[A-List] The Republic of Beauty: Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797
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Tue Apr 3 01:19:21 MDT 2007
Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797
March 27, 2007–July 8, 2007
Special Exhibition Galleries, 2nd floor
March 30, 2007
Art Review | 'Venice and the Islamic World'
The Republic of Beauty, Melding West and East
By HOLLAND COTTER
Told often enough that the West and Islam are natural enemies, we
start to believe it, and assume it has always been so. But the
Metropolitan Museum of Art argues otherwise in "Venice and the Islamic
World, 828-1797," a show that, with classic Met largesse, recreates
the spectacle of two different cultures meeting in one fantastic city,
where commerce and love of beauty, those great levelers, unite them in
a fruitful bond.
At its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries the Most Serene Republic of
Venice was a giant, clamorous Costco-on-the-Rialto. All the
necessities of life and most of the luxuries flowed into and through
it from every direction, and in bulk, filling open-air stalls and
salesrooms, piling up on piazzas.
Wood, metal, grain, furs and leathers from northern Europe were
shipped from Venetian docks to Near Eastern and African cities, many
formerly Christian and now Muslim controlled. In return came
ultra-refined Islamic luxury goods: Turkish velvets, Egyptian glass,
Transcaucasian carpets and Syrian brass work of a quality that matched
and exceeded the finest of Europe. Although much of this retail kept
moving westward into Italy and beyond, Venice skimmed off the cream to
adorn its churches and merchant palaces. And so thoroughly did the
city absorb the cultural essences of these imports that it gained a
reputation for being the most un-European town in Europe: a floating,
glinting pipe dream of a metropolis with a style and a story entirely
Visually the Met show, organized by Stefano Carboni, a curator in the
department of Islamic art, presents Venice exactly this way. At the
same time it acknowledges the tough entrepreneurial history running
under the dazzle and glow.
The most famous early transaction between Venice and the Islamic world
was not an exchange but a theft. In A.D. 828 two Venetian traders
stole the body of St. Mark, the evangelist, from its tomb in
Alexandria and brought it home with them.
The pretext was piety: to remove a revered Christian relic from Muslim
hands. The rewards, however, were practical. With a single act of
derring-do, Venice advertised its mercantile reach, reaffirmed its
religious loyalties and gained a pilgrimage-worthy trophy saint to
The accumulated chips would come in handy with the Vatican. In future
centuries, when Europe was repeatedly forbidden by papal decree to do
business with Muslim powers, Venice went right ahead, and got away
with it, staying in touch with the larger world on which it depended
for economic survival (it had no natural resources) and in which it
took delight. That world is sketched out in the show's opening
A 15th-century navigational chart of the eastern Mediterranean defines
its coordinates. A Venetian merchant's handwritten diary supplies some
on-the-ground data. (In Egypt, for example, the merchant saw pyramids,
giraffes and the interiors of elegant Muslim homes.) Two paintings,
one large and one small, bring his experiences to life.
We see Venice itself in a 15th-century illustrated manuscript of Marco
Polo's "Travels." A bird's-eye view, it is a mirage of crenelated
rooftops, watered-silk lagoons and jumbo swans, with Marco Polo,
festive in pink, about to embark for Persia. This is a storybook
picture by an English artist who most likely never laid eyes on the
The Syrian city of Damascus looks far less outlandish in an oil
painting done a century later of Venetian ambassadors being received
at an Islamic court. Minus the minarets and towering turbans, this
could be a European scene. Islamic culture was by this point as fully
integrated into Venetian consciousness as Arabic words were into the
local Italian dialect.
In a sense this entire show is an essay on how that integration played
out in art. Sometimes the dynamic is straightforward, a simple matter
of placement. An exquisitely illustrated 17th-century manuscript made
in Shiraz, in Persia, ends up in Venice. Fragments of a painted
Venetian glass beaker lie in a Jewish cemetery in Syria. How? Why?
Things traveled; that's all.
Frequently, though, cultures are overlaid. The gold-patterned cloak
worn by the Virgin in a 14th-century altarpiece by Stefano Veneziano
is modeled on sumptuous textiles then entering Venice from Persia.
This reference to a luxury import would surely have tickled the
painting's merchant-patron. That the cloth depicted was "foreign" made
it exotic enough for heaven.
Elsewhere the play of influence is more complex. One of the
exhibition's oldest objects, a glass cup from the treasury of St.
Mark's cathedral, has a multiethnic pedigree. Its emerald-green bowl
was probably made by Islamic craftsmen in Egypt or Iran. It then
traveled to Constantinople, where a Byzantine metalworker fitted it
with a gilt-silver mount. Finally this cup that might well have had
secular origins found a sacred home in Venice.
Original meanings were often lost in translation and new ones
acquired. An inlaid brass bucket designed as a bath accessory in the
Near East became a holy water dispenser in Venice. Showy silk brocades
used as slipcovers in Turkey were tailored into ecclesiastical robes
Nor was Europe always on the receiving end of such borrowings.
Venetian glassmaking techniques and styles were so scrupulously
emulated by Islamic craftsmen that it is often impossible to tell the
source of specific objects. And some of the most magnetic items in the
Met's exhibition were created by Western artists expressly for Islamic
One of the most celebrated is Gentile Bellini's 1480 oil portrait of
the Ottoman emperor Mehmet II. Commissioned during Bellini's two years
in Constantinople, it turns an easily sensationalized subject into an
empathetic likeness, idealizing but naturalistic, an approach that
would have its effect on Islamic painting to come.
For sensationalism, however, there is another portrait, an
early-16th-century Italian print of Emperor Suleyman in a multitiered
crown created, at fabulous expense, by Venetian goldsmiths. With its
Carmen Miranda superstructure the headpiece was all but unwearable;
and in the print the emperor, known as the Magnificent, seems to
shrink comically within it.
Yet symbolically it meant a lot to him. He considered it an emblem of
his sovereignty over all the tiara-wearing rulers of Europe. And he
affirmed this entitlement, first by taking control of trade between
Islam and the West, then by initiating an Ottoman conquest of the
As these threats became reality, the image of Muslims in European art
changed. When the Venetian artist Vittore Carpaccio painted a scene of
the stoning of St. Stephen, he made all of the executioners Ottoman
Turks. That was in 1520. Nine years later Suleyman's army reached the
gates of Vienna.
Venice, pragmatic as always, put business before politics and tried to
sustain a connection to the Ottoman court. But by then Venetian trade
was in decline — Portugal had found a route to India; Spain had tapped
into the New World — and Europe's relationship with Islam had
irrecoverably soured. One of the show's final objects is a carved
figurehead decoration for a 17th-century Venetian battleship used in
war against the Ottomans. It depicts a Muslim, bare-headed,
half-naked, humiliated, in chains.
But even when old commercial ties failed, a bond of beauty between
Venice and the Islamic world held. So long and intimately had the two
mingled that Venetian art had become, if only superficially, "Islamic"
It's important to acknowledge the superficiality of the interaction,
to remember that one culture never really became the other. The Met
exhibition is a European, not an Islamic, show. Despite the Islamic
material included we learn little about Islam or about the Islamic
meaning of objects or, even in a general way, about Islamic views of
Some future exhibition will flip this perspective around. That is a
show we need, and I look forward to it. Perhaps Mr. Carboni, a scholar
of depth and breadth, will do it. In the meantime we have his Met show
to savor: historically pointed, visually magnificent and a timely
demonstration of differences reconciled through art.
"Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797" continues through July 8 at
the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, at 82nd Street;
(212) 535-7710, metmuseum.org.
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