Venice and the Islamic World: 828-1797

Diane Apostolos-Cappadona

In his recent review of the Metropolitan Museum of Art special exhibition Venice and the Islamic World, New York Times art critic Holland Cotter wrote, "Told often enough that the West and Islam are natural enemies, we start to believe it, and assume it has always been so." However rather than one more hackneyed analysis of either historical or contemporary Muslim-Christian relations, or lack thereof, this exhibition opens a new chapter through which we come to see how the arts play a central role as primary evidence for historical analysis and positive exchange between cultures.

The wide variety of artistic media examined in this particular exhibition range from rugs and textiles to ceramics and glassware to furniture, musical instruments, and illuminated books as well as those more traditionally identified arts of painting, prints, and drawings. Just as wide ranging are the themes of Venice and the Islamic World from a cultural history of Venice to the economics of "international" trade in the 9th to the 18th centuries to the creative exchange between the artists, craftsmen, and artisans of the Venetian republic and Muslim empires - Mamluks of Egypt, Ottomans of Turkey, and Safavids of Iran - in a fashion perhaps as significant as that of medieval Spain.

Ironically, of course, this new focus of cultural interchange began not with a military invasion or a political treaty but with a theft, or perhaps better said, the "liberation" of the body of St. Mark, the evangelist and apostle. Venetian traders raided his tomb in Alexandria on the pretext of the pious act of restoring a significant relic to the geographic bosom of believers where it garnered veneration as Venice became an established pilgrimage venue. Moreover, it is exactly this metaphor of movement as signified by the terms trade and pilgrimage that is at the heart of these cultural encounters by which artworks moved from and into Venice and simultaneously in and out of the Islamic world. Thereby, these artworks visually influenced each other and the cultures from which they came and to which they traveled.

So the inclusion of Persian carpets, Turkish velvets, and Syrian silks into Venetian paintings, such as Lorenzo Lotto's Giovanni della Volta with his Wife and Children (1547), are explicable not simply from the perspective of the desire for luxury or the propagandistic display of elegance in art, especially in portraiture. Rather, these "goods" and a growing knowledge of the worlds from which they came was a natural consequence of living and working in Venice - a city significant as a center of international trade AND for the distinctive tenor of its cosmopolitanism, now clearly associated with its relationships to the Islamic world.

Similarly, as the works on view in this exhibition make clear, the depiction of Arab dress and physiognomy is more historically accurate than fantasized in the works ranging from paintings such as the anonymous The Reception of the Venetian Ambassadors in Damascus to presentations of women, ostensibly from a harem, as in Vittore Carpaccio's drawing entitled Two Muslim Women. Thus, a careful reconsideration of the costumes, jewelry, and headdress as well as the modes of bodily postures, and gestures of these "non-western" figures is called for to provide new sources of historical information. This visual path was a two-way street as witnessed by Gentile Bellini's Portrait of Sultan Mehmet II painted in 1480 during the artist's 2-year sojourn in Constantinople and in which the artist imbues his subject with both dignity and empathy. The impact of Bellini's travels is found in his later works painted for western patrons just as his well-known portrait affected the arts of the Ottoman Empire. Additionally, negative attitudes toward Islam and the Arab world are also operative in the works on display. What proves most interesting here, however, is not the characterization of what might be deemed an Orientalist attitude but rather the historical connectives to a transformation witnessed in the positive rendering in Francesco dei Libri's early 15th-century Adoration of the Magi as opposed to Carpaccio=s Stoning of St. Stephen of 1520 where the executioners are Ottoman Turks. The "threat" of Ottoman conquest of European territory following the fall of Constantinople became a harsh reality in 1529 when Suleyman's army reached Vienna. This fear ran rampant in literary and visual works as well as theological and philosophical treatises as our own recent history has sadly reminded us.

As with other innovative exhibitions, Venice and the Islamic World opens a series of new doors to the exploration, and thereby, the understanding of the visual history of ideas such as the technical relationship between Islamic glassware and the evolution of Murano glass; the correlation between patron and artist, especially when they are from different cultures; and the continuing consideration of the meaning and implementation of the iconoclastic tenets of Islam, both in terms of its own culture and its interchange with iconophilic cultures. Beyond what may be deemed its lacunae and its weaknesses, Venice and the Islamic World is a welcome invitation to see the realities wrought by a significant series of cultural exchange.

Dr. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona is a former Adjunct Professor at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. She currently is a Visiting Professor in the Catholic Studies Program.

(Organized by the Institute du Monde Arabe and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797 remains on view in New York City through 8 July 2007. For further details