From the Archives

portrait sultan

Venice and the Islamic World

In 1494, the Milanese priest Pietro Casola recorded his awestruck reaction to the wealth of merchandise in the Venetian marketplace: ‘Who could count the many shops so well furnished that they also seem to be warehouses, with so many cloths of every make –tapestry, brocades and hangings of every design, carpets of every sort, camlets (woven cloth) of every colour and texture, silks of every kind; and so many warehouses full of spices, groceries, and drugs, and so much beautiful white wax!’ Many of the produces that caught Casola’s eye came from the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond, brought to Venice by her merchants. No other city was more adept at cultivating this Levantine trade, and as the Byzantine Empire gradually gave way to Islamic sultanates in the region, Venetians came increasingly into contact with Islamic ideas, culture and way of life.

The exhibition focused on the relationship between Venice and its principal Islamic trading partners: the Mamluks of Egypt and Syria; the Ottomans of Turkey; and the Safavids of Iran over a 1,000-year period, focusing on artistic and cultural ideas that originated in the Near East and were channelled, absorbed, and elaborated in Venice, a city that represented a commercial, political, and diplomatic magnet on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Influence of the Islamic World

The underlying theme of the exhibition focused on the reasons why a large number of Venetian paintings, drawings, printed books, and especially decorative artworks were influenced by and drew inspiration from the Islamic world and from its art. Orientalism in Venice was based on direct contact with the Islamic world, which brought about new technological, artistic, and intellectual information. These Venetian objects are studied vis-à-vis works of Islamic art, providing an immediate, comparative visual reference. A continuous thread throughout the exhibition dealt with the works of Islamic art that entered Venetian collections in historical times and explores the nature of the artistic relationship between Venice and the Mamluks in Egypt, the Ottomans in Turkey, and the Safavids in Iran.

The exhibition started in 828, the year two Venetian merchants stole Saint Mark’s body from Muslim-controlled Alexandria and brought it to Venice and ends in 1797, when the Venetian Republic fell to the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte. The first half of the 9th century sees the dawn of Venice’s complex relationship with the Islamic Near East develop. The city needed good diplomatic relationships, especially with the Mamluks and the Ottomans, in order to survive, yet at the same time it could not relinquish her role as one of the defenders of Christendom in Europe which represented the dominant force in Venice’s economy. The continuous presence of Venetian diplomats and the long-term residence of her merchants in the main cities of the Near East that gave Venice her distinctive cosmopolitan character based on trade. The most frequent ports of call used by the Venetian merchants were Istanbul, Damascus, Cairo, Aleppo, Trebizond and Alexandria.

As Deborah Howard points out, in the accompanying catalogue, unlike Spain and Sicily, Venice was never ruled by any Islamic caliphate. Originally an outlying colony of the Byzantine Empire, the Republic gradually established its cultural and political independence. After the First Crusade in 109, the Venetians lost no time in establishing trading bases in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, based on the model of their trading privileges in Constantinople since 1082. Thus, from the era of the Crusades onwards, Venice enjoyed a network of trading posts, known as ‘colonies’ in the Levant and Central Asia, including Damascus and Tabriz. Venetian commerce depended on the maintenance of smooth relations with Muslim trading partners.

Venice’s Diplomatic Relations

Venice’s economic and diplomatic relationships with these eastern Mediterranean regions were tied principally to the Mamluk (1250-1517), the rulers who halted the advance of the Mongols west of Iraq and expelled the last of the Crusaders from the Holy Land in the second half of the 13th century. The Mamluks inherited from the Fatimids (circa 910-1171) and the Ayyubids (1171-1260) the role of middlemen between South and Southeast Asian and Europe in the valuable spice trade and in the movement of other goods by land and sea via Damascus and the Red Sea. Venice consistently sought privileges from the Mamluks and ultimately became their main European trading partner. Several cities under Mamluk control had permanent Venetian diplomatic representatives with regular access to local authorities. Ties between the Venetian oligarchy, nobility, and merchant class and the Mamluk courts and its retinue were strong.

Luxurious, exotic goods were available for anyone who could afford to buy them. Sumptuous textiles – silks, velvets and carpets – are amongst the most portable of all the arts, and large numbers of Islamic examples were imported to Venice from an early date. However, the backbone of Venetian trade was not simply the acquisition of personal wealth and luxury objects to their palaces on the Grand Canal. The Republic’s commercial supremacy depended first and foremost on the city’s role as an entrepôt. These imports included spices, dyes, aromatics, silks, carpets and gems, as well as cargoes of cotton and sugar.

Earliest Islamic Objects in Venice

The presence of Islamic art in Venice can be documented from the Middle Ages. The earliest objects to arrive in the city, relief-cut glass and rock-crystal vessels from Fatimid Egypt, are still in the Treasury of St. Mark’s Basilica. Over the centuries, merchants and diplomats developed a taste for Islamic ceramics, textiles, arms and armour, metalwork and manuscripts and displayed them in their homes alongside European works of art.

These luxury imported objects found their way in to all walks of Venetian life. Even fabrics embroidered in Arabic, which were incomprehensible to average Venetians, were popular in the city and were often found in churches. Metalwork inlaid with silver and gold was a speciality in Damascus and Cairo under the Mamluks. By the early 15th century, however, new shapes and decorative styles had developed in response to European tastes and inscriptions in Latin could sometimes be found on Islamic metalwork along with Arabic calligraphy. By the end of the 15th century, trade with the Mamluks amounted to 45 per cent of all Venetian investment in overseas commerce, according to Eliyahu Ashtor in his book The Jews and the Mediterranean Economy (10th-15th Centuries), published in 1983.

Principal source of Oriental Spices and Goods

By the end of the Mamluk era, Venice was recognised as Europe’s principal source of Oriental spices and luxury goods. Prominent wealthy Florentines would procure Chinese porcelain and Syrian blue-and-white ceramics in Venice. The Venetian Republic’s long symbiosis with the Mamluk sultanates not only reflected the mercantile acumen and maritime adventurousness of its traders. The long-lasting partnership also demonstrated the value of constant diplomatic effort to smoothe over difficulties – whether overt hostilities or misunderstandings. On the whole, diplomacy was highly ritualised. The detailed documentation that accompanied every diplomatic exchange and the prominence of the office gifts that oiled the wheels of the trading treaties, assured the transmission of both written and visual information from East to West. Venetian diplomats also used the wealth of luxury oriental goods found in the city to acquire goods for embassies elsewhere in Europe. A collection of Damascus carpets were given as a gift to Cardinal Wolsey (1473-1530), archbishop and statesman to Queen Elizabeth the first.

One of the most famous episodes of artistic exchange between Venice and the Islamic world came when Gentile Bellini, the official painter to the Venetian Republic, went to work at the court of Sultan Mehmet II in Istanbul from 1479 to 1481. This diplomatic mission followed a bitter 16-year conflict between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, as by this time, Mehmet II had developed an appetite for portraits of himself by Italian artists.

Textiles and Venice

Unlike the carpet trade, which appears to have been almost exclusively in an east-to-west direction, textile commerce between Venice and the Islamic Middle East was distinguished by the flow of textile goods in both directions, writes Walter B Denny in the catalogue. Venice in the 16th century was a major producer of silk luxury textiles: the raw silk itself was produced in Gilan and Mazandaran on the Caspian shore of northern Persia, and was purchased in the Middle East by Venetian merchants after being transhipped overland through Bursa in Turkey (then the capital of the Ottoman Empire) and later through northern Syria, from whence it was taken by ship to Venice. Venetian luxury silks achieved a high reputation in Europe, and even, enjoyed a flourishing demand in the Ottoman Empire of the 16th century. Early Venetian velvets seem to have had a profound impact on Ottoman velvet design, which apparently during the later 15th century moved from relatively small-scale repetitive designs, often employing the characteristic paired wavy band and three balls known collectively as cintamani, to larger-scale ogival compositions.

Venice also had developed strong trading links with the Ottoman Empire (1281-1924). At the height of its power in the 16th and 17th centuries, it encompassed Anatolia, the Middle East, parts of North Africa and much of southeastern Europe. No other Muslim power in history has rivalled its longevity and extent. Because so many of the major commercial centres in the Mediterranean came within is empire – Bursa (in 1326), Constantinople (1453) and Damascus (1516) – Venetians needed to develop both commercial and diplomatic relations with the Ottomans. ‘Being merchants’, the Venetian ambassador to the Sublime Porte wrote in 1553, ‘We cannot live without them’.

Apart from territorial disputes in the l5th and 16th centuries, both sides generally sought a peaceful coexistence. In the 16th century, the vogue for portraits of Ottoman sultans continued in both Venice and Istanbul. Few figures stirred the Venetian imagination as much as Suleiman the Magnificent, and his likeness could be found in many Venetian portraits, medals, ceramics and prints.

By the time the Republic of Venice fell to Napoleon in 1797, Venice was still famous for its refinement, but no longer played a major role in international politics or commerce. In the final two centuries of its existence, its merchants and diplomats paid more attention to the expansion of the Venetian territories in northeast Italy, whilst at the same time, countries such as Portugal, England and Holland were developing sea routes to China and India, bypassing Venice altogether.

• The exhibition was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from March to July 2007, metmuseum.org
• Catalogue available, Venice and the Islamic World 828-1797, ISBN 9780300123409

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