Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797

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Founded in the seventh century and built upon more than 100 islets in a lagoon off the northeast coast of the Italian peninsula, Venice grew to be one of the largest cities in Europe and the capital of a great trading empire whose reach extended far into the eastern Mediterranean. Venice initially had strong political ties to Byzantium, and in the tenth and eleventh centuries Venetian merchants obtained the trading privileges from the Byzantine emperors that gave them a distinct advantage over their rivals from other western European cities. The fact that Venetian gold ducat had currency throughout the Near East is an indication of the ubiquity and importance of Venetian merchants there. As Byzantium gradually gave way to Islamic caliphates from the eighth century onward, meeting its ultimate demise in 1453 at the hands of the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II, Venetians increasingly came into contact with Muslims and their ideas, culture, and way of life. As a result, Venice became Christian Europe's most important interface with the Muslim civilizations of the Near East.


The same merchant galleys that carried spices, soap, cotton, and industrial supplies from the bazaars of the Islamic Near East to the markets of Venice also brought with them luxurious carpets, velvets, silks, glass, porcelain, gilded bookbindings, illustrated manuscripts, and inlaid metalwork.

Related

Cited Works of Art or Images (3)

  • The Reception of the Venetian Ambassadors in Damascus
  • Salver
  • Ewer

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The artistic consequences of the dynamic relationship that Venice forged with its Islamic trading partners, especially the Mamluks of Egypt and Syria, the Ottomans of Turkey, and the Safavids of Iran, were felt over nearly a thousand-year period. The same merchant galleys that carried spices, soap, cotton, and industrial supplies from the bazaars of the Islamic Near East to the markets of Venice also brought with them luxurious carpets, velvets, silks, glass, porcelain, gilded bookbindings, illustrated manuscripts, and inlaid metalwork. Not surprisingly, these and other portable works of Islamic art, which were often superior in quality to what was available in Europe, made an indelible impression upon artistic taste and production in Venice. From the medieval to the Baroque eras, Venetians acquired Islamic art and adapted and imitated its techniques. In turn, albeit to a lesser extent, the arts of Venice became of interest to the Islamic world.

The chronological framework of these essays is provided by the year 828, when two Venetian merchants stole Saint Mark's relics from Alexandria (then part of the Muslim world) and brought them to their home city, and the year 1797, when the Venetian Republic fell to the French conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte.

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

The Reception of the Venetian Ambassadors in Damascus, 1511
Venice
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.

Salver, late 15th century
Mahmud al-Kurdi
Possibly northwest Iran or southeast Anatolia
Brass engraved and inlaid with silver; Diam. 11 3/8 in. (29 cm)
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Wealthy households in both the Islamic world and Europe impressed important guests by presenting them with fine food on salvers inlaid with silver and gold. In addition, well-endowed churches in Italy used these spectacular circular trays as patens and collections plates. This tray is signed by Mahmud al-Kurdi, the mysterious late fifteenth-century Muslim master metalworker whose work survives only in Western collections and who was once thought to have worked in Venice. Techniques and geometric designs similar to those used by al-Kurdi can be found on sixteenth-century Venetian salvers.

Ewer, early 16th century
Venice
Free-blown glass, enameled and gilded; H. 10 in. (25 cm)
Musée du Louvre, Paris

This ewer exemplifies the exuberant creations of the glass painters of early sixteenth-century Venice. The narrow and flared neck, the trailed double-rib collar below the rim, and the splayed foot distinguish its profile from the common Islamic shape. The overall decoration is attuned to the geometric arrangement of the otherwise freely drawn vegetal patterns typical of Islamic art.