Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Commercial Exchange, Diplomacy, and Religious Difference between Venice and the Islamic World

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  • Venetian Traders in the Islamic World
    Marco Polo's (1254–1324) intrepid twenty-five-year journey took him from Venice to China, where he met the Great Khan of the Mongol empire, Kublai Khan. Though his experience was exceptional for its duration and for the illustrious people whom he encountered, Polo is simply the most famous of the thousands of Venetian merchants who sought to make a fortune by acquiring luxury goods, spices, and raw materials in the East and selling them for a high return on Venetian markets. For Venetians, Levantine emporia became synonymous with profit, and visiting them was a crucial part of a young nobleman's education. Their most frequent ports of call included Istanbul, Damascus, Cairo, Aleppo, Tripoli, and Alexandria. Handbooks and travel diaries, often written in Venetian dialect, offered these merchants advice about tariffs, prices, weights, and measures in these cities, while astrolabes and portolans aided them in overseas travel. In many Near Eastern cities, Venice had established trading colonies where its traveling merchants could find lodging, food, a public bath, and a church upon arrival. Multilingual interpreters, known as dragomans, were often readily available for hire, though many Venetian merchants did learn Arabic and Persian so that they could have firsthand interactions with Muslim traders and custom officials. Arabic words in particular infiltrated the Venetian dialect as a result.

    Few of the works of art created by Bellini during his Ottoman sojourn survive, but the episode lives on as one of the high points in artistic and cultural exchange between Venice and its Islamic neighbors.


    Cited Works of Art or Images (8)

    • Madonna and Child Enthroned
    • Portrait of Doge Francesco Foscari
    • Portrait of Doge Giovanni Mocenigo
    • Portrait of Sultan Mehmet II
    • Giovanni della Volta with His Wife and Children
    • Portolan
    • Map in a wooden case
    • The Reception of the Venetian Ambassadors in Damascus


    In recognition of the importance of Near Eastern trade to its economy, the Venetian Republic assumed control of the local shipbuilding industry at an early date. By the fourteenth century, Venetians had developed a special type of large cargo ship, the cog or round ship, which they armed with crossbowmen to protect against pirate attacks while at sea. Both state convoys and private ships regularly shuttled Venetian merchants back and forth from Near Eastern ports, often even in the winter. By contrast, and contrary to the nineteenth-century myth, Islamic merchants only rarely traveled to Venice. As a result, Venetians were able to maintain their status as middlemen for the sale of oriental goods to mainland Europe for centuries, and to grow rich from its profits. Venice's status as a world emporium served a crucial role in the city's self-definition.

    Diplomatic Relations between Venice and the Islamic World
    Venetians gained the advantage in Near Eastern trade over other Europeans thanks to their skilled diplomatic efforts, which had a two-pronged approach. At the highest level, Venetian doges engaged Muslim sultans and other officials in trade negotiations, a process facilitated by ambassadors. Reports of their diplomatic visits highlight the importance of display, ritual, and gift exchange. For example, in 1502 the Venetian envoy Benedetto Sanudo ceremonially presented an emir in Alexandria with fine cloth and Parmesan cheese (a favorite diplomatic gift). In Cairo, Sanudo's official gifts to the sultan included luxury textiles, furs, and yet more cheese, and in return he received chickens, sweetmeats, and watermelons. At the climax of his visit, he was ceremonially robed in a gown of silk woven with gold thread and lined with ermine. The gifts from the sultan to the doge included twenty pieces of Chinese porcelain of various sizes.

    At a lower, but still important level, Venice engaged consuls, known as baili, to serve two-year terms at the trading colonies in the Near East. Elected by the Venetian Senate from the ranks of the nobility, the consuls paid tribute to sultans and local admirals and arbitrated in the event of a trading dispute while in residence.

    In at least one important instance, a Venetian artist served as an emissary to an Islamic power. In 1479, Gentile Bellini, official painter to the Venetian Republic, traveled to the court of Mehmet II (r. 1444–46; 1451–1481) in Istanbul as a diplomatic favor. During his nearly two-year stay, Bellini created painted and bronze medals of the sultan similar to those he and other Venetian artists made of Venice's own ruler, the doge. In addition, a courtier recorded that "Gentile made several beautiful pictures, and most of all things of luxury, some beautiful in style, of which there were a large number in the [sultan's new] palace." Prior to his departure from Istanbul in January 1481, Mehmet II honored Bellini with the titles of golden knight and palace companion and gave him a gift of a gold chain with a medallion. Few of the works of art created by Bellini during his Ottoman sojourn survive, but the episode lives on as one of the high points in artistic and cultural exchange between Venice and its Islamic neighbors.

    Christian Venice and the Islamic Near East
    Venice's worldview was intimately bound to its relation to its Near Eastern neighbors, as is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the story of how it acquired its patron, Saint Mark. The Egyptian city of Alexandria, where in the first century A.D. the evangelist had died and was interred, came under Muslim control in the seventh century. In 828, two Venetian merchants restored the saint to Christian soil by surreptitiously carrying his relic home with them to Venice. The doge triumphantly received the miracle-working relic and enshrined it in a new church, the Basilica San Marco. In this way, Venetians deftly combined their identity as traders in the Muslim world with that of defenders of the Christian faith.

    The papacy often sought to prohibit trade between the Christians of western Europe and the Muslims of the Near East with trade embargos. But because their livelihood depended so much on east-west trade, Venetians in particular fought to have such bans lifted and, on occasion, even defied the pope. During the Crusades, the Venetians compromised their position with the papacy by acting opportunistically to maintain their good trade relations with the Muslim world.

    Stefano Carboni
    Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

    Trinita Kennedy
    Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

    Elizabeth Marwell
    Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    Madonna and Child Enthroned, 1369
    Stefano Veneziano (Italian, Venetian, active 1369–85)
    Tempera and gold on panel; 32.3 x 20.5 in. (82 x 52 cm)
    Museo Civico Correr, Venice

    Paintings with figures dressed in luxurious costume offer some of the best evidence for the kinds of Near and Far Eastern fabrics known in medieval and Renaissance Venice, even if artists often freely interpreted textile designs rather than copied them precisely. In this painting, the Virgin and Child wear silks lavishly ornamented with gold threads similar to those making their way to Italy, via Persia and Syria, from Asia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries during the Pax Mongolica.

    Portrait of Doge Francesco Foscari, ca. 1457–60 or mid- to late 1470s
    Attributed to Lazzaro Bastiani (Italian, Venetian, active 1449–d. 1512)
    Tempera on panel; 20 1/2 x 16 1/8 in. (52 x 41 cm)
    Museo Civico Correr, Venice

    Francesco Foscari (r. 1423–57), born to Venetian parents in Mamluk Egypt, became the longest reigning doge in Venetian history. In this portrait, he is depicted with timeless dignity and authority in the distinctive costume of the elected leader of the Venetian oligarchy: a cape with oversized buttons and a cap, known as a corno, set atop a white linen coif. The doges of Venice always wore conspicuously luxurious fabrics in crimson, scarlet, white, or gold. The bold, oversized floral motifs of Foscari's garments could be found on both Venetian and Ottoman textiles of the late fifteenth century.

    Portrait of Doge Giovanni Mocenigo, 1478/79 or 1481/85
    Gentile Bellini (Italian, Venetian, 1429–1507)
    Tempera on panel; 24 3/8 x 17 3/4 in. (62 x 45 cm)
    Museo Civico Correr, Venice

    In his role as official painter to the Venetian Republic, Gentile Bellini painted portraits of Venetian doges, past and present, to hang in the Palazzo Ducale and the private palaces of the ducal families. This portrait is of Doge Giovanni Mocenigo, who ruled the Republic from 1478 to 1485. His dogal cape and cap are made from a cloth of gold, the most rarified and costly fabric, with a raised pomegranate pattern. Further embellishing his already sumptuous costume, Mocenigo also wears a luxurious ermine mantle. The gilded background adds even greater luster to the image. It was during Mocenigo's dogate that Gentile traveled to the court of the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II, and it remains unknown whether this painting was made before or after the artist's stay abroad.

    Portrait of Sultan Mehmet II, 1480
    Gentile Bellini (Italian, Venetian, 1429–1507)
    Istanbul, dated November 25, 1480
    Oil on canvas; 25 5/8 x 20 1/2 in. (65 x 52 cm)
    The National Gallery, London
    Layard Bequest, 1916

    Most likely painted during Gentile Bellini's two-year sojourn at the court of Mehmet II in Istanbul, this portrait identifies the sultan as Victor Orbis, Conqueror of the World. Fittingly, an arch—the universal symbol of triumph—surrounds the sitter, who is dressed in a red kaftan, a dark brown fur mantle, and a voluminous white turban carefully wrapped around a red taj, his signature headdress and a mark of his status as a Muslim. Despite its relatively poor condition and extensive retouching, the painting remains essential to our understanding of the sultan's self-image. At the same time, it confirms Gentile Bellini's status as un buon depentor che sepia retrazer (an excellent painter who knows how to make a portrait).

    Giovanni della Volta with His Wife and Children, 1547
    Lorenzo Lotto (Italian, Venetian, ca. 1480–1556)
    Oil on canvas; 42 1/2 x 55 1/2 in. (107.5 x 140.5 cm)
    The National Gallery, London
    Bequeathed by Miss Sarah Solly, 1879

    The Venetian painter Lorenzo Lotto often depicted Anatolian carpets like those imported to Italy during the sixteenth century and he exhibited a particular sensitivity to their beauty. Lotto can be credited with establishing a vogue for family portraits around a rug-covered table with works such as this one, an intimate depiction of the artist's landlord with his wife and two young children.

    Portolan, 1421
    Francesco de Cesanis
    Ink and watercolor on parchment; 22 7/8 x 38 in. (58 x 96.6 cm)
    Museo Civico Correr, Venice

    To navigate the Mediterranean coastline and to find the best route between port cities, Venetian sailors and merchants employed portolans, or sea atlases, like this fifteenth-century example. The map's tattered edges and numerous holes provide tangible evidence of the frequency with which it was once used shipboard.

    Map in a wooden case, 1738
    Ink and colors on paper glued on a wooden support; housed in a painted wooden case; 30.1 x 14.2 in. (76.5 x 36 cm)
    Museo Civico Correr, Venice

    This intriguing work, preserved in the Museo Civico Correr, is a qibla-indicator, a tool used to locate Mecca from other places in the world. The upper half of the lower medallion shows a European-style map; a magnetic compass is inserted at its apex, and a pointer, its pivot fixed on Mecca, can be oscillated over the map. A table below provides numerical values to the cities; by using these numbers and the pointer, one can find the direction of prayer. Naturalistic flowers inspired by European designs fill the space around the medallions and decorate the frame.

    The Reception of the Venetian Ambassadors in Damascus, 1511
    Oil on canvas; 46 1/2 x 80 in. (118 x 203 cm)
    Musée du Louvre, Paris

    Few places in the Islamic world proved to be as hospitable to Venetian merchants as Damascus, the most important city in the Mamluk empire after Cairo, and they established one of their largest trading colonies there. This enchanting painting records the ritual reception of a Venetian embassy to the city by the local Mamluk governor, or na'ib. Crowned with a great "waterwheel" turban and seated on a dais, both signs of his rank, the na'ib is flanked by members of the Mamluk military, who wear tall red hats. The Venetians, on the other hand, all wear simple black caps. Vignettes of daily life dominate the left foreground of the composition. The artist, who may have traveled with the Venetian embassy to Damascus, created a remarkably well-informed view of the city as seen from the south side of the Great Umayyad Mosque.