It’s not exactly news that Venice had close ties to the East. We were all taught early on that the wealth of the magical city of canals derived from trade with the Turks and Arabs—that’s how valuable spices and silks from exotic Asia found their way to Italy. I seem to recall that in elementary school this information was somehow bound up with Marco Polo’s travels and the surprising fact that the intrepid merchant brought pasta to Italy from China, a confusing notion that led me to form a mental image of Venetian dignitaries sitting around the Doge’s palace in long red velvet robes and those odd hats with earlaps—my school’s enriched curriculum had a heavy emphasis on art—eating spaghetti with chopsticks. Years later, most of us learned a more nuanced, much more interesting version of the history of Venice, a dramatic tale involving competition for trade routes, sea battles, and chicanery. Crusaders en route to Jerusalem figured in this account, along with the news that pasta had really been invented in Italy, after all, probably by the Etruscans, and so, much later, had forks, possibly by the Florentines. (Maybe that childhood image of chopstick-wielding veneziani wasn’t so far-fetched.) Even if, by some quirk of extraordinarily progressive education, someone escaped learning all this before reaching college age, one look at Venice herself would tell the story, confirming that where other Northern Italian cities looked to the classical past for inspiration, she looked to the Near East. No one coming face to face with the basilica of San Marco could fail to be swept away by its opulent orientalism—the fabulous decorations and the exuberant arches, spires, and domes of the exterior, the over-the-top glitter and lavish patterns of the interior. Constantinople—Byzantium—not Rome, was Venice’s model.

If these cross-connections are all such familiar territory, why, then, is the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797” so absorbing?1 For many reasons, not the least being that the show is full of marvelous, astonishing things: glass, ceramics, metalwork, luxury textiles, carpets, arms and armor, sculpture, furniture and domestic objects, paint- ings, drawings, manuscripts, prints, printed books, book bindings, maps, scientific instruments, and I’ve probably left something out. There’s the monumental carved wood decoration for the stern of a seventeenth-century commander-in-chief of the Venetian fleet’s war galley—a half-naked Turk in chains, as a testament to the commander’s victory over the Ottomans and to what the show calls “the demonizing of the Turk” during times of strife with the East. And there’s a pair of sumptuous Venetian lacquer-work doors, from the same period, studded with slices of semi-precious stones, mother of pearl, and gilding, as elaborate as a gem-encrusted Byzantine bible-cover, but five-and-a-half feet high; they make Rudyard Kipling’s phrase from Just So Stories “more than oriental splendor” seem like understatement. Since virtually everything in “Venice and the Islamic World” is of dazzlingly high quality, the show offers abundant pleasures, and since much of it is material that is seldom the center of focused attention, at least for those of us who tend to concentrate on painting and sculpture, we also learn a lot.

The encyclopedic selection at the Met at once brings a crucial aspect of the history of Venice vividly alive and tests the acuity of our perceptions. The exhibition sets intricately worked fifteenth-century Islamic brass pieces—salvers, boxes, and bowls—beside Venetian metalwork made in imitation of those Near Eastern models; both iterations are placed in close proximity to objects commissioned by affluent Venetians from Muslim craftsmen. It takes concentrated looking to discover the small variations in the motifs that bear witness to differences of origin and intention, but if we pay attention, the full complexity of the connection between East and West during this provocative period begins to reveal itself. We quickly realize that there’s no simple cause and effect relationship here, but rather a complicated story of rivalry, self-interest, cooperation, mutual fascination, attraction, resistance, and cross-fertilization. It’s a difficult story to tell, but the exhibition succeeds admirably in making it both comprehensible and deeply engaging.

The thesis of the show is that the long relationship of Venice with the Near East was crucial not only to the prosperity of the city but to its very existence and, in many ways, its identity. What made this important connection complicated was that Islam was seen as the enemy of Christendom, to which Christian Venice automatically belonged and was pledged to defend through its various alliances (see “Battle of Lepanto, 1571”). That Venice and her Eastern counterparts were sometimes in outright competition for influence, shipping, and trading rights reinforced this simmering hostility, but, just to add to the confusion, the pragmatic city also repeatedly violated Papal embargoes against trading with the Muslims (trade, of course, intensified when embargoes were lifted), Venetian ambassadors were sent to Near Eastern courts, and Venetian merchants were resident in Islamic cities.

The dates that bracket the show, 828 and 1797, are convenient symbols of the duration of this special link.

The dates that bracket the show, 828 and 1797, are convenient symbols of the duration of this special link. According to the chronicles of Venice, 828 was the year in which a pair of Venetian merchants trading in Alexandria, Egypt, then under the control of the Muslim governor of Cairo, carried off the body of Saint Mark from one of the city’s Coptic churches. The official story was that the church and its precious contents were under threat from Muslims needing building materials, so the Venetians were actually saving the relics from desecration; that having bits of some high profile holy personage in the local church could provide both psychological protection and a boost to the economy is, of course, another matter. This inspired bit of thievery announced both the connection of Venice to the East and the dominance of Christian power. Returning home, the merchants presented their loot to the Doge, who immediately commissioned a chapel to house this splendid addition to the spiritual welfare of the city, connected to the recently completed Palazzo Ducale. The originally modest “palace chapel” became the lavish Basilica of San Marco, eventually adorned with other marvelous works spirited from the East—the group of embracing porphyry figures built into one corner and the originals of the glorious golden horses above the portico, for example—and San Marco himself became a key figure in Venetian iconography. The really significant date, however, turns out to be 1082, when the Byzantine emperor granted Venice trading rights, essentially opening the door to the East.

The date with which the exhibition concludes (1797) marks the end of the Venetian Republic. Far earlier, as early as the mid-seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth century, Venice’s power gradually eroded, perhaps not coincidentally as she became more “Europeanized” and the Muslim world became increasingly alien and threatening. Conflicts with the Ottomans and the North African beys led to humiliating defeats. The once legendary state-of-the-art shipyards at the Arsenale, which had turned out invincible, superb galleys and warships with incredible speed, ceased operation about 1716. But, as Stefano Carboni, the exhibition curator and editor of the richly detailed, fascinating catalogue, points out, the final defeat of Venice—the extinction of the Republic—came not at the hands of the enemy infidel but from a burgeoning European power—French troops led by Napoleon Bonaparte.

The great majority of works in “Venice and the Islamic World” were made between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, the fertile, glory years when trade and creative exchange flourished. If we pay close attention, we can gain an inkling of the subtly shifting relationship of Venice, over time, to her Eastern suppliers, markets, rivals, and sometime foes, but mostly we are made acutely aware of the abundance and richness of the goods available in Venice at the peak of the Republic’s power, when Turkish velvets and not mass-produced, tourist kitsch was displayed in the shops on the Rialto Bridge. Even our most oblique conceptions of Venetian history—remembering Antonio’s anxiety about the arrival of his ships in The Merchant of Venice, for example—cease to be abstractions when we are confronted by the cargo that filled those ships. These associations become even more real when we can see just how the Venetians themselves responded to those exotic imports. At the Met, we can follow how ideas and techniques got tossed back and forth, through, for example, the opportunity to compare examples of Syrian decorated glass with Venetian imitations. We can track how the characteristic inverted bell and bowl shape of mosque lamps became part of the vocabulary of Murano craftsmen, and marvel when we read that an Ottoman vizier placed an order for nine hundred mosque lights with Italian glassmakers. Along the way we learn that Venetian glassmakers often imported their raw materials from islands controlled by Muslims. And to drive home the point, we are shown a large section of a thirteenth-century Italian pulpit, made by Venetian craftsmen, inlaid with Venetian-made enameled glass in complicated geometric patterns that would be indistinguishable from those on a mosque minbar.

As we move through the show, we are presented with evidence not simply of the avid consumption of luxury goods, both imported and exported, but also of cross-fertilization. We can admire a couple of vast sixteenth-century Mamluk carpets, one acquired by the Scuola di San Rocco, in Venice, another commissioned by a synagogue in the Venetian-controlled city of Padova, along with some smaller, but no less impressive, examples; then we notice that similar carpets appear as signs of affluence and affirmations of the owner’s excellent taste, spread on tables, in the exhibition’s portraits of Venetian families. We admire, too, the intricate brocade of a length of Persian silk used as a shroud for a Veronese ruler, as well as the generous patterns of silky, fifteenth-century Venetian and Turkish velvets; then we discover that the large, elegant Venetian motifs influenced the Turkish designs.

The sheer gorgeousness of these fabrics explains why they frequently appear in paintings from the trecento on as luxurious robes for the Madonna or as backdrops for groupings of the Madonna and Child, functioning simultaneously to separate the protagonists from the quotidian world and to signal opulence, beauty, and specialness. Using lengths of magnificent fabric as hangings turns out to be an Eastern custom; while in the West, a piece of Turkish velvet was likely to be turned into a ceremonial garment.

This kind of layered interchange gets particularly complicated in the show’s section on ceramics.

This kind of layered interchange gets particularly complicated in the show’s section on ceramics. Venetian majolica decorated with delicate, twining vines and leaves outlined in blue on a white ground seems vaguely Chinese, despite a lively drawing style that seems peculiarly Italian, especially when compared with a magnificent Iranian bowl that announces what may be an even closer connection to China—until we look more closely and discover the characteristically Islamic rhythms of the patterns and the idiosyncratic stylizations of its flower motifs. Then we realize that what the majolica imitates is a Near Eastern earthenware version of Chinese blue and white porcelain; the Venetian type of decoration is known, in fact, as alla porcelana.

What about paintings? Anyone expecting anything resembling the mind-boggling selection of masterworks seen last year in Washington, in the National Gallery’s “Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and the Renaissance in Venetian Painting,” will be bitterly disappointed. But there are wonderful works in “Venice and the Islamic World” that reward close attention. Most fascinating, perhaps, is the celebrated portrait of Sultan Mehmet II (1480, National Gallery, London), by Gentile Bellini, painted during the acclaimed artist’s “state-sponsored” visit to Constantinople. (He also produced a bronze portrait medal for the sultan.) Bellini’s image of the bearded, elegantly dressed ruler, with his immense white turban and long, arched nose, is unforgettable. The painting is animated by the tension between the iconic, rather confining, marble arch that frames the figure and his relaxed, three-quarter pose, abetted by the contrast between the infinite space of the dark ground, the forthrightness of the jeweled embroidery draped over the sill of the arch, and the eerie rendition of the sultan’s emblem, the three floating crowns, repeated on each side of the arch. It’s a strange, appealing picture—specific, yet remote and formal—which is probably an accurate reflection of the mood of the protocol-laden court of this powerful individual. Apparently, the sultan was delighted with Bellini’s efforts, and, according to the exhibition catalogue, the painting set a standard for court portraiture that persisted for centuries.

The exhibition’s group of what have been called Venetian “orientalist” paintings, executed from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries, are quite engaging for their own merits, but they become even more interesting in the context of the wealth of other material in the exhibition. We can easily succumb to the considerable charms of a pair of episodes from the life of St. Stephen, painted in the early sixteenth century by Vittorio Carpaccio and his assistants for the Scuola di Santo Stefano: the pellucid light, the wonderfully rendered buildings of one picture, with their porticos and stairs, and the hilly, stony landscape of the other, the enchanting anecdotal details of plants, animals, and figures as we wander through the background, and the sharply individualized figures of the foreground. But we enjoy the pictures even more when we acknowledge both Carpaccio’s fascination with Near Eastern costumes and the liberties he took with them. Similarly, a tall, narrow, not—it must be admitted—very distinguished St. Mark Baptizing Anianus by Giovanni Mansueti (ca. 1518, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan) suddenly becomes a fascinating compendium of things we’ve just been looking at. Embroidered Mamluk emblems decorate the walls of the complicated, arched interior; the saint anoints Anianus from a blue and white Chinese (or Persian or Venetian alla porcelana) bowl; the costumes are Mamluk and a glass mosque lamp hangs overhead. Primed by the alluring objects elsewhere in the show, we begin to reexamine all the paintings and drawings for this kind of information, with gratifying results—which does not prevent the Musée du Louvre’s Reception of the Venetian Ambassadors in Damascus, painted by an anonymous, Carpaccio-esque Venetian in 1511, from enchanting us as much for its crisply rendered buildings (decorated with Mamluk emblems), minarets, and trees as for its carefully differentiated turban types and costumes—not to mention the delicious camels and the pair of anthropomorphic, rather inexplicable deer, who seem to reenact the ritual of presentation and greeting performed just behind them by the respectful Venetian delegation and their fantastically turbaned Muslim hosts, seated on their nifty red divan. (Is the chief dignitary’s multi-lobed headdress supposed to resonate with the stag’s antlers?)

Later paintings attest to the Venetians’ changing attitudes toward Muslims.

Later paintings attest to the Venetians’ changing attitudes toward Muslims; witness a decorative panel by Giandomenico Tiepolo, Two Orientals Under a Tree (ca. 1742–1745, National Gallery, London), in which a pair of faceless figures, rather like performers in costume, do nothing in particular except wear turbans. Rather than manifesting the lively curiosity about the specifics of exotic subject matter that informs the exhibition’s works by Bellini, Carpaccio, Mansueti, and that delightful anonymous Venetian, Tiepolo’s handsome, fluently painted image seems to present a generic interpretation of “the other.”

All of these intricacies and much more are thoroughly explored in the catalogue of “Venice and the Islamic World,” which includes everything from a summary of current ideas about the subtle relationship of Venice and the Near East, based on new research and new interpretations of documents, to a scrupulous discussion of “Enameled Glass Between the Eastern Mediterranean and Venice.” (The exhibition curator, Dr. Carboni, is an expert on glass.) There’s also complex technical information about the many types of objects on view, discussions of the role of the arts in diplomacy, a dissection of “orientalist” painting, and more. The catalogue is an absolutely fascinating document, so full of informative details that it makes a return visit to “Venice and the Islamic World” not only desirable, but imperative, once we’ve been alerted to even more about why the carefully assembled works in the show are so special. Even repeated encounters with “Venice and the Islamic World” are, of course, no substitute for a trip to that most seductive and exasperating of cities (I’ll spare you my Venetian friends’ opinions about food in their home town) but it’s a wonderful preparation for a visit and could even help to assuage the pangs of those of us suffering from withdrawal symptoms. And I want to have another look at some of that glass.

  1.  “Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797” opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, on March 27 and remains on view through July 8, 2007.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 9, on page 43
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