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.

There are no more obviously Oriental elements in Venetian architecture than the bulbous domes of St. Mark’s, which have a complex Eurasian symbolic and structural ancestry. The dome, conceived as more than a shelter, appears to have acquired cosmic significance from the tents or canopies of Central Asian rulers with pretentions to universal authority. In ancient Roman and early Christian architecture the interior could symbolize and was sometimes decorated to suggest the vault of the heavens. Its exterior form was, however, barely visible from ground level (the Pantheon in Rome, Hagia Sophia in Constantinople) or, as on many churches, the exterior was boxed by walls and crowned by a cone or cap.

Domes that conspicuously assert the importance of a building became a feature of Islamic architecture from the beginning of its history when the Dome of the Rock was built to outshine the Christian monuments in Jerusalem. A dome was often placed above the bay in front of the mihrab of a mosque (the mihrab being a niche boldly indicating the direction of Mecca for the prayers of the faithful). In due course a dome became a defining feature of a mosque’s exterior. For greater prominence it was raised on a drum and/or covered by a superstructure of lighter material forming an outer shell. Such double-shell domes were constructed from at least as early as the ninth century and the process was elaborated to the point where, on the early-fifteenth- century Gur-i Amir (tomb of the ruler) in Samarkand, the ceramic-clad outer shell, dazzling the populace and silk-road merchants from afar, rises some forty-five feet above the vault of the chamber entered only by the few.

St. Mark’s, as rebuilt in the eleventh century, had shallow brick domes that provided excellent supports for figurative mosaics on their undersides but made no exterior effect. Outer shells, probably the earliest in Europe, were added in the thirteenth century with, as Howard remarks, some knowledge of the advanced structural technology in Asia.7 As a quincunx—an arrangement of five objects in a square space—the San Marco domes emphasize the Greek-cross plan of the church, derived from the Apostoleion in Constantinople and laid down when Byzantine influence was dominant in Venice. But they seem also to have answered an aesthetic need for aspiring verticals above the earthbound horizontality of the façade to which Gothic crests and pinnacles were subsequently added.

Howard, on the other hand, likens them to the scattered stone-built mausoleums in Cairo’s City of the Dead, claiming that they provided “a specifically Egyptian funerary context” for the relics of Saint Mark that had been transported from Alexandria to Venice. In the porphyry columns on the façade she detects another reference to Egypt where the material was known to have been quarried, though its association with imperial Rome and Byzantium was more widely recognized. She says nothing of the compelling beauty of these purple columns enlivened by glints of feldspar, juxtaposed with others of veined and mottled marble set against a gray-green ground, an instance of Venetians’ hypersensitivity to polychromatic effects, brilliantly analyzed by Paul Hills in Venetian Colour.8

In common with many present-day architectural historians, and some architects, Howard tends to regard buildings as texts to be read. “I shall argue…that the intention behind the introduction of the ogee arch and its adoption as a trademark by the Venetian merchant class was to allude to a mental image of the Orient,” she writes. Arches of this type, composed of confronted concave and convex curves rising to a fine point, are a distinctive feature of Venetian Gothic, crowning single windows and doors or ranged in arcades as delicately intertwined as the macramé fringe of a face towel—most spectacularly on the early-fifteenth-century Ca’ d’Oro (see illustration on page 16).

Such arches are, as Howard admits, rare in Islamic masonry architecture, though sometimes incorporated in the decoration of mihrabs and represented symbolically on prayer rugs and small pieces of pottery, metalwork, and woodwork that may have been among the now untraced objects brought back by merchants, and could have been vehicles for the transmission of the motif, if an allusion to the Orient was intended.9 Yet the ogee may equally well have been developed, as in fourteenth- century England and Burgundy, for no more than the decorative enrichment of the simple Gothic curves. When Ruskin wrote that the “Arab…in his intense love of excitement…points the arch and writhes it into extravagant foliations,” he recorded what he had seen in Venice rather than the little he knew of buildings in the East.

Venetian Gothic and Islamic architecture both evolved from the same roots in Byzantium, albeit with increasingly strong currents of influence from Northern Europe on the one and from Central Asia on the other. Both flourished in the climate of the Mediterranean civilization, that “meeting place of many people and melting pot of many histories”—in Paul Valéry’s phrase—which had an underlying cultural cohesion distinguishing it from the civilizations of China and India, just as its three religions of the Book, though divisive, were closer to one another than to Buddhism and Hinduism.

Differences between the architectural styles developed in this world seem to have been less clearly apparent in the Middle Ages than in later times. To judge from their written reports, Venetian travelers found nothing alienating in Islamic buildings. The Venetian ambassador Giosofat Barbaro remarked that Aleppo, in Syria, called for no comment, “being a place with which we are familiar and very famous.” But he carefully described the yurts, or tents, of Central Asian nomads, quite unlike any structures to be seen in his homeland. In his detailed account of Persia, where he was sent in 1474 to negotiate a treaty between Venice and the shah against the Ottoman Turks, the only building he mentioned was the mausoleum of Uljaytu at Sultaniyya in Persia, noting that its dome was larger than that of the Church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice (it is very much larger, the tallest in Asia, and in his time still covered with glazed blue tiles and surrounded by eight slender minarets). Barbaro concentrated his attention on its bronze doors “excellently well carved with leaves and devices after their manner; so wrought with beaten gold and silver that it is both marvellous and rich…. There is no man in our parts that dare take the like in hand without very great time.” Another Venetian ambassador of the same period wrote that these doors, higher than those of St. Mark’s, “made in damask work with silver are certainly most beautiful and must, I should think, have cost a large sum of money.”10

The beauty of Islamic metalwork was recognized by European connoisseurs of fine craftsmanship. By the mid-fifteenth century a member of the Medici family in Florence had acquired three dozen examples—bowls, candlesticks, and inkwells. Many such pieces, including some made for export, passed through Venice, giving rise to the erroneous belief that Persian silversmiths settled there. But the Asian products most widely diffused in Europe were knotted pile carpets, prized from the late thirteenth century when Marco Polo rated those made in Anatolia “the most beautiful in the world.” They too were imported by way of Venice, and in 1520 Venetian merchants in London provided sixty as a bribe for Cardinal Wolsey, minister of Henry VIII, who seized the lot. Although their Eastern origin was noted in European inventories, they seem to have been regarded not as exotica so much as objets de luxe of incomparably fine manufacture. Their colors and patterns were recorded with great precision by painters who showed them beneath the feet only of angels, saints, and royalty; they are stretched over tables in portraits of upper-class sit-ters by, among others, Lorenzo Lotto and Hans Holbein, whose names were later to be used to categorize and, so to speak, Europeanize two Anatolian types of carpet. When hung from the windows of Venetian palaces on festival occasions they must have added the final touch of flamboyant opulence to carvings, gilding, and insets of rare stones. They were extremely beautiful and were known to have cost large sums of money.

During the Middle Ages, Venetians in the East, like Northern Europeans in Venice, seem to have judged buildings mainly by their size and the costliness of their materials and the skilled labor expended on them. No clear distinctions were drawn between local or historical styles until the cult of classical remains and the writings of Vitruvius established a norm against which all buildings, Gothic as well as non-European, could be measured—and found wanting. In Venice this new attitude was manifested when the Church of San Michele in Isola, built by Mauro Codussi between 1469 and 1477 with sparse classical ornament on its staring white façade, prompted an admiring contemporary to write that “it not only emulates antiquity, but even evokes the finest works of the ancients.”

A few years later the same architect designed a new campanile for the cathedral church of San Pietro di Castello, apparently to evoke the Hellenistic lighthouse on the island of Pharos in the harbor of Alexandria that had often been schematically represented in paintings and mosaics in order to locate scenes in the city where Saint Mark had been martyred. This is one of Deborah Howard’s most interesting and original observations, although it is somewhat spoiled by the description of the lighthouse as Pharaonic (rather than Ptolemaic) and the campanile as an “appropriation from the Arab world.” It might be better understood as one of the first attempts by a Renaissance architect to recreate a specific classical monument—one only geographically in the East, like the other six wonders of the world on the list drawn up probably in Alexandria in the third century BC and popularized in Latin literature when they were all within the Roman Empire.

Not until 1537, when the Tuscan-born Jacopo Sansovino designed the library of St. Mark’s, was the language of classical architecture adopted in Venice with as much regard for the usage as the form of the classical orders. Andrea Palladio called it “perhaps the richest and most ornate building since Antiquity,” which showed Venetians how to build in “the beautiful style.” The development of this architectural aesthetic coincided with major changes in international relations. The Venetian Republic, less dependent on trade with the East than hitherto, had gradually been extending its territories on the mainland and emerged as a European state, chastened by but surviving attack from the combined forces of the Papacy, the Holy Roman Empire, France, and others in the War of the League of Cambrai. At the same time the Ottoman Empire was spreading into Europe and the struggle to halt it was represented in Christian propaganda as a holy war against Islam in which Venice was obliged to take part.

Whether or not the domes of St. Mark’s and the decorations that so beautifully animate the façades of Venice’s medieval palaces had ever been associated with the religious beliefs of Muslims, classical architecture was conspicuously European and, in the design of churches, had been invested with Christian significance. A cultural rift far wider than that occasioned by the Crusades had opened and henceforth Oriental motifs could figure only in playful parodies as Turqueries and Chinoiseries, mainly in the decorative arts that were separated from, and subordinated to, painting and sculpture, as in no other civilization. Venetians, notably Titian and Palladio, contributed greatly to developments in the arts peculiar to the West with results so dazzling that they for long distorted European vision.

Venice continued, nevertheless, to trade with the East despite intermittent wars with the sultans of Turkey and their nominal dependents on the North African coast who preyed on merchant shipping (a final victory over the Bey of Tunis was scored in 1786). Even while the army of Revolutionary France was approaching from the mainland, many Venetians looked to the sea, hoping to profit from neutrality, as in previous wars on the continent. After the city had been degraded to the status of a provincial capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it still remained visually outside Europe. Owing not only to analogies between Venetian Gothic and Islamic architecture, it seemed to be penetrated, suffused, and sometimes contaminated by the East—Death in Venice. The word “gorgeous” has an undertone of disapproval for flagrant displays of riches and sensuality associated in European minds with the Orient. Palace façades have long since lost all trace of gilding and painting yet retain an aura of the wealth accumulated when their owners prospered as trading partners within the Mediterranean civilization.

This Issue

November 7, 2002