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Venice and the Ottomans

The Ottoman empire (1299–1923) was, at its peak, one of the most important economic and cultural powers in the world and ruled a vast area stretching from the Middle East and North Africa all the way to Budapest (in present-day Hungary) in the north. Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Venetian and Ottoman empires were trading partners—a mutually beneficial relationship providing each with access to key ports and valuable goods (fig. 55). Though territorial wars intermittently interrupted their relationship, both empires relied on trade for their economic well-being. As a Venetian ambassador expressed, "being merchants, we cannot live without them." The Ottomans sold wheat, spices, raw silk, cotton, and ash (for glass making) to the Venetians, while Venice provided the Ottomans with finished goods such as soap, paper, and textiles. The same ships that transported these everyday goods and raw materials also carried luxury objects such as carpets, inlaid metalwork, illustrated manuscripts, and glass. Wealthy Ottomans and Venetians alike collected the exotic goods of their trading partner and the art of their empires came to influence one another. (For more about the Ottoman empire, see Art and Empire: The Ottoman Court and Domestic Life in Eighteenth-Century Damascus.)

Fig. 55. Venice as rendered by Ottoman admiral and cartographer Piri Reis in the early sixteenth century. Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz


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Sheila Canby: Here's conservator Lisa Pilosi on the dazzling styles of Islamic glass, the earliest forms built on glassmaking traditions already known from the Romans.

Lisa Pilosi: And many of the techniques are similar. So we find Islamic glass that's made by casting, pouring molten glass into molds. And then the most important Roman invention that's taken on by the Islamic glassmakers was glassblowing. In keeping with other types of Islamic art, the surface decoration is very important. And so while they take on techniques such as enameling or gilding, which were used to some extent by Roman glassmakers, they really perfect and use these to a much greater extent than we had seen earlier.

The enamel consists of crushed glass. These are applied to the surface with a brush and some kind of binder. And then the glass is once again fired to fuse the glass to the surface. We use the term "fused" because it's very important for the glassmaker to heat the enamel just to the point of melting or fusing to the surface, but not to destroy the object itself by re-melting it.

Velvet fragment

The lesson plan related to Venice and the Islamic World features a sixteenth-century velvet fragment from Turkey.