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, Khubilai 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 (91.1.535a–h) 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.
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 amir 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, 1451–81) 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.