Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 12, 2007
Dorothy M. Shepard "Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797" Symposium. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. April 22, 2007 College Art Association.
Gentile Bellini. Portrait of Sultan Mehmet II (1480). Oil on canvas. 25 5/8 x 20 1/2 in. (65 x 52 cm). The National Gallery, London.

On April 22, 2007, the Metropolitan Museum of Art sponsored a symposium to discuss issues surrounding the exhibition Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797. The symposium brought together a group of experts on the interactions between Venice and Islam.

In his introduction to the symposium, Stefano Carboni, curator of the exhibition and administrator of the Department of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum, emphasized the three concepts governing the exhibition: to show the reasons why Venice had so many trade relationships with the Islamic world, to examine the relationship between trade and diplomacy, and to discuss Venice’s pragmatic approach to the exchanges of materials and techniques involved in the production and trade of high-quality decorative arts.

Patricia Fortini Brown of Princeton University was the first speaker; she presented a paper titled “Reclaiming the Holy Land: Orientalism in the Early Modern Period.” In it, she emphasized the strong presence of the Holy Land and the Islamic East in Venice in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. This was initiated by the translation of St. Mark’s relics from Alexandria to Venice in 828. This story is told twice in the mosaics of San Marco: once on a tympanum on the façade and once on a barrel vault. Early Renaissance paintings in the exhibition depict other events in St. Mark’s life, especially his baptism of St. Anianus. Paintings of the life of Christ, the Virgin, and Saints depict them in Venice but surrounded with the opulence of the East. The fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans was a momentous event to the Venetians. It came when their empire had reached its largest extent, and meant that Venice was now vulnerable. The Venetians tried to maintain their position with diplomacy and treaties as long as possible, but by the end of the fifteenth century Venice had lost its major possessions in the eastern Mediterranean.

In one negotiation, Mehmet II asked that the Venetians send one of their painters to Istanbul. This is why Gentile Bellini spent two years, ca. 1480–1, in Istanbul doing paintings and drawings. When he returned to Venice, he incorporated Islamic figures, buildings, and a taste for pageantry in his paintings. His students continued this style, producing a series of paintings in what is known as the Orientalist mode. Gentile Bellini’s great painting of Mehmet II is in the exhibition as well as representative examples by Mansueti and Carpaccio. The architectural settings these artists used for their narratives incorporate parts of Hagia Sophia, San Marco, obelisks, etc. The detailed treatments of these exteriors and interiors suggest the artists were painting actual buildings, although, of course, they were not. Certain structures announced the places in which particular events took place. Ultimately the versions of the lands occupied by early Christians and painted by the late fifteenth-century Venetians were as much fantasy as fact.

Eric Dursteler of Brigham Young University spoke next on “‘Voi siete mio buon amico’: Venetian and Ottoman Sociability in Early Modern Constantinople.” He had gathered a mass of evidence depicting civil relationships and meaningful exchanges between Venetians and Ottomans, thereby arguing against the tendency to divide the Mediterranean region into opposing camps. He drew his evidence from private correspondence that often traveled with official letters. Dursteler found that both groups engaged in a variety of ways, whether formally or informally. Much was centered around the bayle, the administrative head of the Venetian community in Islamic cities. Dursteler found that the opportunities to meet and interact extended well into the seventeenth century.

David Jacoby of Hebrew University spoke on “Medieval Venice and the East: Encounters and Exchanges.” Jacoby, an economic historian, discussed the political, military, and economic relationships between Venice and Byzantium, followed by those between Venice and the Islamic East, as the cause of Venice’s rise to a position of great power. He saw trade as primary in this. The Venetians traded for their own needs and also as intermediaries for others. These relationships can be traced back to the eighth and early ninth centuries. He noted that in the eleventh and twelfth centuries the shift of Fatimid power to Egypt caused a major shift in trade routes. At this point, Venice replaced Byzantium in the spice trade. Jacoby looked for shifts both in trading routes and goods traded. He then looked at the transfer of crafts skills to Venice. The 1220s Mongol expansion allowed Venetians to trade more in Asia, Ukraine, and the Black Sea. As a result, more Western merchants, including Marco Polo, traveled to Asia. Tartar silks and other textiles with mixed designs grew in importance in this trade. Dante described some of the Eastern silks he saw in Verona, while Giotto painted others in his frescoes. In the fourteenth century, the production of silks and rock crystals in Venice was flourishing, and their trade became two-directional. Jacoby concluded by describing how trade reached all the way to China, and how Chinese trade goods began to move west.

James Harper of the University of Oregon gave the last paper of the morning. Titled “Iron Curtain and Global Village: The Historiographic Positioning of Venice and Islam,” it was easily the most thought-provoking and well-received paper at the symposium. Harper considered what the exhibition might teach in terms of varying attitudes toward the Turks as gleaned from Venetian art of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries. He traced this first in Venetian painting, noting the evolution from Gentile Bellini’s positive view of the Turks through a stage of suspicious views to Dürer’s negative treatment showing the anti-Christ as a turbaned king. The exhibition concluded with images meant to allay Western fears, especially the ship figurehead of a Turk in chains. Harper then looked at the decorative-arts component of the exhibition and found that it told another story, one of extensive trade between Venice and the Islamic East and the cultural exchanges, along with the sharing of skills, materials, and ideas, that resulted from it. He used two terms to explain these attitudinal differences. His “iron curtain” model is based on the period’s alternation between military conflicts and truces. This view sees rivals with clashing ideologies as believing that they are not just in a military struggle but in fact in a fight for survival. His second term, “global village,” refers to the Mediterranean as an area of exchange and emphasizes the fruitful sharing of information and technical skills seen in the decorative arts. The Venice and the Islamic World exhibition fits well into the “global village” model, he feels, as it shows such complete mastery of some techniques that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between Venetian and Islamic pieces of glass, book covers, textiles, etc. Venetian paintings in the exhibition seem to fit into the “iron curtain” model, not only when they exhibit suspicion and distrust of the Islamic East but also when their allegiances are to Western artistic theory and practice. This was true even when the Venetian artists included figures in Eastern dress, buildings decorated in Islamic style, and Eastern cityscapes. Harper concluded that painters were restricted by their intellectual theory to the “iron curtain” model, while the artisans had more freedom to absorb new ideas and techniques, whatever the source, which made them part of the “global village.”

David Whitehouse, executive director and curator of Ancient and Islamic Glass, Corning Museum of Glass, spoke on “Venetian Glassmaking and the Islamic World.” Whitehouse showed that the quality of Venetian glass, after incorporating Islamic techniques, came to equal and then become superior to that made in the Islamic East. In addition to decorative glassware, he discussed the ways in which glass forms developed in the East, especially distillation apparatus, that were then imitated in the West accelerated Western scientific advances. Whitehouse concluded that the Venetian glassmakers were great beneficiaries of East-West interchange.

Colin Eisler of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts spoke next. His lecture concerned Cima’s Annunciation Altarpiece for the Silk Weaver’s Scuola, the contributions of Venetian Jews, and the role of silk trade and weaving for the Scuola. In the course of his discussion of the painting, he explained a great deal concerning the complex economic and religious heritage of the Venetians. He highlighted the roles of the Jewish community there, primarily as pawnbrokers, medical workers, and merchants, and emphasized the harmony prevailing between the Catholics, Jews, and Muslims of Venice. In such a climate, references to each of these religions could appear in Venetian paintings of the Renaissance.

The last speaker of the day was Bronwen Wilson of the University of British Columbia, who discussed “Turkish Costume Illustration and Cultural Translation.” Her presentation centered on a seventeenth-century book in the exhibition, the Foggie diverse di vestire de’ Turchi (“The Diverse Styles of Turkish Dress”). Containing sixty-two miniatures of Ottomans of all classes, the book is a microcosm of the city of Istanbul. Its captions in Italian suggest that it was made for tourists or for export. Wilson’s fascinating discussion of various elements of Turkish attitudes and life derived from her analysis of plates in the book.

This rewarding symposium concluded with a lively question and answer period.

Dorothy M. Shepard
Associate Professor, Department of the History of Art and Design, Pratt Institute