Mahmoud Hammad's 'Italian Papers'

Donata Levi, Ph.D.
University of Udine

August 27, 2023

Part of Mahmoud Hammad’s Collection within al Mawrid’s Arab Art Archive at New York University Abu Dhabi are four typewritten papers written by the artist while studying at the Accademia di Belle Arti in the mid-fifties.1 Written fluently in Italian, the four papers, while marking Mahmoud Hammad’s cursus studiorum at the Academy, are evidence of his ease in dealing with art historical issues as well as of his acute sensitivity in the observation and contextualisation of artistic phenomena.

Figure 1. "Raphael paper," page 1. Image from the Family Estate of Mahmoud Hammad, al Mawrid Arab Art Archive

This essay aims to briefly analyze these art historical writings by relating them to the artist's own production (both during his Roman stay and later). More generally, it attempts to highlight how his approach to the art of the past presents strong analogies with his own artistic activity in terms of appropriation, assimilation and original reworking of themes and models.

Three of the four papers are dated, referring to the three academic years 1954–1955, 1955–56, and 1956–1957, respectively. The first discusses the controversial authorship (Giotto–not Giotto) of the fresco of the “Loggia della Benedizione” (Lodge of the Blessing) in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran. The second deals with Pisanello as a medallist. In the third paper—the topic of his thesis—Hammad writes about Honoré Daumier examining all his multifaceted art productions, from lithographs, to drawings, sculptures, and paintings. The fourth one, while undated, is devoted to the School of Athens by Raphael in the Stanze Vaticane.

In the paper on Giotto’s fresco, Hammad diligently assembles passages from recent Italian literature regarding the fresco and its attribution, as well as the chronology of Giotto’s stay in Rome. The topic of the paper appears to be an assigned homework exercise: it is a topic typical of a traditional approach to art history, focused on distinctions of authorship and style and attributions, an approach that seems somewhat removed from Hammad’s interests and the more pensive questions he addresses in his three other papers.

The Pisanello essay, on the other hand, shows a deeper study with a more complex articulation—it includes a historical introduction to the origin of medals and the revival of portrait (or “iconic”) medals in the Renaissance, a discussion on Pisanello’s technique, and a short catalogue of seven medals by Pisanello. Hammad’s two main sources are a monograph published in 1939 by Adolfo Venturi (1856–1941),2 the founder of art history as an academic discipline in Italy, and the classic book by Jean-Marc de Foville (1877–1915) on Pisanello and the Italian medallists (1909).3 Interestingly, Hammad also made use of a short article by Giuseppe Romagnoli (1872–1966), published in 1950 in the prestigious magazine of the International Art Medal Federation, Medailles4 Romagnoli, an Italian sculptor and medallist until 1954, directed the Scuola dell’Arte della Medaglia (School of the Art of Medal), which, though not part of the Academy—but with strong connections with it)—was an important art laboratory in Rome.5 And it was in Rome that Hammad had the opportunity to fully explore the pictorial possibilities of cast medallions: in Motherhood (1955) he reworked the widespread iconography of the Virgin suckling the Infant Christ. In another work devoted to Abū Zayd al-Hilali, the Arab leader and hero of the eleventh century (1956), Hammad’s work echoed classical models.6 The fact that Motherhood is in bronze, therefore requiring an equipped laboratory for the fusion of the metal strongly supports the hypothesis that Hammad could have also been in contact with the Scuola dell’Arte della Medaglia  (School of Medal) in Rome. From a critical point of view, what emerges–and is highly meaningful–is the close link he was able to establish between artistic making and the historical and critical reflection on the models that inspired him.

Figure 2. Left: Mahmoud Hammad, Motherhood, 1955. Bronze Medallion, 135mm. Right: Mahmoud Hammad, Abu Zaid Alhilali, 1956. Plaster Medallion. Images courtesy of the Mahmoud Hammad Estate.

The paper on Daumier is a biography of the French artist, which opens with a significant exergo, alluding to the modernity of his work and his possible role as a master for contemporary artists on par with Cézanne.7 Mahmoud Hammad traces the main steps in Daumier’s artistic training and career, illustrating his multifaceted activities as a sculptor and painter, as well as lithographer and caricaturist. The analysis of some of Daumier’s works, probably accompanied by illustrations or photographs (not present with the handwritten copy in Hammad’s collection in al Mawrid’s Arab Art Archive archive), concerns not only their contents but also some formal features, focusing on Daumier’s specific attitude in rendering physiognomic expression and scenes of dramatic intensity. As the list of references that opens the essay shows, Mahmoud Hammad made extensive use of the most recent literature on Daumier. However, the vast use of historiographical sources does not detract from the originality of Hammad’s contribution, where he offers an exhaustive picture of Daumier’s oeuvre. For example, Hammad appears to be particularly interested in Daumier’s activity as a sculptor, a theme which had come to the fore following the 1952 publication of Maurice Gobin (1883–1962)’s book with a catalogue raisonné8 and the commentary published the following year in the journal SeleArte by Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti (1910–1987)—one of the most important and politically engaged art historians and critics of the time.9

In the fourth paper (undated) Hammad examines Raphael’s famous fresco in the Vatican representing the School of Athens, a study situated within the development of the painter’s art from the Umbrian to the Roman period.10 The analysis of the fresco is preceded by reflections on Raphael’s masters, role models, and relationships, including observations on Perugino, Piero della Francesca, Fra Bartolomeo della Porta, and Bramante. Hammad refutes the cliché that sees Raphael as a natural genius, who paints according to a merely instinctive vein. On the contrary, he portrays him as an obstinate, almost relentless researcher, as is shown by the development of this art. Subsequently, with great competence, originality, and a very good command of the Italian art criticism parlance, he discusses Raphael’s construction of spatial compositions, dwelling on formal methods and techniques such as drawing and chiaroscuro. Hammad’s study of the School of Athens resonates with one of his last and most challenging undertaking, the large canvas of the Islamic Scientists at the Islamic Civilization Museum in Sharjah11: the arrangement of the four different groups, their concatenation, and the interplay of each figure's orientation, with some faces depicted in profile or three quarter—a feature typical of 15th-century Florentine painting—and the choice of the color palette, suggest a late re-reading and interpretation of the famous fresco. Whilst maintaining spatial composition among the human figures, Raphael’s Bramantesque setting is translated into a fragmented series of Islamic symbols and allusions. He maintains—or extrapolates from Raphael—the construction of groups but frames them differently—as opposed to an architectural setting with arches and vaults, emphasising a strict central geometric perspective, Hammad instead depicts an abstract, and highly symbolic, background with several intersecting circular planes, derived in some way from the central sphere of the zodiac.

Figure 3. Mahmoud Hammad, Islamic Scientists, 1988. Oil on Canvas, 120 x 180 cm. Islamic Civilization Museum in Sharjah, UAE. Image courtesy of the Mahmoud Hammad Estate.

While the description of the four papers offers much to reflect on, they also raise many questions.  it is tempting to think that, for example, the decision to write an essay on Daumier stemmed from his interest both in the artist’s political commitment and in the novelty of his stylistic choices—although one may also suspect the influence of his professor of painting, Amerigo Bartoli [1890-1971], a painter as well as a well-known satiric draughtsman. Perhaps Hammad was also influenced by a possible visit to the exhibition of masterpieces of nineteenth-century French painting, held in February–March 1955 at the Exhibition Palace of Rome, where two paintings by Daumier were shown: Les voleurs et l’âne and La blanchisseuse (both from the Louvre, now Musée d’Orsay).12 In fact, the catalogue of the exhibition, organised by German Bazin (1901-1990), is included in Hammad’s bibliography on Daumier. 

What is certain is that the study of the artists of the past and of their artworks influenced, in some way or another, Hammad’s subsequent career, as attested by the “iconic” medals he created in the following decades and by his rethinking of Raphael in the final phase of his life. But one could also speculate on deeper and more complex suggestions which have to do with methodological approaches and attitudes, precisely his attitude towards assimilation and reuse. The conclusion of his Daumier paper is telling. He entitled it “Similarities and Contrasts,” aiming at “finding relationships between Daumier's art and that of other artists—predecessors, successors and contemporaries and—that might help in a certain way to give Daumier's art its proper critical and historical value.” In it, he lists and discusses many artists, from Michelangelo to Van Gogh, but ultimately concludes that: “Alongside these comparisons, one could mention those of Millet, Lautrec, Degas or Rembrandt, and several others. But the important thing is that Daumier is never eclectic, as his personality remains so powerfully distinct that it emerges over every influence.”13

Figure 4. Mahmoud Hammad, Roma, 1956. Zincograph 4/10, 18.2x21.7 cm

To trace a subtle, but fundamental, line between assimilation and eclecticism is perhaps a key to interpreting Hammad’s attitude towards the art of the past as well as that of his contemporaries. It is probably no coincidence that Hammad’s attendance at the Academy in Rome started in the same year when Toti Scialoja was called to teach painting, before becoming the Chair of Engraving in 1957. As recently noted by Gabriele Simongini: “For Scialoja, art always originated from art, by emulation and thus through operational mimesis one could appropriate in depth the working method of another artist, above all in order to get rid of it after having absorbed its essence.”14 Hammad’s zincograph Roma (1956)15 can be considered an implementation of this principle: the framing of the view, the relationship between shapes and background, but above all the cross-hatching betray the artist’s desire to measure himself against one of the greatest artists and engravers on the Italian art scene, Giorgio Morandi (1890–1964).16 One wonders if this attitude is not also a key to Hammad’s Roman papers: the practice of selecting, quoting, re-using and re-shaping in art has its parallel in the art historical discourse and becomes for him a tool for mastering concepts, absorbing writing methods and codes, and appropriating a critical vocabulary in order to verify, enrich and strengthen previously acquired concepts. 

From the point of view of an Italian scholar, I find that Hammad’s papers are of great interest and open the path to further research. As far as I know, many questions stay unanswered regarding his stay in the Academy, the courses he attended, his relationships with the artistic circles of Rome, his participation at events (did he visit the 1954 and 1956 Venice Biennale?) and exhibitions. The mid-1950s—a period of great cultural turmoil—was marked in the Capital, as in the whole of Italy, by the opposition between figurative and abstract artists.17 In addition, further investigation of his fellow Arab students and colleagues—who in 1954 exhibited their works in the Palazzetto Borghese in what was defined as the “first show of Arab artists on the banks of the Tiber river”—is required.18 Focusing on the experiences of Arab artists in Rome—a field still only occasionally investigated19—can provide an important foundation for the research on the circulation of themes and models among different traditions, the interchange among different cultures, and the political implications of these cultural relationships.


* Donata Levi is Professor of History of Art Criticism and Museology in the Department of Humanities and Cultural Heritage, University of Udine, Italy.


1 Mahmoud Hammad Collection, Arab Art Archive, al Mawrid Arab Center for the Study of Art, AD_MC_091_ref225.
2 Adolfo Venturi, Pisanello, (Rome: Fratelli Palombi editore, 1939).
3 Jean-Marc de Fauville, Pisanello et les Médailleurs italiens: étude critique (Paris: H. Laurens, 1909).
4 Giuseppe Romagnoli, “Considerazioni sulle medaglie di Pisanello,” Médailles 2 (October 1950): 2–4.
5 For further information, see: Rosa Maria Villani, “Giuseppe Romagnoli, sculture e medaglie a confronto,” Suggestioni in metallo. L’arte della medaglia tra Ottocento e modernità, exhibition catalogue ed. by Gabriella Angela Bufalini (special issue of Bollettino di Numismatica, n.s., 60, 2013, 121-144.
6 Both images available at:
7 From Louis Gillet’s biographical entry on Daumier in Enciclopedia Italiana, Rome: Istituto dell’Enciclopedia italiana, 1931,
8 Maurice Gobin, Daumier Sculpteur 1808–1879. Avec un catalogue raisonné et illustré de l'œuvre sculpté, Génève: Ed. Pierre Cailler, 1952.
9 Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti, “Daumier scultore,” SeleArte (January–February 1953).
10 While it is difficult to confirm through the digitized version of the paper, the fourth paper appears to not have been produced on carbon paper contrasting from the other three papers. This is important to note because it could mean that this was not a piece of writing intended for the school. Generally, the first copy was consigned to the Academy or to the professor, and the copies were retained by students.
11 Image available at:
12 Mostra di capolavori della pittura francese dell’Ottocento, exhibition catalogue (Rome, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, February-March 1955), Rome: De Luca editore, 1955, 38–39 (nos. 25–26, figs. 48–49).
13  Mahmoud Hammad Collection, Arab Art Archive, al Mawrid Arab Center for the Study of Art, AD_MC_091_ref225, pgs. 91 and 98.
14 Gabriele Simongini, “Toti Scialoja, l’arte della didattica e della tradizione in divenire,” in Accademia di Belle Arti di Roma: Centoquaranta anni di istruzione superiore dell’arte in Italia, ed. Pietro Roccasecca ( Rome: De Luca editori d’arte, 2018), 109–114.
15 Image available at:
16 For a bibliography of Giorgio Morandi, see:
17 It is to be hoped that a fruitful collaboration could be established with the Academy of Fine Arts, whose archive (in process of being ordered) still preserves not only dossier for each student, but also class registers, records of examination results, occasionally some correspondence with foreign embassies. I wish to thank the Academy’s archivist, Barbara de Iudicibus for her invaluable help in consulting the archive.
18 See: “Una mostra a Roma di artisti arabi,” Corriere della Sera, April 17, 1954.
19 Convergenze mediterranee: Artisti arabi tra Italia e Mediterraneo/Mediterranean Crossroads: Arab Artists between Italy and the Mediterranean, ed. Martina Corgnati, (Rome: De Luca editore, 2009).

Cite this article as:

Levi, Donata. "Mahmoud Hammad's 'Italian Papers'." Sawt al-Arsheef, al Mawrid NYUAD (August 2023).