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Venice and the Mamluks

The Mamluk empire (1250–1517) was a military-controlled sultanate that ruled lands in present-day Egypt and Syria. Trade between the Venetians and Mamluks began as early as the thirteenth century and profited both empires, strengthening their diplomatic ties. Trade led to the exchange of materials and goods as well as artistic styles and techniques. Artists in Syria and Egypt produced works of exquisite craftsmanship in glass, metal, silk, and wood to be traded with Europe, most often through the Venetians. The Venetians particularly valued the opulence and sophistication of Mamluk enameled glassware and began producing local imitations. Some of the buildings erected in Venice during the height of this trade relationship also reflected Mamluk style, which the Venetians saw as luxurious and exotic (see figs. 53, 54). The Mamluks and Venetians remained advantageous trading partners until Ottoman forces conquered the Mamluks in 1516–17. Trade between the former Mamluk lands and Venice continued, but under the auspices of Ottoman rule.

Fig. 53. Facade of the Doge's Palace, Venice, Italy, 1340–1510

Fig. 54. Mosque of Altinbugha al-Maridani, Cairo, Egypt, 1339–40.

Note similarities in the style of the arcades and crenellations to those in the Doge's Palace above.


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Thomas P. Campbell: In this display, carpets from the Mamluk Period in Egypt will be on view. Due to the fragility of textiles, there will be rotating examples. Walter Denny explains what's unique about Mamluk Carpets:

Walter Denny: Highly unusual carpets, much different from any other kind of Islamic carpet, woven in Egypt in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries; using a color palette of green, blue, and red, often without any white or any brown whatsoever, a very unusual combination. These carpets utilize designs and a technique not found anywhere else in the Islamic world. The spin of all of the wool is what we call S-spun wool, of great rarity in the history of carpet weaving, generally found only in carpets woven in or near Cairo.

Thomas P. Campbell: S-spun wool is spun clockwise, rather than counterclockwise—a difference which isn't easily discernable to the naked eye. It's thought that Egyptians spun wool—which they imported—this way, because that's the direction they were accustomed to spinning their native linen.

Walter Denny: These carpets, when they have long pile, have an almost hypnotic effect. The examples that have survived are somewhat worn but still show you the beauty of the originals, in their very complicated and abstract designs of octagonal medallions and small geometric forms. Some of the forms are distinctly Egyptian, like the little fan-shaped plant forms that are, in fact, papyrus, a reed that grows in the Nile Delta.


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Velvet fragment

The lesson plan related to Venice and the Islamic World features a sixteenth-century velvet fragment from Turkey.