Venice’s love affair with the east

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In his 1853 study The Stones of Venice, John Ruskin applauded the Venetians as “the only European people who appear to have sympathised to the full with the great instinct of the eastern races”.

Ruskin’s interest was confined to architecture, in particular the flowing arches, mosaics and tracery that gave Venetian Gothic its uniquely Arabesque touch. This show – which embraces paintings, ceramics, textiles, carpets, weaponry, metalware and glassware – reveals that eastern style permeated every aspect of the patrician Venetian lifestyle.

As early as the ninth century the Venetians, who were under the protection of the Byzantine Empire, started to sail their galleys along the eastern Mediterranean trading routes. Meanwhile, Islamic forces had been advancing steadily westwards, taking the Holy Land in the seventh century and reaching Sicily in 1060.

This show’s centrepiece is the “Throne of St Peter”, a marble seat carved with Koranic script that was donated by the Byzantine Emperor to Venice in recognition of their assistance in defending Sicily from the Arabs.

The two civilisations had to find a way to accommodate each other’s presence, and on the whole they preferred business to battles. After helping to conquer the coastal cities of Syria and Palestine in the first crusades in 1099, Venice set up trading colonies in Jerusalem, Alexandria, Acre, Beirut, Aleppo, Cairo and Damascus.

Even when the Muslim armies – first Saladin, then the Mameluke dynasty and finally the Ottomans – started to reconquer the Middle East, Venice’s expatriate merchant communities sat tight and trade flourished in a Venetian exports included linen, wool, olive oil, textiles, paper and glass while imports ranged from silk, cotton and spices to the alkali base needed for making glass. This vigorous exchange of goods that influenced the cultures of both communities. Venetian glassmakers, for example, adopted enamelling techniques developed in Syria.

On display here are medieval beakers painted with winged animals and camels that were made in Murano in the 12th and 13th centuries, and a 14th-century Egyptian mosque lamp inscribed with Koranic verses in cobalt script. The Venetian glassblowers ultimately usurped their teachers; by the 16th century, wealthy Arabs were commissioning lamps from Murano.

The textile industry proved equally fertile. The Venetians not only imported fabrics from Bursa, a centre of Turkish silk production, they also commissioned clothes from talented Ottoman weavers.

As a result, we can see the quirky phenomenon of an ecclesiastical cape embroidered with a typically Islamic design of scrolled vines by Muslim weavers, yet destined for use by a Catholic cleric. In a further twist, the Venetians also created their own cloths based on Ottoman designs, which they then sold back to the Turks.

Once familiar with the opulent fabrics created by Islamic weavers, Venetian painters couldn’t resist introducing them into their paintings. A magnificent example is Stefano Veneziano’s “Madonna Enthroned with Child”, executed in 1369. By then, the Mamelukes had chased the Christians out of the Holy Land, Egypt and Syria, but Venice remained unperturbed.

It opened lucrative galley routes to Beirut and Alexandria and kept consuls in Syria and Egypt to ensure good diplomatic relations. Testifying to the reciprocal goodwill, a pair of early 15th century inlaid brass candlesticks, made in Damascus, bear the crest of a Venetian family.

In 1453 the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople, depriving Christianity of its last power base in the east and bringing Islam to the gates of Europe. In 1479, when Sultan Mohammed II asked for “a good artist” from Venice to paint his portrait, the government’s decision to dispatch Gentile Bellini, smacks of the desire to placate and impress a powerful adversary.

Bellini frames his patron in an ornate archway draped with a jewelled, embroidered cloth, expertly balancing the Sultan’s aquiline features with the fat, dough-like coils of his turban. The almond-shaped eyes are unyielding but the dictator’s steeliness is tempered by the fragility of his bony nose and pointed beard.

The cross-cultural love affair continued into the 16th century. Even as Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566) extended Ottoman domination as far as Persia, Venetian bookbinders were enthusiastically publishing Islamic texts. Among examples here are a 1537 copy of the first Koran ever to be printed – it would take the Muslims another 400 years to reconcile their regard for their sacred text with technology – and a Greco-Arabic medical dictionary translated by a Venetian doctor who had learnt Arabic while living in the merchant colony of Damascus.

In 1570 the Turks took Cyprus, flaying alive the Venetian commander in the process. On May 25 1571, Venice, in a rare alliance with the Papacy and other Catholic states, defeated the Turkish army at Lepanto.

The battle was hailed as a victory for Christianity over the Infidel – Andrea Vicentino’s majestic oil painting of the scene dominates the room where this exhibition is held – but the celebrations were short-lived. The Turks continued to snaffle Venice’s Greek colonies, and the focus of maritime trade shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, depriving Venice of much wealth.

The final section of the exhibition bears witness to the souring of relations between Venice and the Ottoman Empire. From Persia, the presence of magnificent woven carpets – one craft Venetians never attempted to copy – is emblematic of La Serenissima’s growing bond with the Persian Safavid dynasty, who were their best hope of an alliance against the Turks.

A vitrine is devoted to Turkish and Venetian weaponry, including a Venetian helmet decorated with a design that recalls, ironically, Islamic foliate patterns. Mounted on the wall is a sinister wooden relief of a chained, half-naked Turk that once decorated the prow of the warship commanded by the 17th-century naval captain and Doge Francesco Morosini.

An oil painting by Giambattista Tiepolo entitled “Two Orientals Under a Tree” depicts a shady-looking caricature of an Arab in an exaggeratedly large turban. How sad that even the Venetians – the most worldly and well-travelled of all Europeans – ultimately fell into the trap of demonising the neighbours with whom they had once had such a fruitful and mutually respectful exchange.

‘Venice and Islam 828-1797’ is at the Doge’s Palace, Venice, until November 25. Tel +39 041520 9070

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