Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 December 2006
Issue No. 824
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Venice looks East

Venice's links with the Orient are explored in an intriguing new Paris exhibition, writes David Tresilian

Click to view caption
Reception of Venetian Ambassadors in Damascus (1511) by an anonymous Venetian painter; Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (1480) by Gentile Bellini (1429-1507)

Venice's links with the Orient are explored in an intriguing new Paris exhibition, writes David Tresilian

Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (1480) by Gentile Bellini (1429-1507)

Reception of Venetian Ambassadors in Damascus ( 1511) by an anonymous Venetian painter

Venise et l'Orient (Venice and the Orient) is the major exhibition this autumn at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris, running into February of next year. Building on the Institut's reputation for shows that are both popular and intellectually satisfying, such as the recent L'Age d'or des sciences arabes (The Golden Age of Arab Science) reviewed in the Weekly in November last year, it is a splendid opportunity to see major pieces drawn from leading European, North American and Turkish museums, as well as to be reminded of the pre-eminent diplomatic, commercial and often belligerent role played by the city of Venice in the mediaeval and early modern Mediterranean.

Between the city's foundation in 828 CE and its capture by Napoleon in 1797, dates which serve as the end points for the present exhibition, Venice acted as a kind of bridge or staging post between East and West, its diplomats and merchants playing the sometimes dangerous game of intermediaries among the incomparably larger, but not necessarily always richer, states that crowded around this tiny maritime republic. Venice's wealth came from its near monopoly of trade between Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, goods such as wool, wood, armaments and luxury products finding their way eastwards in ships owned by the city's traders with other goods, including metalwork, carpets, textiles and spices, flooding back.

It was a formula that worked well for over 500 years, at least until the discovery of the Americas and Portuguese navigation of the Cape of Good Hope shifted the focus of economic activity irrevocably away from the Mediterranean. In the meantime, at the height of its commercial power in the early 16th century Venice was carrying out 45% of its maritime commerce with the Mamluke state in Egypt and in Syria, according to an essay by Deborah Howard in the exhibition's sumptuous catalogue, carrying out a good proportion of the rest in pragmatic fashion with that state's great rival and later conqueror, the Ottomans.

Venise et l'Orient has been organised jointly with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the exhibition will be moving to the United States next year. It contains some well-known pieces, such as the famous portrait of the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II, commissioned from the Venetian painter Gentile Bellini in 1480, that was last on show in an exhibition context at last year's Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years at the Royal Academy in London (reviewed in the Weekly in March 2005). There is also a copy of the first printed copy of the Qur'an in Arabic, printed in Venice in 1537. However, the show opens with a lesser-known painting by an anonymous artist of the Reception of the Venetian Ambassadors at Damascus, and this painting, dated to 1511 and now in the Louvre, in many ways sets the tone for the exhibition as a whole.

Presenting an image of Venetian emissaries being received in Damascus by a group of Mamluke dignitaries, it gestures towards the kind of unique diplomatic and commercial presence enjoyed by the Venetians in the Near East, Venice being granted a form of most-favoured nation status by first the Byzantine, then the Arab Mamluke and finally the Ottoman empires. The painting hints at the ways in which this diplomatic and commercial presence fed back to form the particular character of Venetian art, architecture and civilisation, this being a particular theme of the exhibition.

However, while commerce and diplomacy are the leading ideas of the first part of the exhibition, it begins, as did the city of Venice itself, with an act of theft. According to the received accounts of the city's founding, two Venetian merchants stole the relics of St. Mark, martyred in Alexandria in c. 68 CE and the founder of the Egyptian Church, from the latter city in 828 and took them back to Venice, where they were interred in St. Mark's Basilica. Often interpreted as a kind of grandiloquent gesture towards the future, with Venice wanting to take over Alexandria's pre-eminent seafaring role, the story also indicates something of the single-mindedness with which Venice pursued its ambition to become the Mediterranean's most important commercial power.

"Pragmatic" is how Stefano Carboni describes Venetian foreign policy in his introductory catalogue essay, with the Venetian oligarchy managing to destroy its main commercial rivals and even encouraging the looting of Constantinople during the Second Crusade in 1204, gaining valuable trading stations on the Adriatic. Venice did not hesitate to establish friendly relations with the Ottomans following the fall of Constantinople to Mehmed II in 1453, though it also later fought several campaigns against them for control of the eastern Mediterranean, including the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, mentioned in Shakespeare's play Othello. Yet, Carboni writes, "periods of peace were always much longer than those of war, the capitulations enjoyed by Venice being regularly renewed after the accession of each new sovereign and Venice's diplomats always being at the ready even during hostilities."

Venice's most important trading partners in the earlier period were the Mamlukes, and the exhibition includes magnificent pieces testifying to the closeness of this relationship. There is, for example, the evidence supplied in Venetian paintings of the period, these incorporating various Mamluke motifs, including characteristic Mamluke figures and textiles. The exhibition includes works by Carpaccio, Mansueti and others, showing how 15th- and early 16th-century Venetian painters commonly imagined biblical or religious scenes in Mamluke terms, Mansueti's painting of Saint Mark baptising Anianus (1518), for example, now in Milan, showing the scene taking place in an "oriental" atmosphere of magnificently turbaned Mamlukes.

In addition, there is the evidence of the vogue in Venice for Mamluke metalwork and glassware, the characteristic inlaid metalwork of the period being adapted to Venetian tastes through the incorporation of the crests of prominent families. The exhibition contains numerous items by the Syrian craftsman Mahmoud Al-Kurdi, many of them having Venetian crests worked into the designs. Mamluke glassware, at first exported to Venice in the form of the decorated goblets and other items displayed here, later suggested a characteristic Venetian industry in the form of Murano glass, this being manufactured in the city on the island of Murano and then exported eastwards. Later Ottoman glass mosque-lamps, for example, were commonly made in Venice.

However, according to Howard in her catalogue essay, the Venetian vogue for oriental styles and motifs was not restricted to metalwork and glassware. The famous Doge's Palace in St. Mark's Square, she says, built between 1309 and 1424, "glorifies the oriental interests of the [Venetian] ruling class...its ornamental crenellation recalling contemporary Mamluke mosques, madrasas, khans and mausoleums" and its spacious lower arcade being similar to the Iwan Al-Kabir built in Cairo in 1333-34 by the Mamluke Sultan Al-Nasir Mohamed.

Following the collapse of the Mamluke state in the face of invading Ottoman armies in 1517, the Ottoman Empire became Venice's major eastern trading partner, and the exhibition includes objects indicating a liking on both sides for decorative and luxury goods. Textiles, glassware and decorative items were shipped eastwards to Ottoman markets, with ceramics in particular coming back, Ottoman designs later being imitated by Venetian craftsman in the same way that Mamluke glassware had earlier given rise to the thriving trade in Murano glass.

While the best-known example of diplomatic exchange between the two states remains Mehmed II's commission to Bellini, the exhibition includes other important diplomatic gifts, including the series of portraits of Ottoman sultans commissioned by Grand Vizier Sokullu Mehmed Pasha in 1578 and now in the Bayerische Staatsgemöldsammlungen in Munich. Apparently the anonymous artist who received the commission invented the likenesses. According to the catalogue essay by Julian Raby, both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were also invited to visit Istanbul by Sultan Bayezid II in 1502 and 1506, respectively, following the success of Bellini's mission there 20 years before, and it must have been a matter for regret that neither man took up the invitation.

From the early 17th century onwards, "the Ottomans became aware that the central role of Venice as a political and economic partner was in sharp decline" with the economic marginalisation of the Mediterranean as a whole, and they now preferred to send their envoys "to more powerful European courts", writes Carboni in his catalogue essay. A long period of decline set in, such that by the time that Napoleon's troops took it over in 1797 the city was little more than a picturesque backwater, the type of southern European decay.

Venice, wrote Ruskin in Stones of Venice (1851), is "a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak -- so quiet -- so bereft of all but her loveliness, that we might well doubt, as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City, and which the Shadow." It is one of the virtues of the present exhibition that it takes the visitor back to an earlier, less spectral period in Venice's long history, when the city was enjoying its glory days as the most important ambassador between East and West.

Venise et l'Orient, Institut du monde arabe, Paris, until 18 February 2007.

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