Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2007, page 43

Special Report

“Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797” Exhibit Explores Cross-Cultural Influences

By Elaine Pasquini

The Reception of the Venetian Ambassadors in Damascus by an anonymous Venetian, 1511, oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris (Photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

THE MAGICAL CITY of Venice, the exotic world of Near Eastern Islamic art—and the influence of each on the other—is the subject of a unique exhibition on view until July 8 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797,” organized by Met Islamic art curator and native Venetian Stefano Carboni, is possibly the first major undertaking to explore the influence of Islamic art and culture on Europe’s major trading and maritime center. The exhibition of some 200 pieces was made possible by The Hagop Kevorkian Fund and co-organized by Paris’ L’Institut du Monde Arabe and the Metropolitan.

The cloak-and-dagger removal of the remains of St. Mark from a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria, Egypt by two Venetian merchants and return to their native island city marks the beginning of the exhibition’s 969-year time span, which concludes with La Serenissima’s fall to France’s Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797.

Blown glass cup with incised decoration; mount in gilded silver with inlaid enamel, pearls, semiprecious stones and glass, Byzantine, 10th-11th century; cup probably Iran, 9th-10th century or Egypt 10th-11th century. Treasury of St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice (Photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art).
   

The exhibit’s first gallery displays maps showing routes from Venice to Cairo, Alexandria and Damascus, where Venetian traders ventured to sell furs, leather and other items from northern Europe. These adventurous merchants returned home with items relished by the art-appreciating Venetian society, including luxurious fabrics, glass and brassware from Anatolia (now Turkey), the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel), Mesopotamia (Iraq), Persia (Iran) and Egypt. Texts of advanced Islamic scientific discoveries also were of great interest to Venetians, who translated the journals into Latin to help further their own scientific education. These regular treks to foreign lands influenced not only Venetian art, architecture and culture, but also language, as many travelers learned Arabic words which eventually were incorporated into the Venetian dialect, such as “zero.”

Each exhibition room presents a different art form, including lacquer ware, glassmaking, fabrics, inlaid metal work, Islamic texts and architecture. On display are several items of Islamic and Venetian glass—one of the most striking examples of the cross-influence of the two cultures. A 14th century lamp from a Cairo mosque and Venetian beakers—one depicting a camel—illustrate this artistic overlay. Also of interest is the manner in which Islamic carpets, textiles and metalwork were adapted for use in European churches.

One highlight is the portrait of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II by venerated Venetian artist Gentile Bellini, which he painted during his two-year residence in Constantinople.

Despite wars and various papal decrees during these years forbidding Christian Europe to engage in business with Islamic regions, Venice continued her established relationship with her eastern Mediterranean neighbors. The Queen of the Adriatic was the Near East’s most respected trading partner and enjoyed excellent diplomatic relations, especially with the Mamluks and Ottomans. Trade with Muslim countries was essential in order to keep the Venetian economy thriving.

A 300-page fully color-illustrated exhibition catalogue is available in French and English. For more information, visit the museum’s Web site, <http://www.metmuseum.org/>, or call (212) 535-7710.

Elaine Pasquini is a free-lance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.