I had one of those slap-upside-the-head moments a few days ago while reading through a magazine on mid-century architecture. Looking at a page of beautiful gardens, there was an ornament described as being “Arabesque” and resembling something distinctly Arabic in design. Entirely logical, you might say, but to me, “Arabesque” has always meant either a ballet position, or something with lacy curlicues and sometimes found on early 20th century Japanese women’s garments such as this vintage meisen haori from ikimono’s Etsy shop.
I had also assumed that it was of European origin, and that may well be the case, at least according to Wikipedia:
An understanding of the etymology of the word is useful in deciphering the confusions surrounding its usage. The word arabesque is French, borrowed by English, the French term itself being derived from the Italian word arabesco, which first appeared in Italian literature in 1546. The Italian word uses the Latin derived “inceptive” or “inchoative” word ending “-esco” signifying a beginning, thus ferveo, to boil and fervesco to begin to boil. The creation of this word in inceptive form in cinquecento Italy strongly suggests that the form was then believed, quite wrongly as will be seen, to have had its beginning in “Arabia”, which term was then probably used to signify any near-oriental land, including those of the Byzantine Empire.
So… the term comes from Italy, is French, and is used to describe designs from an exotic foreign culture? From the Wiki page on the Islamic Arabesque:
Over the following centuries the three terms grotesque, moresque and arabesque were used largely interchangeably in English, French and German for styles of decoration derived at least as much from the European past as the Islamic world, with “grotesque” gradually acquiring its main modern meaning, related more to Gothic gargoyles and caricature than to either Pompeii-style Roman painting or Islamic patterns. Meanwhile the word “arabesque” was now being applied to Islamic art itself, by 1851 at the latest, when John Ruskin uses it in The Stones of Venice. Writers over the last decades have attempted to salvage meaningful distinctions between the words from the confused wreckage of historical sources.
Aha, I didn’t know that about grotesque, either. Interesting. At any rate, compare the haori above with this Arabic panel from Samarkand and note the design elements in both:
But wait, there’s more: Traditional Arabesque: Textile Design II by Yoshimoto, Kamon, and what appears to be an earlier work by the same author, Pictorial Book of Japanese Arabesque Patterns both showcase a selection of Japanese textiles with this delicate scrollwork (and are now on my ever-growing book wish list).
To complicate linguistic matters further, here’s the Japanese for “arabesque” from JAANUS (emphasis added):
An abbreviation of karakusamon 唐草文, lit. Chinese grass motif. Often used interchangeably with *karahanamon 唐花文, or lit. Chinese floral motif. A foliage-scroll pattern seen on textiles and crafts including ceramics, metal work, and lacquerware as well as sculptural and architectural detailing. Although the term refers to floral and plant motifs introduced to Japan from China, most of the motifs originated in Central Asia, India, Persia, and Arabia. Some came from as far west as Greece and Egypt. The patterns are generally characterized by a flower-and-leaf motif linked by continuous, repetitive, scrolling vines or tendrils.
In summary, when used to describe Arabic design, “arabesque” may denote geometric OR curvilinear designs of Arabic origin. Used to describe Japanese art, it is reserved for curvilinear art and often includes floral motifs.