WITH NEARLY 200 works of art from more than 60 public and private collections around the world, "Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797" is the first major exhibition to explore one of the most important and distinctive facets of Venetian art history: the exchange of objects and interchange of ideas between the great Italian maritime city and her Islamic neighbors in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Glass, textiles, carpets, arms and armor, ceramics, sculpture, metalwork, furniture, paintings, drawings, prints, printed books, book bindings, and manuscripts tell the fascinating story of the Islamic contribution to the arts of Venice during her heyday, from the medieval to the Baroque eras. The year 828, when two Venetian merchants stole Saint Mark's hallowed body from Muslim-controlled Alexandria and brought it to their native city, and 1797, when the Venetian Republic fell to the French conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte, form the chronological parameters of the exhibition.
For centuries, Venetian merchants--including, of course, the famous Marco Polo--traveled annually to the great emporiums of the Levant to acquire spices and luxury goods such as sills, carpets, and porcelain. Venice's own markets in turn brimmed with precious and exotic commodities, earning the Italian port the sobriquet, "the Bazaar of Europe." Likewise, Venice often is referred to as "the mirror of the East" because her architecture and urban plan incorporate typical Islamic features and ornamental flourishes.
Venice's status as a Christian city clearly set her apart from the Muslim world; however, religion posed surprisingly few hurdles to trade relations. "Pragmatism is probably the term that best defines Venice's relations with the Muslim Middle East," comments Venice native and exhibition curator Stefano Carboni. "Despite all of the wars, Venice remained a privileged partner, thanks to an almost perfect balance between religious spirit, chameleon-like diplomacy, and acute business sense."
The exhibition opens with a gallery dedicated to the Venetian experience of traveling to--and living in--Islamic lands in the Eastern Mediterranean. As recent scholarship convincingly demonstrates, trade, travel, and cultural and diplomatic relations were the most important vehicles for the exchange of artistic ideas between Venice and her Muslim neighbors. Maps on display give a sense of place and a realization of the close proximity of Venice and Damascus, Alexandria, Cairo, Istanbul, and other major Islamic cities, while Venetian travel diaries and painted views of Near Eastern peoples and places provide insight into the Venetian perspective of these foreign lands.
The main body of the exhibition unfolds chronologically and thematically. Some of the earliest Islamic objects to arrive in Venice were destined for churches and church treasuries, which suggests they were highly prized. The varied ways Islamic glass, rock crystal, carpets, textiles, and metalwork were put to use in Venetian ecclesiastical settings is explored and explained in the galleries. Also having an important early presence in Venice were medieval Islamic scientific instruments and illustrated manuscripts, which were far more advanced than anything available in …