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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

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

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.

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 ca. 1299 to 1922 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, in the name of trade, both parties generally sought peaceful coexistence rather than conflict. 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 Turkmen 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 Turkmen envoy of Uzun Hasan (r. 1453–78) 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.