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.

It was customary for young Venetian noblemen to be sent off to spend their teenage years learning both Arabic and Persian, as well as the business of trade, in the Venetian trading settlements in the Levant, and a number of Venetian doges, such as the longest reigning of all, the foxlike Doge Francesco Foscari (r. 1423–1457), were actually born and grew up there. Doge Andrea Gritti (r. 1523–1538) fathered three illegitimate children in his youth in Istanbul, one of whom later became the close friend of Suleyman the Magnificent’s grand vizier, Ibrahim Pasha. It was in this way that a remarkable number of Arabic loan words (as well as some from Persian and Turkish) entered Venetian dialect, including the Venetian term for their gold ducats—zecchino—from the Arabic sikka, a mint. By the same route much Islamic culture, philosophy, science, technology, as well as more mundane recipes, remedies, tastes, and ideas, all passed westward through the mouth of the Venetian lagoon.

Inventories and wills left by these Venetian expatriate merchants show the degree to which they came to acclimatize themselves to life in the Muslim world, leaving to their heirs many objects clearly of Levantine origin: inlaid Islamic inkwells, pen boxes, pomanders, and scales were all of local manufacture, as were the much-prized Mamluk carpets that Venetian craftsmen tried and failed to imitate. The later wills are also full of many items of Arabic dress which the Venetians explicitly asked to be allowed to wear in a treaty renegotiated with the Mamluks in 1442. According to the exhibition catalog, a pair of long bright orange silk Mamluk underdrawers once worn by a Venetian merchant apparently survive in Brussels, though these historic longjohns were not, alas, on show at the Met.

Specialist art historians have long been writing about the ways that Venice introduced Muslim ideas and material culture to Europe, most recently in Deborah Howard’s magnificent Venice and the East.3 Howard pointed out in particular the debt Venetian architecture owed to that of the Mamluks. Even the great Doge’s Palace was closely modeled on a Mamluk palace in Cairo, while the intricate and distinctive key pattern on its outer façade appears to be derived from the brickwork on Seljuk Turkish tombs and mosques. Many other major Venetian public buildings, such as the Basilica of San Marco and the Fondaci del Tedeschi and dei Turchi, as well as hundreds of smaller houses and palaces, show unmistakable Islamic influences in their ogee windows and latticed grilles, their rooftop platforms and covered balconies, their crenelations and their courtyards, as well as in a more generalized love of colorful and elaborate ornament and sculptural panels.

The Met exhibition—which was co-organized by the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, where it was shown last winter—could not, of course, include architecture in its survey, except in paintings and photographs, but it makes up for this with a genuinely astonishing display of movable objects: never before has it been possible to see so many beautiful Islamic artworks brought back by Venetian merchants from the East—and to see them immediately beside the objects they inspired on arrival in La Serenissima.

In some cases, Venetian craftsmen worked hard to produce straightforward copies of Islamic objects: amazingly close imitations of Islamic inlaid metalwork were being made from the eleventh century onward. More remarkably, the entire glass industry based on the Venetian island of Murano, the quintessential Venetian art form which thrives to this day, was born from imported Arab technology and began by slavishly reproducing Fatamid and Mamluk designs, motifs, shapes, and jewel-like colors—so much so that earlier generations of scholars wrongly believed much early Venetian work, especially that in enameled glass, to be imported from Syria and Egypt.

One exquisite piece of painted glassware on view, formerly from a Venetian collection, shows Christ entering into Jerusalem on the back of an ass, while another has depictions of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock, all in an entirely Islamic style. It remains unclear whether the pieces were of Christian Arab manufacture; or perhaps intended for visiting pilgrims or for export to Christian Europe; or whether quite simply, as the wall text notes, “the decoration reflects a cultural milieu remarkably unfettered by religious boundaries.”

In other cases, the influence is more subtle: Islamic textiles clothe Renaissance Virgins in sumptuous brocades and damasks; Madonnas stand holding the infant Jesus in velvets fringed in kufic and skirted by borders of palmette and pomegranate patterns. Mamluk carpets, with their rich reds, greens, and blues, adorn the floors, walls, and even the tables of Venetian family portraits.

Moreover, this influence involved a two-way flow of tastes and influences—a mutually beneficial interpenetration and dialogue of civilizations. For example, Venetian silks came to be fashionable in Ottoman Turkey; the catalog notes that “surprisingly few of the fabrics or imperial caftans preserved in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul were manufactured in Turkey; many can be identified as Italian.” At the same time, Islamic silks from Bursa were commonly used for ecclesiastical vestments in Venice.

Venetians also imported the latest in Islamic technology, as the fabulously intricate fourteenth-century Mamluk astrolabes included in the exhibition demonstrate; long-forgotten ancient Greek authors also reappeared in Venice through translations from the Arabic. Yet increasingly, from the seventeenth century onward, the Venetians also exported their own discoveries eastward: the first printed Koran emerged not from an Arab but from a Venetian printing press.

Indeed the entire exhibition can be read as a subtle rebuke to those who like to see the relationship between the Christian and Islamic worlds exclusively and simplistically as a matter of jihads and crusades, clashes, violence, and destruction. There were certainly many belligerent interludes, but it was clearly a more complex and multifaceted relationship, with contact propelled partly by pragmatism and partly by mutual interest; by the fascinated admiration of scholars and the plagiarism of craftsmen. As Deborah Howard argues in one of her two notably thought-provoking contributions to the catalog:

It is an intriguing feature of cultural exchange that the rate of transmission tends to accelerate during periods of conflict. At times of tension, diplomatic initiatives intensified, and information gathering increased…. This effect may be observed after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, when an exponential increase in depictions of the East in Venetian paintings occurred, intensified by the visit of Gentile Bellini to the court of Mehmet II in 1479–81. At the same time, Mehmet himself began to show ever-growing interest in the achievements and culture of the West.

The results can be seen in the Met’s exhibition galleries, where a fecund cross-fertilization is visibly and immediately evident. Here as nowhere else one can see with great clarity how Venetian culture blossomed on contact with the Islamic world—a perfect microcosm of what Sir Steven Runciman described as “the long sequence of interaction and fusion between Orient and Occident out of which our civilization has grown.”

One of the few weaknesses of this important and visually stunning exhibition is that the exclusive concentration on Venice—while understandable for reasons of focus, and also because it is the home of the curator, Stefano Carboni—might give the impression that medieval Europe and the world of Islam did not meet and interplay at many other points too. In reality it was not just Venice but also several of the other Italian trading cities—notably Genoa, Pisa, Amalfi, and Florence—that carried out an active trade and cultural dialogue with the Islamic world. Like the Venetians, these city-states, too, negotiated hard for trading privileges and concluded lucrative concessions, such as those obtained by the Florentines from the Hafsid ruler of Tunisia in 1421, and from the Mamluks in 1488.

Many non-Venetian Italians made lives for themselves in the great trading cities of the Islamic half of the Mediterranean: at the critical naval Battle of Lepanto in 1571, when the Venetians joined with the Holy League to defeat the Ottomans, one of the commanders of the Turkish fleet, Kilic Ali Pasha, was in fact a Calabrian called Occiali who had converted to Islam and made a successful career in the Ottoman navy.4 At the same time, Genoa had especially good relations with Muslim Spain, whose textiles were also an important source of inspiration to the Lucchese silk industry. As Rosamond E. Mack comments in her wide-ranging art-historical treatment of Italo-Islamic relations, Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art, 1300–1600, “It is no mere coincidence that Italy became an artistic power during its most active and profitable engagement in the international luxury trade.”5

The effects of this can be seen not just in Venice but throughout Italy. The Cathedral of San Miniato near Pisa, like many early medieval Italian church façades, was decorated with Islamic earthenware bowls imported from North Africa, and throughout the Middle Ages the gable of the nearby duomo of Pisa was crowned with a large Islamic gryphin, the largest piece of Islamic metalwork in Europe, probably brought from Moorish Spain. Depictions of Syrian basins, originally made for ritual handwashing before prayers, can be seen throughout Italian art, from one of Donatello’s bronze pulpits to Paolo de Giovanni Fei’s Birth of the Virgin Mary. Islamic textiles are clearly visible in the frescoes at Assisi as well as in Tuscan paintings by Duccio, Giotto, and Simone Martini. Padua had an entire ceramic industry based on copying Ottoman designs from Iznik.

Sicily in particular was a fertile meeting place of Arab, Greek, and Western culture, both under the Norman kings and then, most spectacularly, under the Emperor Frederick II “Stupor Mundi.” Sicilian Arab silk workers continued to produce for their new Christian rulers textiles fringed with embroidered Arabic calligraphy, while Arab craftsmen built the ceiling of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo using the superbly intricate stalactite-like muqarna technique of Islamic architecture.

It was through these and many other different points of contact—not just Venice—that gunpowder, paper, Arabic numerals, algebra, the abacus, and woodblock printing, as well as the idea of universities, all passed westward. Scholars have also long noted Islamic influence in the development of Western medicine, mathematics, philosophy, and poetic ideals of courtly love.6

The Met exhibition can also be accused of underplaying the degree of Muslim initiative in the trade with Venice and the West. Both exhibition and catalog give the impression that the Venetians were the main agents of exchange and that the Muslims were largely passive observers, doing little more than attracting the Venetians through generous trading privileges. This is open to question. The historian Fernand Braudel mentions that by the sixteenth century, Muslim merchants had started forming colonies in the Italian Adriatic ports, and there were fondaci (lodgings and warehouses) for Muslim traders in Ancona, Ferrara, Pesaro, and Naples as well as Venice itself, where the palace of the Dukes of Ferrara was bought for them as the Fondaco dei Turchi in 1621.7

One of the most interesting challenges to the Eurocentric view of trade with the Muslim world is a remarkable book that does not appear in the exhibition’s otherwise comprehensive bibliography. In Making Big Money in 1600: The Life and Times of Isma’il Abu Taqiyya, Egyptian Merchant, the distinguished Cairene economic historian Nelly Hanna has brought back from the dead the trading empire and domestic life of a rich Egyptian merchant from the records of the court cases he energetically fought.8

The implication of the new Muslim fondaci opening throughout Italy in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries is made explicit in Hanna’s book. She shows how quickly Egyptian traders recovered from the Portuguese discovery of the direct sea route to the Indies and the disruption of the traditional spice trade that this caused. For alongside traditional raw materials like rice and grain, Egyptians like Isma’il began exporting two new products—coffee and sugar—that quickly became as valuable and sought after in Europe as spices once were. These the Egyptian merchants processed themselves and shipped to Europe often under their own sail.

In the case of Isma’il, many of his orders to destinations as far apart as Cano in Nigeria, Yemen, Goa, and Salonica were shipped under the supervision of his freed slaves; but in the case of trade with Venice, he both sent his goods and placed his orders through Jewish merchants traveling there. The new trade proved every bit as profitable as the old, and Isma’il, like many other Islamic merchants of his generation, grew to be as fabulously wealthy as any of his Venetian contemporaries.

As the seventeenth century progressed, however, and as the Ottoman Empire grew ever more powerful and threatening, relations between Venice and the Turkish Sultanate began to sour. Ottoman–Venetian relations had in fact been difficult for some time. The advance of Ottoman armies toward Vienna in 1683 had long been preceded by aggressive use of sea power in the Mediterranean, usually at Venetian expense. Corfu, Crete, and Cyprus were among the Venetian colonies that fell into Ottoman hands during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Even in times of peace, the increasingly aggressive Turkish navy made trade and travel more precarious.

In this changing climate, Venetian painters began to depict Muslims in less sympathetic ways: typical of this change is a wonderful Carpaccio, The Stoning of St. Stephen (1520), which fills almost an entire wall of the exhibition. Here the Jewish stoners of the Acts of the Apostles are transformed into cruel and aggressive-looking bearded and turbaned Turks. In contrast to the preceding centuries, this was not a period much marked by fruitful encounters between cultures; and it was then that Venetian architects finally abandoned the Islamic-looking Venetian Gothic style in favor of a straightforward Western classicism of the sort exemplified by Palladio.

Yet even at this point, with the Ottomans encamped on the banks of the Danube, the Venetians were no more enthusiastic Crusaders than they had been a century before: less than five months after defeating the Turks at Lepanto in October 1571, they had broken with their allies in the Holy League and negotiated a secret unilateral treaty with the Sublime Porte, understanding, correctly, that their fortunes still largely depended upon the good favor of the Ottoman sultans. The Islamic world, they realized, was less a physical threat than a lifeline for their own existence. In this they were right. In the end it was not the Ottoman Empire that brought Venice down but a Western ruler, Napoleon, who abolished the Republic in 1797.

Ironically, the most remarkable, and certainly the most unlikely, export of Venetian culture was still to come. But it was not the Venetians or the Ottomans who were responsible for perhaps the most spectacular efflorescence of Venetian architecture in the East. Instead, somewhat surprisingly, it was the British. Although they were largely unaware of the degree to which the Venetians had borrowed their style of Gothic from the Mamluks, the British were still able to recognize its exotic qualities; and when the Victorian Raj began looking for an architectural style in which to build, their architects had on hand the pattern book of Ruskin’s Stones of Venice, published in three volumes between 1851 and 1853, half a century after the downfall of the Republic, and just five years before the beginning of the high Raj.

It was through the pages of Ruskin that Venetian Gothic became the style par excellence of Victorian India, and came to be used in its “Tropical Gothic” incarnation to build imperial palaces and universities, courts of justice and museums across the length and breadth of South Asia. It was also the chosen style of the massive Victoria Railway Terminus in Bombay, probably the largest Venetian Gothic building in the world, and a World Heritage Monument in its own right.

It still stands today, as far as can be imagined from the waterside palaces of the Giudecca, amid the squealing rickshaws and crying hawkers of modern Bombay. Yet alien as it may seem in this environment, it is still at the heart of a great trading city that today brings together East and West in a manner that Venetian merchants like Marco Polo would, one feels, have quite understood.

This Issue

July 19, 2007