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The Venetian Treasure Hunt

Venice and the Islamic World,828–1797

Catalog of the exhibition edited by Stefano Carboni
an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,March 27–July 8, 2007
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 375 pp., $75.00; $55.00 (paper)

In the autumn of 1271, Marco Polo set off from Venice on the long journey east to Kublai Khan’s summer palace at Xanadu on the Mongolian steppe.

Polo’s expedition had two aims. The first was to convert the Mongol Emperor to Christianity. This was not as unlikely a proposition as it sounded. There were many Eastern Christians among the Mongols; indeed Kublai Khan’s half-brother, Hulagu, had a Nestorian Christian mother. When Polo’s father and uncle, Maffeo and Niccolò, had met the Great Khan three years earlier on their first journey eastward, the Emperor had shown great interest in the Western form of Christianity, and had given them a letter addressed to the Pope. In this the Khan asked for

a hundred persons of the Christian faith, intelligent men, acquainted with the Seven Arts, and able clearly to prove to idolaters that the Law of Christ was best, and that all other religions were false and nought.

The brothers told the papal legate in the embattled Crusader Kingdom of Acre, to whom they delivered the letter, that if they could provide this, Kublai Khan, and all his subjects, might well convert. The Great Khan had also asked the Polo brothers to bring to him what he had heard was the most sacred of all Christian relics: a sample of the holy oil from the lamps that burned at the reputed site of the Resurrection, the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, which was widely believed to possess miraculous properties.

The papal legate understood that this was a crucial chance for Christendom. The Mongol Empire ranged from the Euphrates to the Pacific; it was the largest empire the world had ever seen. If it could be turned into a Christian empire, then surely the days of Islamic power would be numbered and the Crusader kingdom saved. So the legate gave permission for the Polos to take a vial of holy oil east with them, and sent them off with, if not one hundred, then at least two “intelligent men of the Christian faith,” both friars, who were given extraordinary powers of ordination and absolution.

But the Polos also had a second, more hardheaded, and less idealistic object in setting off on such a daunting journey to the edge of the known world. For the Polos were not professional diplomats but ambitious Venetian traders. They hoped to use their expedition to make money by acquiring silks, jewels, and much else, and to bring back solid information about further mercantile opportunities in the East.

Such financial concerns are clearly evident in Marco Polo’s Travels. This celebrated but now little-read book is in fact a surprisingly dry and factual guide to the commerce of the mainly Islamic lands through which the Polos traveled: Seljuk Turkey, Ilkhanate Persia, Afghan Central Asia, and the Islamic Silk Road cities that edged the Gobi Desert. It also takes up the question of the trade of China proper and that of Kublai Khan’s great capital of Khan Balik, now Beijing. The Travels contains lists of goods available on the caravan routes, as well as advice on how to overcome the difficulties on the way: where to stock up with provisions, where to keep an eye out for robbers, and how to cross a desert. It is, in short, a book by a merchant for other merchants.

For all the romantic topspin given to the book by Marco Polo’s collaborator in writing it, a Genoese troubadour named Rustichello, and for all that the book was regarded as a compendium of marvels by Polo’s amazed contemporaries (hence the name given to some of the manuscripts of the Travels, such as Il Milione—a thousand thousand marvels), Polo’s book was in fact essentially very similar to other manuals for merchants of the same time, such as the Pratica della Mercatura by the Florentine trader Francesco Pegolotti. Indeed of its type it is a very fine example.

In the event, the diplomatic side of the Polos’ expedition was a complete failure. The two friars got no further than the coast of Asia Minor before fleeing back in panic to Acre, and Kublai Khan never converted to Christianity; instead some of his descendants, as well as all those of Hulagu, became Muslim. But the Polos did succeed quite magnificently in their other object—to come back to Venice with more accurate and detailed information about the trade of the Silk Route than was available at the time from any other source, in either the Islamic or Christian worlds, all of which Polo dutifully recorded in the Travels.

The Polos also seem to have made a great fortune, just as they had hoped and planned. According to Gasparo Malipiero, a neighbor of the family, the three travelers arrived back in Venice in rough Tartar clothing with “something of the Tartar in their faces.” Everyone was horrified, but the three men went home and changed into new robes, gave presents of cloth to their servants, and put on a banquet for their relatives. At the climax of the feast they stood up and in full view held up and cut open their rough traveling clothes, revealing a mass of huge jewels sewed into the linings.1

Remarkably, the gist of this story has recently been confirmed by radiocarbon datings from archaeological excavations of the old Polo property in Venice. These showed that the house was extensively rebuilt at the very time of Marco Polo’s return, indicating that he soon invested at least some of his large trading profits in rebuilding and extending his family mansion.

In view of what Marco Polo symbolizes for Venice—even its airport is named after him—it is entirely appropriate that the first exhibit one sees in the wonderful show at the Metropolitan Museum, “Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797”—as well as the exhibition’s poster and the cover of its catalog—is a magnificent fifteenth-century full-page illumination of Marco Polo’s Departure from Venice from the Bodleian Library’s early-fifteenth-century French copy of the Travels. The three Polos, dressed in their pink merchant’s attire, can be seen leading a group of Venetian dignitaries past the Piazza San Marco along the Riva degli Schiavoni to the docks and the galleon anchored and waiting in the Venetian lagoon. In the lower-right-hand corner, Marco is seen again, sailing off on his ship, while on the lower left exotic animals—a leopard, lions, and a bear—prowl the rocky shoreline beyond, indicative of the dangerous, exotic, and unexplored regions to which the Polos were heading.

The story of the Polos is a very Venetian one, for throughout the history of the city, the lure of profits and hardheaded mercantile pragmatism consistently overcame both religious prejudice and political idealism. Pope Innocent III was not the only pontiff to complain about the way Venice always put its colonial and economic interests over the flag of Christendom. For Polo was only one of many tens of thousands of Venetians who sailed east, many of them ignoring intermittent papal bans on trade with the infidel, even when backed up by threats of excommunication.

Century after century, Venice remained the “liquid frontier” between Islam and Christendom. Indeed, for much of its history it had no substantial land empire, and its commercial life entirely depended on links with the East: the history of Venice, as the exhibition well demonstrates, is a history of fortunes made through trade with the lands of the Middle East and the wider Islamic world. One Venetian diplomat put very simply the symbiotic position of Venice vis-à-vis the Muslims: “Being merchants,” he wrote, “we cannot live without them.”

Nor did they attempt to. Venice concluded important trade agreements with Muslim Grenada, the emirs of Morocco, and the rulers of Seljuk Turkey. But the Venetian Republic’s closest and most lucrative ally and trading partner was always the Cairo-based Mamluks—the warrior caste whose regime dominated Egypt and whose armies, under Sultan Baybars (an ex-slave once allegedly returned to the slave market on account of his unusual ugliness), were in the process of snuffing out the last enclaves of the Crusaders on the coast of Palestine, even as the Polos set off on their journey to the Great Khan.

Indeed one of the Venetians’ principal motives for diverting the Fourth Crusade from attacking Muslim Egypt to storming Christian Constantinople in 1204 was to protect the extensive trading privileges they enjoyed with the Egytians. At the very moment the Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo was negotiating with the Crusader leaders about the price to be paid for transporting them to the East, a group of his diplomats were in Cairo planning a trade agreement with the sultan and promising him that Venice would never countenance an expedition against Egypt.2

So close did the relationship between the two trading partners become that the Mamluks sometimes depended on Venetian naval strength to protect their coastline, while in return the Venetians reserved 45 percent of all their investment in overseas commerce for the Mamluk trade. Both the Egyptians and the Venetians were merely the Mediterranean middlemen in a far wider trading network that transported the spices and luxury products of India, China, and the Far East to the emerging cities of Northern and Western Europe; but in the process both groups creamed off the enormous profits that filled Cairo and Venice with the fine buildings that can still be admired today.

In the face of frequent papal anathemas, the Venetians continued to sell the Mamluks metals—especially gold, silver, tin, and lead—woolens, linens, furs, coal, and, somewhat surprisingly, hats. In return they carried back to their wharfs and piazzas a huge range of spices, especially pepper, as well as pigments, pearls, precious stones, and damasks. They also brought back thousands of the dazzling art objects with which the remarkable Met exhibition is so richly filled: luxurious carpets and velvets, gorgeous silk brocades and glass, porcelain and gilded bookbindings, illuminated Persian manuscripts and inlaid metalwork.

Diplomatic missions between Venice and the Mamluks were common: the first room of the exhibition shows a wonderfully rich wall-size canvas of a Venetian embassy arriving in Damascus in 1511. The emissaries line up in their belted black robes and ermine against the backdrop of the great Ummayad Mosque and the projecting wooden kiosks, flat roofs, and latticed windows of the Old City. Here they wait in line as their leader presents his credentials to the ruler, who is wearing an astonishing fan-like piece of headware (known as the “waterwheel turban”). The emissaries would have been carrying large numbers of Parmesan cheeses, apparently the diplomatic gifts most eagerly favored by appreciative sixteenth-century Mamluk governors.

To help facilitate this mutually beneficial trade, there were permanent Venetian consulates and large Venetian communities in all the principal Mamluk trading cities—not just Cairo but also Alexandria, Damascus, and Aleppo (as well as, later in the Ottoman period, Salonica, Bursa, and Istanbul). Here visiting Venetians could find lodging, food, a church, and even a public bath.

  1. 1

    See Deborah Howard’s fascinating essay, “The Status of the Oriental Traveller in Renaissance Venice,” which can be found in a short but important volume entitled Re-Orienting the Renaissance: Cultural Exchanges with the East, edited by Gerald MacLean (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

  2. 2

    See Sir Steven Runciman’s classic History of the Crusades, Volume III: The Kingdom of Acre (Cambridge University Press, 1954). Runciman takes a very dim view of the Venetian intrigues that ended in the plunder of Byzantium, which he calls “disastrous for European civilization. Constantinople was still the centre of the civilized Christian world…. Like most barbarian invaders, the men of the Fourth Crusade did not intend to destroy what they found. They meant to share in it and dominate it. But their greed and their clumsiness led them to indulge in irreparable destruction” (p. 476).

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