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Islamic Venice?

Wordsworth got it wrong. Venice never held “the gorgeous East in fee” as he declared in his sonnet “On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic,” published in 1807. Although Venetians grew rich from import-export business with the Levant and ruled part of the former Byzantine Empire for half a century after leading the sack of Constantinople in 1204, they obtained no more than concessions for trading posts on Islamic territory.

Nor was Venice an effective “safeguard of the West,” as Wordsworth wrote. Venetians were primarily concerned with maintaining profitable relations with the sultanates and fighting off European competitors, especially the Genoese, knocked out by the Venetian forces in 1380 after a century of warfare as brutal as that between Crusaders and Muslims but without any pious motives. The involvement of Venetians in the Crusades was opportunistic: they supported the Latin kingdom in return for privileges and, after the Muslim reoccupation of Jerusalem, exploited a virtual monopoly in operating package pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Wordsworth, in this beautifully constructed elegiac sonnet, gave tragic significance to myths current in England since the seventeenth century when James Howell had described Venice as Europe’s “greatest rampart against that huge Eastern Tyrant the Turk,” and as “a Maiden City, so called because she was never defloured by any enemy.”1 The words “gorgeous East” came from Milton’s description of Satan’s throne.

Venetians were middlemen in a trade nexus extending over Asia and Europe. Their so-called empire was mainly a string of ports which their ships (and no others) could use as harbors on their way across the eastern Mediterranean, carrying timber, metals, and gold ducats, to return with cargoes of spices, aromatics, dyes, and cottons that had been imported from India. Merchandise, acquired wherever they had been allowed to establish a fondaco (a combined warehouse and lodging, called in Arabic a fondaq), was sold on the Rialto to buyers from the Italian mainland and Central and Northern Europe, who had similar premises in Venice. With hard bargaining at both ends, a successful voyage could yield a profit of 30 percent to 50 percent in about twelve months. Wealth thus generated was diffused among the patrician families that, by the early fourteenth century, constituted a jealously closed oligarchy whose members advertised their riches and status in the decoration of their palaces.

While Venice grew rich, Egypt and Syria were ruled by the luxury-loving Mamluks, descendants of slave soldiers from central Asia. And as sultan after sultan in his pomp built palaces (about which we know little) and founded the vast religious and charitable complexes which still survive, Cairo was developed as the most magnificent city on the Mediterranean rim. Damascus was little less imposing with its mosques, madrasas (theological colleges), bazaars, and bathhouses. Here Venetians had a fondaco from which an unidentified, but probably Venetian, painter carefully recorded the cityscape, showing the Mamluk emblem repeatedly displayed on the walls, the Great Mosque’s eleventh-century dome, and the elaborate minaret erected for the sultan Qa’it Bay in 1488.

An ordinary house with latticed wooden balconies projecting from its plain walls and a flat roof where two women stand is rendered with zoom-lens precision. Off-center a Venetian ambassador in his red toga, backed by his black-gowned retinue, is received somewhat nonchalantly by a seated man, probably the governor of the city, wearing a headdress of a type reserved for high Mamluk officials. Turbaned and colorfully robed figures in the left foreground, however, show no more interest in the ceremonial reception of the embassy than if it were an everyday occurrence. The artist’s prime aim was no doubt to incorporate as much local color as possible on a single canvas—buildings, including the dome of a bathhouse, men and appropriately distanced women, their costumes and their animals. But he no less candidly depicts the Venetians as respectful commercial travelers.

Medieval Venice presented an entirely different aspect from that of Damascus, not only because of its watery site. It was strikingly distinguished from other cities, in Europe as well as Asia, by the numerous façades of private houses embellished with finely carved window surrounds and balconies, inset panels of rare stone, painting, and gilding. Visitors from Northern Europe were impressed. Philippe de Commynes, ambassador of Charles VIII of France in 1494, described the Grand Canal flanked by tall stone-clad houses as the most beautiful street in the world. The chaplain accompanying Sir Richard Guylforde, an official at the court of Henry VII of England, on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1506, wrote in his journal: “The rychesse, the sumptuous buildings, the religious houses, and the stablyshynge of their justyces and councylles, with all other things that maketh a citie glorious, sumounteth in Venice above all places that I ever sawe”—he had traveled from London by way of Paris and Lyon.2

Like other pilgrims, Guylforde and his attendants were obliged to spend time and money waiting for the east-bound galley to sail. So they were given the chance to witness the flaunting of Venetian opulence: on Ascension Day, the doge setting off “with great tryumphe and solempnyce” for the ceremonial marriage with the sea, and on the feast of Corpus Christi, the “most solepne procession that I ever sawe” with “lytell children of both kyndes, gloriously and richly dressyd, bering in their hands in rich cuppes or other vessylles, some pleasant floures or other well smelling or riche stuffe, dressed as aungelles.”

Such a procession around the piazza had been depicted by Gentile Bellini a decade earlier (see illustration on page 14). The prosperity of Venice was known to derive from traffic with the East, associated in the European mind with unlimited riches and uninhibited luxury. The city may, therefore, have appeared to be in some way “Oriental.” Not until much later, however, were similarities between its buildings and the architecture of Islam noted, and commended. William Beckford claimed that in 1780 he directed his steps “to the great Mosque, I ought to say the Church of St. Mark; but really its cupolas, slender pinnacles, and semi-circular arches, have so oriental an appearance, as to excuse the appellation.”3 Germaine de Stäel in Corinne (1807) remarked that the exterior of St. Mark’s was less like a church than a mosque (although she had never seen one).

As knowledge of di-verse architectural styles increased, individual motifs of an Eastern cast were noted and the features that had led classically minded observers to dismiss St. Mark’s as an abortion of bad taste were praised for their picturesque effect. “Where but in Venice could be found crowded together specimens of the Greek, Roman, Gothic, and Saracenic styles, blending into rich masses?” asked Byron’s friend Marguerite Countess of Blessington. “Though censured by connoisseurs …this very mélange is perhaps one of the causes of my admiration, so novel, yet so gorgeous in its appearance.”4 The adjective was almost inescapable: Charles Dickens found the church “gorgeous in the wild luxuriant fancies of the East.”

To such visitors, Venice appeared exotic—as it still does. Residents were more inclined to accept the mixture of features as part of the city’s heritage. Leopoldo Cicognara, president of the Venetian Academy of Arts and a proponent of neoclassical theory, remarked in 1815 that Venetians who had been struck by the monuments of Cairo, Alexandria, and Baghdad created an architectural style that must be judged on its own merits—not as an example of decadence, or of the corruption of taste. Pietro Estense Selvatico from Padua, a later president of the Academy and an advocate of eclecticism, praised the “Arabian architecture” of the city with its thousand meanders, walls cut like lace, and infinity of ornaments introduced to Venice by means of the Crusades and frequent commercial contacts. In his book on the sculpture and architecture of Venice published in 1847 he declared that the beautiful decorations on Venetian palaces owed nothing to Germanic lands but derived from buildings in Egypt and Syria that still bore witness to the gigantesca civilization of the Caliphs. Sometimes he was more precise, likening the cresting on the roof-line of the Doges’ Palace to that on the walls of the ninth-century mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo.5

John Ruskin, who met Selvatico in 1850, wrote at the very beginning of The Stones of Venice, published in 1851, that the medieval architecture of the city was “divided into ecclesiastical and civil: the one an ungraceful yet powerful form of the Western Gothic, common to the whole peninsula…; the other a rich, luxuriant, and entirely original Gothic, formed from the Venetian-Arab.” There can be little doubt to whom he was indebted for this observation. Ruskin’s knowledge of Islamic architecture was limited, and so too was his appreciation—he wrote of the “detestable ornamentation” of the Alhambra in Grenada. To his eye, nonetheless, St. Mark’s possessed

the charm of colour in common with the greater part of the architecture, as well as of the manufactures, of the East; but the Venetians deserve especial note as the only European people who appear to have sympathized to the full with the great instinct of the Eastern races…. While the burghers and barons of the North were building their dark streets and grisly castles of oak and sandstone, the merchants of Venice were covering their palaces with porphyry and gold.

Several better-informed studies of Eastern influence on the decoration of Venetian buildings have been published since Ruskin’s day, but none as well documented and superbly illustrated as Deborah Howard’s Venice and the East. This will surely remain the standard work on the subject, based on acquaintance with the architecture of western Asia as well as that of Venice about which she has written the best brief history.6 She begins by summarizing what may be learned from manuscript as well as printed sources of the diplomatic and commercial relations between the city and the eastern Mediterranean from the twelfth century to the early sixteenth, identifying ambassadors, consuls, and merchants, describing how they traveled in ships of increasing size, and how they lived after their arrival. The altana, a rooftop loggia giving inhabitants of houses built around dark courtyards access to fresh air and sunlight, was probably introduced to Venice by merchants who had lived in the East where the roof was, and often still is, a room.

No architect is known, or even likely, to have accompanied the Venetian merchants and diplomats. Nor does any Venetian building reflect the architectural qualities of the great mosques that travelers could have seen—their meticulously calculated proportions, unobstructed spaces, bold forms, exquisitely patterned brickwork, and, later, veils of colored ornament, each one a unified composition declaring faith in the One and Only God revealed by the Prophet. In comparison, the Basilica of St. Mark is an accumulation of bits and pieces, a beautifully rich patchwork of ornamental motifs and whole objects with pride of place given to loot from Constantinople. It is a kind of museum of Venetian history from the eleventh to the early nineteenth century when, under Austrian rule, the last of the post-Byzantine mosaics were inserted. Howard focuses attention on individual elements, including carved stone grilles in the Coptic style of interlace similar to those in the Great Mosque at Damascus. She points out striking analogies between the famous thirteenth-century reliefs of the labors of the months in the central portal and tiny ivories carved in Fatimid Egypt about a hundred years earlier. Her contention that the compositions of some mosaics were inspired by scenes depicted in Arabic manuscripts “to enliven the eastern atmosphere” is, to my mind, less convincing and raises the tricky question of intention.

  1. 1

    James Howell, Epistolae Ho-Elianae: Familiar Letters… (1655; tenth edition, London, 1737), p. 57. The remarks are in a letter dated “Venice 5 June 1621” but apparently written while Howell was in the Fleet Prison in London 1643–1651.

  2. 2

    The Pylgrymage of Sir Richard Guylforde (1511; London: Camden Society, 1851), p. 8. I have modernized some of the spellings.

  3. 3

    William Beckford, Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents (1782), in The Travel Diaries of William Beckford of Fonthill, edited by G. Chapman (Cambridge, 1928), Vol. 1, p. 87.

  4. 4

    The Countess of Blessington, The Idler in Italy (1839; London, 1840), Vol. 3, pp. 110–112, based on her travel diary of 1828.

  5. 5

    Pietro Estense Selvatico, Sulla architetture civile e religiosa (Padua, 1840), p. 145; Sulla architettura e sulla scultura in Venezia (Venice, 1847), pp. 87, 127.

  6. 6

    Deborah Howard, The Architectural History of Venice (1980; published by Yale University Press in an enlarged and revised edition, 2002).

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