Islamic Art and Culture: the Venetian Perspective

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Islamic Philosophy and Science in Venice
Precisely because Venice remained so open to foreign cultures, all kinds of philosophical, scientific, religious, and literary texts circulated in the city throughout the medieval and Renaissance periods. Mostly interested in Greek and Latin works, Venetian literati, however, understood that transmission occurred through Arabic texts.

After printing presses were established in Europe in 1469, Venice’s prolific publishing shops quickly multiplied the number of copies of Arab texts in Latin translation. Venetian publishers issued Ptolemy’s astronomical work Almagest, Averroes’ philosophical Destructio destructionis, and many other related texts. In the most luxurious editions, Venetian illuminators enhanced the text with images of learned turbaned men, who often wield astrolabes (91.1.535a-h).

Particularly during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, medicine was far more advanced in the Islamic world than in western Europe. Venetian recognition of this fact is evident in their use of Avicenna’s Canon, a Greco-Arabic medical encyclopedia noted for its comprehensiveness and excellent organization, as their principal textbook for medical students at the University of Padua. In 1521, the Junta Press in Venice issued a revised Latin edition of the Canon that superseded the twelfth-century translation common throughout Europe.

Venetian Representations of Islamic Figures
In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Venetian painters often incorporated Muslim figures in their large-scale narrative cycles and altarpieces. The fashion for this imagery, now known as the “Oriental Mode,” appears to have been fueled primarily by the Venetian guilds and religious confraternities then lining the walls of their meeting halls and chapels with scenes from the legends of their patron saints. Many of these saints, including Mark, Stephen, and George, had lived in the eastern Mediterranean prior to the rise of Islam, yet Venetian painters began depicting them surrounded by figures in contemporary Muslim attire. In many cases, Islamic-style architecture, including minarets, domes, and houses, are also illustrated, as are Islamic decorative arts, such as mosque lamps, ceramics, and blazons.

What is perhaps most remarkable is the Venetian painters’ intimate knowledge of Near Eastern costume. During his visit to Constantinople in 1479–81, Gentile Bellini made portraits of Sultan Mehmet II and figure studies of local men and women from different social groups, including soldiers and scribes; in each instance, he painstakingly described their costumes. He and his pupils later drew on his studies in their paintings, which accounts for their strikingly detailed representations of Ottoman turbans and dress. Later, the Bellini protégés Vittore Carpaccio and Giovanni Mansueti became veritable experts in Mamluk dress and its decorum, most likely as a direct result of increased Mamluk-Venetian diplomatic relations at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century. For Venetian Renaissance painters, stock drawings, or simili, of Muslim figures became prized possessions, passed down from one generation to another and circulated among workshops for reuse.

By 1525, the last canvases painted in the Oriental mode for the Venetian confraternities were in place, many of the city’s most important Orientalist painters had died, and the Ottomans had conquered the Mamluk empire. The Venetian tradition of setting large narrative scenes in the Islamic world had no followers in the late sixteenth century, when portraits of Muslims, most often Ottoman sultans, or the inclusion of a single Muslim figure in a religious scene were more characteristic.

During the second half of the sixteenth century, costume books emerged as a popular new genre and reflect a greater curiosity about foreign cultures derived from travels and new discoveries. Venice and the Veneto, where at least nine examples were published between 1540 and 1610, played a leading role in the costume book’s early development. The most famous and important example is Cesare Vecellio’s Degli abiti antichi et moderni di diverse parti del mondo of 1590, which became a model of the genre. It includes more than 500 illustrations and pays special attention to Venetian and Ottoman dress.

By the sixteenth century, Venice’s relations with her Muslim neighbors became increasingly complex. Venetian merchants continued trading in the eastern Mediterranean, but Turkey’s aggressive navy made travel more precarious. As a result, Venetians began representing Muslim subjects in less sympathetic ways. Turbaned men were frequently stereotyped as aggressive warriors or ridiculed as acrobats in Venetian paintings, drawings, prints, and even in wooden ship decorations.

Even in the changed political environment, the Islamic Near East continued to occupy a place in the collective imagination of Venetians. Wealthy patrons commissioned paintings with Muslim subjects, such as Turkish women relaxing in the sultan’s harem, to decorate their private palaces. These scenes serve as an important prologue to the new Orientalism, a pan-European phenomenon, of the nineteenth century.

Collecting Islamic Art in Venice
The presence of Islamic art in Venice can be documented from the Middle Ages until today. The earliest objects to arrive in the city—such as the luxurious relief-cut glass and rock crystal vessels from Fatimid Egypt in the Treasury of San Marco—can perhaps best be interpreted as spolia, or booty, rather than as a sign of an appreciation of Islamic art per se. Over the centuries, however, Venetian merchants and diplomats definitely developed a taste for Islamic ceramics, textiles, arms and armor, metalwork, and manuscripts and displayed them in their homes as works of art alongside objects from other periods and places. Perhaps no greater testament to the esteem of Islamic artifacts in Venice can be found than the portraits of Venetian patrician families with one of their most prized possessions, an oriental carpet.

By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so much Islamic art had accumulated in Venice’s palaces and churches that the city became an important destination for collectors of Islamic art, such as Wilhelm von Bode of Germany, wanting to make new acquisitions. Provenance research reveals that many Islamic art objects now in western European collections passed through Venice first. Major examples still remain in the city today, however, and the number of Venetian museums and churches with works of Islamic art is truly impressive; they include the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, the Basilica and Treasury of San Marco, the Museo Civico Correr, the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, and the Museo Franchetti alla Ca’ d’Oro.

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

March 2007


Carboni, Stefano, and Trinita Kennedy. “Islamic Art and Culture: the Venetian Perspective.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (March 2007)

Further Reading

Campbell, Caroline, and Alan Chong, eds. Bellini and the East. Exhibition catalogue. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

Carboni, Stefano, ed. Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797. Exhibition catalogue. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

Mack, Rosamond E. Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art, 1300–1600. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Raby, Julian. Venice, Dürer, and the Oriental Mode. London: Islamic Art Publications, 1982.

Additional Essays by Stefano Carboni

Additional Essays by Trinita Kennedy

Additional Essays by Elizabeth Marwell