Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Venice's Principal Muslim Trading Partners: the Mamluks, the Ottomans, and the Safavids

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Venice and the Mamluks
Venice's economic and diplomatic relationship with Egypt, Syria, and other areas along the eastern Mediterranean shore was tied, in particular, to the Mamluks (1250–1517), the powerful Islamic rulers who both halted the advance of Mongols west of Iraq and expelled the last of the Crusaders from the Holy Land in the second half of the thirteenth century. The Mamluk capital of Cairo, a city of around 200,000 inhabitants, was the greatest metropolis of its age. In this and other principal cities of the sultanate, Mamluk rulers built impressive mosque complexes, funerary structures, and urban palaces.

Venice consistently sought favorable privileges for its merchants and through these efforts became the Mamluks' main European trading partner.


Cited Works of Art or Images (6)

  • Two candlesticks with the arms of Venetian families
  • Bowl
  • Barber's dish
  • Family Portrait
  • Wine cup
  • Bowl


The Mamluks inherited from the Fatimids (909–1171) and Ayyubids (1171–1260) the role of middlemen between South and Southeast Asia and Europe in the valuable spice trade and in the movement of other goods by land and sea through the Damascus and the Red Sea routes. Venice consistently sought favorable privileges for its merchants and through these efforts became the Mamluks' main European trading partner.

Several cities under Mamluk control had a permanent Venetian diplomatic representative with regular access to local authorities. Ties between the Venetian oligarchy, nobility, and merchant class and the Mamluk court and its retinue were particularly strong. The longest reigning doge of Venice, Francesco Foscari (r. 1423–57), was even born in Mamluk Egypt.

Mamluk rule finally came to an end when Syria and then Egypt fell to the Ottomans in 1516–17. It was in the years leading up to this event that commercial exchange between the Mamluks and Venice intensified. As a result, a dazzling array of goods—textiles, spices, metals, medicines, pigments, precious stones, glass, and paper—traveled in both directions. Mamluk trade and, in some cases, direct artistic influence shaped the fashion in Venice for Islamic-style bookbindings, the development of inlaid metalwork, and the taste for blue-and-white ceramics in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Inlaid Metalwork
Under the Mamluks, metalwork intricately inlaid with silver and gold flourished in Damascus and Cairo. In the late fourteenth century, however, as the Mamluk elite suffered an economic decline, the European export market became increasingly important for these wares. By the early fifteenth century, new shapes and decorative styles developed in response to European tastes, and Latin inscriptions could sometimes be found on Islamic metalwork in addition to Arabic ones.

Venice played a crucial role in the trade of Islamic metalwork in the Mediterranean. Shipping documents reveal that Venetians exported large quantities of copper and brass to the Near East; in return, they imported finished inlaid vessels. Mamluk basins, ewers, candlesticks, and incense burners found a place in the finest Venetian homes and churches, and some were even customized with the coat of arms of Venetian noble families. Local craftsmen admired the skill and design of Islamic metalwork too and frequently imitated it.

The connection between Venice and Mamluk metalwork is so strong that a myth arose in the nineteenth century that Arab or Persian craftsmen must have lived and worked in the city, producing "Veneto-Saracenic" pieces for the local market. One craftsman in particular, Mahmud al-Kurdi, has long been associated with this theory. Recent research, however, suggests that al-Kurdi most likely was active in western Iran. Indeed, it is highly improbable that Muslim metalworkers could have ever set up shop in a city as tightly regulated by the guilds as Venice.

Venice and the Ottomans
The Ottoman empire existed from 1281 to 1924 and at the height of its power in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries included Anatolia, the Middle East, parts of North Africa, and much of southeast Europe. No other Muslim power in history has rivaled its longevity and extent. Because so many major Near Eastern entrepôts eventually fell within the confines of the vast empire, including Bursa (1326), Constantinople (1453), and Damascus (1516), Venetians perforce developed commercial and diplomatic relations with the Ottomans. "Being merchants," the Venetian ambassador to the Sublime Porte wrote in 1553, "we cannot live without them." Territorial disputes in the Balkanic border region led to the Ottoman-Venetian wars of 1463–79, 1499–1503, 1537–40, and 1570–73, but both parties generally sought peaceful coexistence rather than conflict in the name of trade. So important was the Ottoman empire to the Venetians that the ambassador to the Sublime Porte was regarded as the most senior post in the Venetian diplomatic service and was the highest paid. Venice itself received regular visits from Ottoman dignitaries, as numerous documents attest.

Venice relied on the Ottomans for wheat, spices, raw silk, cotton, leather, and calcified ashes for the Murano glass industry. In return, Venice exported finished goods, namely glass, soap, paper, and textiles. In addition, it also produced maps, clocks, portraits, and luxury arts. Trade with the Islamic world made an indelible imprint on the decorative arts of Venice. Pottery, parade armor, furniture, bookbindings, textiles, pattern books, and inlaid metalwork are just some of the many Venetian arts in which distinctly Ottoman techniques and/or motifs can be observed.

Venice and Persia
Because of distance, Greater Iran did not have as strong a link to Venice as the Mamluk and Ottoman empires did. Nevertheless, both the presence of Venetian merchants on the eastern coast of the Black Sea and the importance of the trade routes passing through Persian cities favored diplomatic and commercial exchange from the time of Mongol dominance in the region in the late thirteenth century down to its rule by the Safavid dynasty (1501–1722).

The need to maintain political equilibrium in the Mediterranean is often what spurred diplomatic relations between Venice and Persia. For example, Christendom, including Venice, sought an alliance with the Mongol Ilkhanids (1256–1353) against the Mamluks and the Mongols of the Golden Horde. In the fifteenth century, there were envoys between Venice and Tabriz—the industrious capital of the White Sheep Turcomans in northwest Iran, where a large array of luxury goods were traded—to occupy the Ottomans, and therefore to weaken them, on both their European and eastern Anatolian borders. According to legend, the Turcoman envoy of Uzun Hasan (r. 1468–78) presented the celebrated "turquoise" (in reality pale blue-colored glass) cup in the Treasury of Saint Mark as a gift to Venice in 1472.

Thanks to trade, large numbers of objects, manuscripts, textiles, and Persian carpets passed through Venice or were collected and remained in the city. A glimpse of this wealth can be found today in works dispersed in collections such as the Museo Civico Correr and the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana. On the diplomatic level, the most important testimony of the exchanges between the Safavid shahs and the Venetian doges are a number of sumptuous silk and silver-wrapped-thread carpets of the so-called Polonaise type. Today in the museum of Basilica San Marco, these carpets were draped in front of the high altar of the church during religious festivals, used as a floor covering to display objects from the Basilica's Treasury, or laid beneath the doge's bier at his funeral.

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

Two candlesticks with the arms of Venetian families, early 15th century
Probably Damascus
Brass inlaid with gold and silver; H. (average) 12.5 cm; Diam. (average) 8.5 cm
Museo Civico Correr, Venice

After the lifting of the papal embargo on trade with the Islamic world in the second half of the fourteenth century, Italian merchants began ordering custom-made Islamic metalwork like these two small candlesticks. In addition to being embellished with gold and silver, they also bear the coat of arms of Venetian noble families. There is still some debate whether these heraldic devices were added at source as part of the commission, or were added later, once the objects arrived in Venice.

Bowl, 17th century
Iznik, Turkey
Underglaze painted fritware; H. 7 1/4 in. (18.5 cm), Diam. 17 3/8 in. (44 cm)
Museo Civico Correr, Venice

This bowl exemplifies Iznikware, ornamented Ottoman pottery produced in western Anatolia. Particularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the kilns of Iznik produced for the export market and not just for the Ottoman court, Iznikware reached Venetian shores in significant numbers. A shipment of ceramics from Iznik worth 100 ducats, for example, arrived in Venice in 1577. Local ceramicists often copied Iznik's distinctive designs, particularly the classic style, which is characterized by a combination of tulips, roses, carnations, hyacinths, and saz leaves.

Barber's dish, 17th century
Maiolica (tin-glazed earthenware); H. 5 7/8 in. (15 cm), Diam. 14 1/2 in. (37 cm)
Museo Civico Correr, Venice

This bowl, with its deep well and wide brim with a cavity designed to cradle a man's neck, is a barber's dish. The shape of this utilitarian Venetian object has no counterpart in Islamic pottery, but its decoration depends heavily on Ottoman pottery known as Iznikware. The dish's interior is painted in the classic Iznik style, with a bold blue and green saz leaf in the center, surrounded by peonies, carnations, and tulips. The bleeding of the blue cobalt that occurred during firing is the only detail marring its beauty. From extant evidence, it is clear that the potters of Iznik generally exercised greater control over their colors during production than their Venetian counterparts.

Family Portrait, ca. 1555–70
Cesare Vecellio (Italian, Venetian, ca. 1521–1601)
Oil on canvas; 44 1/2 x 70 7/8 in. (113 x 180 cm)
Museo Civico Correr, Venice

Three generations of a single family are represented here: the elderly patriarch (on the extreme left) with his offspring and their spouses and young children. This type of family portrait enjoyed its greatest popularity among Venice's upper middle classes, who had often arrived at their elevated social position thanks to trade with the Islamic Near East. One of the most important features of this painting is the tappeto da tavola, an imported oriental carpet draped over the long table, a signifier of good taste and wealth. Carefully rendered by the painter, it can be identified as a northwestern Persian medallion carpet, a type highly valued in Renaissance Venice because of its relative rarity and great size. They could be found in the markets of Tabriz, one of their principal centers of manufacture. It is even possible that a member of this family purchased the carpet in Iran.

Wine cup, late 16th–early 17th century
Metal alloy; H. 3 3/8 in. (8.7 cm), Diam. 7 5/8 in. (19.5 cm)
Museo Civico Correr, Venice

Inscribed in elegant nastacliq, the verses of the celebrated fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafiz run round the exterior rim of this cup and refer to its function as a vessel for wine. This is one of the few works of Islamic art with a Safavid origin today in the Museo Civico Correr. Count Teodoro Correr (1750–1830) is believed to have acquired this cup from a Venetian noble family as he was forming the collection of the Venetian museum that now bears his name.

Bowl, 17th century
Underglaze painted fritware; H. 7 5/8 in. (19.5 cm), Diam. 16 1/2 in. (42 cm)
Museo Civico Correr, Venice

This bowl exemplifies the extraordinarily elegant imitations of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain made in Safavid Iran. In many parts of the world, including Renaissance Venice, these Persian productions were highly valued as well. It is unknown when this particular object arrived in the city, but blue-and-white ceramics from a wide range of Eastern sources, including China, Persia, and Syria, contributed to the development of Venice's own distinctive ceramic tradition.