March 30, 2007; New York Times; Art Review, 'Venice and the Islamic World', The Republic of Beauty, Melding West and East; By Holland Cotter.
Told often enough that the West and Islam are natural enemies, we start to believe it, and assume it has always been so. But the Metropolitan Museum of Art argues otherwise in "Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797," a show that, with classic Met largesse, recreates the spectacle of two different cultures meeting in one fantastic city, where commerce and love of beauty, those great levelers, unite them in a fruitful bond.
At its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries the Most Serene Republic of Venice was a giant, clamorous Costco-on-the-Rialto. All the necessities of life and most of the luxuries flowed into and through it from every direction, and in bulk, filling open-air stalls and salesrooms, piling up on piazzas.
Wood, metal, grain, furs and leathers from northern Europe were shipped from Venetian docks to Near Eastern and African cities, many formerly Christian and now Muslim controlled. In return came ultra-refined Islamic luxury goods: Turkish velvets, Egyptian glass, Transcaucasian carpets and Syrian brass work of a quality that matched and exceeded the finest of Europe. Although much of this retail kept moving westward into Italy and beyond, Venice skimmed off the cream to adorn its churches and merchant palaces. And so thoroughly did the city absorb the cultural essences of these imports that it gained a reputation for being the most un-European town in Europe: a floating, glinting pipe dream of a metropolis with a style and a story entirely its own.
Visually the Met show, organized by Stefano Carboni, a curator in the department of Islamic art, presents Venice exactly this way. At the same time it acknowledges the tough entrepreneurial history running under the dazzle and glow.
The most famous early transaction between Venice and the Islamic world was not an exchange but a theft. In A.D. 828 two Venetian traders stole the body of St. Mark, the evangelist, from its tomb in Alexandria and brought it home with them.
The pretext was piety: to remove a revered Christian relic from Muslim hands. The rewards, however, were practical. With a single act of derring-do, Venice advertised its mercantile reach, reaffirmed its religious loyalties and gained a pilgrimage-worthy trophy saint to boot.
The accumulated chips would come in handy with the Vatican. In future centuries, when Europe was repeatedly forbidden by papal decree to do business with Muslim powers, Venice went right ahead, and got away with it, staying in touch with the larger world on which it depended for economic survival (it had no natural resources) and in which it took delight. That world is sketched out in the show's opening gallery.
A 15th-century navigational chart of the eastern Mediterranean defines its coordinates. A Venetian merchant's handwritten diary supplies some on-the-ground data. (In Egypt, for example, the merchant saw pyramids, giraffes and the interiors of elegant Muslim homes.) Two paintings, one large and one small, bring his experiences to life.
We see Venice itself in a 15th-century illustrated manuscript of Marco Polo's "Travels." A bird's-eye view, it is a mirage of crenelated rooftops, watered-silk lagoons and jumbo swans, with Marco Polo, festive in pink, about to embark for Persia. This is a storybook picture by an English artist who most likely never laid eyes on the city.
The Syrian city of Damascus looks far less outlandish in an oil painting done a century later of Venetian ambassadors being received at an Islamic court. Minus the minarets and towering turbans, this could be a European scene. Islamic culture was by this point as fully integrated into Venetian consciousness as Arabic words were into the local Italian dialect.
In a sense this entire show is an essay on how that integration played out in art. Sometimes the dynamic is straightforward, a simple matter of placement. An exquisitely illustrated 17th-century manuscript made in Shiraz, in Persia, ends up in Venice. Fragments of a painted Venetian glass beaker lie in a Jewish cemetery in Syria. How? Why? Things traveled; that's all.
Frequently, though, cultures are overlaid. The gold-patterned cloak worn by the Virgin in a 14th-century altarpiece by Stefano Veneziano is modeled on sumptuous textiles then entering Venice from Persia. This reference to a luxury import would surely have tickled the painting's merchant-patron. That the cloth depicted was "foreign" made it exotic enough for heaven.
Elsewhere the play of influence is more complex. One of the exhibition's oldest objects, a glass cup from the treasury of St. Mark's cathedral, has a multiethnic pedigree. Its emerald-green bowl was probably made by Islamic craftsmen in Egypt or Iran. It then traveled to Constantinople, where a Byzantine metalworker fitted it with a gilt-silver mount. Finally this cup that might well have had secular origins found a sacred home in Venice.
Original meanings were often lost in translation and new ones acquired. An inlaid brass bucket designed as a bath accessory in the Near East became a holy water dispenser in Venice. Showy silk brocades used as slipcovers in Turkey were tailored into ecclesiastical robes in Venice.
Nor was Europe always on the receiving end of such borrowings. Venetian glassmaking techniques and styles were so scrupulously emulated by Islamic craftsmen that it is often impossible to tell the source of specific objects. And some of the most magnetic items in the Met's exhibition were created by Western artists expressly for Islamic customers.
One of the most celebrated is Gentile Bellini's 1480 oil portrait of the Ottoman emperor Mehmet II. Commissioned during Bellini's two years in Constantinople, it turns an easily sensationalized subject into an empathetic likeness, idealizing but naturalistic, an approach that would have its effect on Islamic painting to come.
For sensationalism, however, there is another portrait, an early-16th-century Italian print of Emperor Suleyman in a multitiered crown created, at fabulous expense, by Venetian goldsmiths. With its Carmen Miranda superstructure the headpiece was all but unwearable; and in the print the emperor, known as the Magnificent, seems to shrink comically within it.
Yet symbolically it meant a lot to him. He considered it an emblem of his sovereignty over all the tiara-wearing rulers of Europe. And he affirmed this entitlement, first by taking control of trade between Islam and the West, then by initiating an Ottoman conquest of the European territory.
As these threats became reality, the image of Muslims in European art changed. When the Venetian artist Vittore Carpaccio painted a scene of the stoning of St. Stephen, he made all of the executioners Ottoman Turks. That was in 1520. Nine years later Suleyman's army reached the gates of Vienna.
Venice, pragmatic as always, put business before politics and tried to sustain a connection to the Ottoman court. But by then Venetian trade was in decline Portugal had found a route to India; Spain had tapped into the New World and Europe's relationship with Islam had irrecoverably soured. One of the show's final objects is a carved figurehead decoration for a 17th-century Venetian battleship used in war against the Ottomans. It depicts a Muslim, bare-headed, half-naked, humiliated, in chains.
But even when old commercial ties failed, a bond of beauty between Venice and the Islamic world held. So long and intimately had the two mingled that Venetian art had become, if only superficially, "Islamic" by default.
It's important to acknowledge the superficiality of the interaction, to remember that one culture never really became the other. The Met exhibition is a European, not an Islamic, show. Despite the Islamic material included we learn little about Islam or about the Islamic meaning of objects or, even in a general way, about Islamic views of the West.
Some future exhibition will flip this perspective around. That is a show we need, and I look forward to it. Perhaps Mr. Carboni, a scholar of depth and breadth, will do it. In the meantime we have his Met show to savor: historically pointed, visually magnificent and a timely demonstration of differences reconciled through art.
"Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797" continues through July 8 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, at 82nd Street; (212) 535-7710, metmuseum.org.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company