreign provenance, mostly Chinese or Indian, and in all cases richly decorated. Who knows how much more is out there, waiting to be discovered and studied?
If any of you, dear readers, know of other examples of bacini in Oman or indeed have any comments to make about this weekly column, I would be delighted to hear from you.