The Islamic section of the Museo Orientale Umberto Scerrato in Naples

The archaeological collections of the University of Napes "L'Orientale"

At the end of the 1960s Umberto Scerrato (1928-2004), one of the most important Italian archaeologists active in the Iranian and Islamic world, put his effort into establishing a Seminar of Oriental Archaeology at the then Faculty of Languages and Oriental Civilisations of the Oriental University Institute of Naples. The purpose was to give archaeology and art history a proper space within the main linguistic and cultural-historical areas of the University.

The first nucleus of the University Museum

He participated in the establishment of a detached section of the Library, devoted to studies and research in the archaeological field as well as, at the beginning of the 1970s, he created a collection of Islamic art objects, in both ceramic and metal, that would have become the first nucleus of a University Museum for teaching purposes.

The inauguration in 2012

Despite the growing interest of teachers and students in the collection, as well as its expansion over time, the museum foundation took many years, mainly due to the difficulty in finding an appropriate location. Thanks to the commitment of the then Rector, Professor Lida Viganoni, only in November 2012 the Museum was inaugurated inside Du Mesnil Palace, one of the main historic buildings on the city’s waterfront, namely the seat of the Rectorate since 2001. In this location, the Museum has stimulated immediate interest and curiosity from the public, on a city, national and international scale.

The entrance to the Scerrato Museum and the Islamic funerary stelae of the 9th century from Egypt

Without any hesitation the museum was named after the archaeologist who first conceived it and it is not surprising for the Islamic collection to be its most representative one. Since its inauguration, the museum has acquired an ever-increasing profile, also finding in the current Rector, Professor Elda Morlicchio, valid and constant support.

The Islamic objects

The Islamic section consists of about 300 objects, more than a half of which are on display. They illustrate a revealing overview of different productions from the lands under the Islamic control (from Egypt to Central Asia), which can be ascribed to an as much wide chronological span (from the 9th to the beginning of the 20th century). There are marble funerary stelae from the Upper Egyptian cemeteries bearing epitaphs in Arabic; ceramic vessels and oil lamps, mainly glazed, produced in workshops in the Upper Mesopotamia, the South-Caspian area, Central-Northern Iran and the historical region of Khorasan (now divided among northeastern Iran, northern Afghanistan and Turkmenistan); and a wide range of copper alloy artefacts (vessels, water and lighting devices, personal items), in some cases embellished with silver inlay, of Iranian production and especially coming from Khorasan.

Ceramic bowl with slip-painted decoration under the glaze, Khorasan,10th-11th century; Fountain tap with twisting valve, copper alloy, Khorasan,12-13 century
Archaeological finds from Italian excavation at Ghazni (Afghanistan)

In 1956 Scerrato was the first archaeologist of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Afghanistan to carry out research in an Islamic site of the Asian continent. At only 28 years old he brought to light the first interesting remains of the city of Ghazni which, after having been one of the most flourishing cities in the 11th-12th centuries under the powerful sultan dynasty of the Ghaznavids, had been completely razed to the ground by the invasions of Mongol hordes in the second half of the 13th century.
Fragments of ceramics and elements of architectural decoration in marble, stucco and brickwork found during the excavations carried out by the Italian Archaeological Mission – and transferred to Italy according to agreements established with the Afghan authorities – are kept in a Museum warehouse. They are a valuable material for the workshops for archaeology students.

Pottery sherds from the excavations in Ghazni (Afghanistan)
Islamic production source of inspiration

The Islamic collection offers a good selection of objects whose importance is far from negligible in the rich Islamic artistic heritage scattered in Italy in about one hundred public and private collections, which are not always of easy access for the public.

Therefore, the Museum provides the preservation, enhancement and reception of a precious cultural heritage. It also gives the opportunity for a fruitful encounter with an art distinguished by a dynamic and decorative character; the same art that, by virtue of the encounter/clash that Europe, especially Italy, has had with the Islamic world since the late 7th century, has been able to strongly inspire Western artistic productions since the Middle Ages.

Roberta Giunta

Roberta Giunta

Associate Professor of both Islamic Archaeology and Art History, and Islamic Epigraphy at the University of Naples “L’Orientale”. She is deputy director of the scientific journal Annali of
“L’Orientale”, eastern section. Since 1993 she has carried out archaeological and epigraphic research in many countries of the Near and Middle East; since 2004, she is deputy director of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Afghanistan and since 2020 she is co-director of the Italian Archaeological Mission at al-Balid (Dhofar, Oman). She is the author of several monographic studies and numerous papers published in national and international journals.