Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Islamic Art and Culture: the Venetian Perspective

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Islamic Philosophy and Science in Venice
Precisely because Venice remained so open to foreign cultures, all kinds of philosophical, scientific, religious, and literary texts circulated in the city throughout the medieval and Renaissance periods. Mostly interested in Greek and Latin works, Venetian literati, however, understood that transmission occurred through Arabic texts.


Venetian merchants and diplomats definitely developed a taste for Islamic ceramics, textiles, arms and armor, metalwork, and manuscripts and displayed them in their homes as works of art alongside objects from other periods and places.

Related

Cited Works of Art or Images (11)

  • Portrait of Sultan Mehmet II
  • The Sermon of Saint Stephen
  • Two Orientals Under a Tree
  • Six Muslim Figures, One on Horseback
  • Il volo del Turco (The Flight of the Turk)
  • Turk on a Horse
  • Aristotle and Alexander of Aphrodisias
  • Shield
  • Incense burner
  • Bow case
  • Flask

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After printing presses were established in Europe in 1469, Venice's prolific publishing shops quickly multiplied the number of copies of Arab texts in Latin translation. Venetian publishers issued Ptolemy's astronomical work Almagest, Averroes' philosophical Destructio destructionis, and many other related texts. In the most luxurious editions, Venetian illuminators enhanced the text with images of learned turbaned men, who often wield astrolabes (Islamic decorative arts, such as mosque lamps, ceramics, and blazons.


What is perhaps most remarkable is the Venetian painters' intimate knowledge of Near Eastern costume. During his visit to Constantinople in 1479–81, Gentile Bellini made portraits of Sultan Mehmet II and figure studies of local men and women from different social groups, including soldiers and scribes; in each instance, he painstakingly described their costumes. He and his pupils later drew on his studies in their paintings, which accounts for their strikingly detailed representations of Ottoman turbans and dress. Later, the Bellini protégés Vittore Carpaccio and Giovanni Mansueti became veritable experts in Mamluk dress and its decorum, most likely as a direct result of increased Mamluk-Venetian diplomatic relations at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century. For Venetian Renaissance painters, stock drawings, or simili, of Muslim figures became prized possessions, passed down from one generation to another and circulated among workshops for reuse.


By 1525, the last canvases painted in the Oriental mode for the Venetian confraternities were in place, many of the city's most important Orientalist painters had died, and the Ottomans had conquered the Mamluk empire. The Venetian tradition of setting large narrative scenes in the Islamic world had no followers in the late sixteenth century, when portraits of Muslims, most often Ottoman sultans, or the inclusion of a single Muslim figure in a religious scene were more characteristic.


During the second half of the sixteenth century, costume books emerged as a popular new genre and reflect a greater curiosity about foreign cultures derived from travels and new discoveries. Venice and the Veneto, where at least nine examples were published between 1540 and 1610, played a leading role in the costume book's early development. The most famous and important example is Cesare Vecellio's Degli abiti antichi et moderni di diverse parti del mondo of 1590, which became a model of the genre. It includes more than 500 illustrations and pays special attention to Venetian and Ottoman dress.


By the sixteenth century, Venice's relations with her Muslim neighbors became increasingly complex. Venetian merchants continued trading in the eastern Mediterranean, but Turkey's aggressive navy made travel more precarious. As a result, Venetians began representing Muslim subjects in less sympathetic ways. Turbaned men were frequently stereotyped as aggressive warriors or ridiculed as acrobats in Venetian paintings, drawings, prints, and even in wooden ship decorations.


Even in the changed political environment, the Islamic Near East continued to occupy a place in the collective imagination of Venetians. Wealthy patrons commissioned paintings with Muslim subjects, such as Turkish women relaxing in the sultan's harem, to decorate their private palaces. These scenes serve as an important prologue to the new Orientalism, a pan-European phenomenon, of the nineteenth century.


Collecting Islamic Art in Venice

The presence of Islamic art in Venice can be documented from the Middle Ages until today. The earliest objects to arrive in the city—such as the luxurious relief-cut glass and rock crystal vessels from Fatimid Egypt in the Treasury of San Marco—can perhaps best be interpreted as spolia, or booty, rather than as a sign of an appreciation of Islamic art per se. Over the centuries, however, Venetian merchants and diplomats definitely developed a taste for Islamic ceramics, textiles, arms and armor, metalwork, and manuscripts and displayed them in their homes as works of art alongside objects from other periods and places. Perhaps no greater testament to the esteem of Islamic artifacts in Venice can be found than the portraits of Venetian patrician families with one of their most prized possessions, an oriental carpet.


By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so much Islamic art had accumulated in Venice's palaces and churches that the city became an important destination for collectors of Islamic art, such as Wilhelm von Bode of Germany, wanting to make new acquisitions. Provenance research reveals that many Islamic art objects now in western European collections passed through Venice first. Major examples still remain in the city today, however, and the number of Venetian museums and churches with works of Islamic art is truly impressive; they include the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, the Basilica and Treasury of San Marco, the Museo Civico Correr, the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, and the Museo Franchetti alla Ca' d'Oro.

Stefano Carboni
Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Trinita Kennedy
Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Elizabeth Marwell
Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Portrait of Sultan Mehmet II, 1480
Gentile Bellini (Italian, Venetian, 1429–1507)
Istanbul, dated November 25, 1480
Oil on canvas; 25 5/8 x 20 1/2 in. (65 x 52 cm)
The National Gallery, London
Layard Bequest, 1916

Most likely painted during Gentile Bellini's two-year sojourn at the court of Mehmet II in Istanbul, this portrait identifies the sultan as Victor Orbis, Conqueror of the World. Fittingly, an arch—the universal symbol of triumph—surrounds the sitter, who is dressed in a red kaftan, a dark brown fur mantle, and a voluminous white turban carefully wrapped around a red taj, his signature headdress and a mark of his status as a Muslim. Despite its relatively poor condition and extensive retouching, the painting remains essential to our understanding of the sultan's self-image. At the same time, it confirms Gentile Bellini's status as un buon depentor che sepia retrazer (an excellent painter who knows how to make a portrait).

The Sermon of Saint Stephen, ca. 1514
Vittore Carpaccio (Italian, Venetian, 1460/66–1525/26) and collaborators
Oil on canvas; 58 1/4 x 76 3/8 in. (148 x 194 cm)
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Between 1511 and 1520, Carpaccio and his workshop decorated the meeting hall of the Scuola di Santo Stefano in Venice with scenes from the life of its patron, the earliest Christian martyr, Saint Stephen. Four of the five original canvases survive, and two are reunited on this wall. Second in the cycle, this painting depicts a youthful Stephen, striking an orator's pose upon a crumbling ancient pedestal and preaching to an attentive, multicultural crowd. Among the men are Christian pilgrims from western Europe, Greeks from the Byzantine empire, and Turks from Ottoman lands, while the women are all Mamluks. Four of the five women have pulled back their veils so that their tarturs (tall brimless and ornamented hats) and faces are exposed, which, as Muslims, they typically would not have done in public.

Two Orientals Under a Tree, ca. 1742–45
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (Italian, Venetian, 1696–1770)
Oil on canvas; 160 x 53 cm
The National Gallery, London
Bought, 1960

This narrow painting was probably part of a series of canvases illustrating scenes from Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata painted by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, the father of Giovanni Domenico, for a Venetian palace in the 1740s. Political and economic changes at this time caused strained relations between Venice and Islamic lands. The fact that a wealthy patron commissioned a painting with Muslim figures, however, demonstrates that the Near East still inspired thoughts of wealth and exotic travels for the Western elite at this time.

Six Muslim Figures, One on Horseback, ca. 1500–1510
Attributed to Vittore Carpaccio (Italian, Venetian, 1460/66–1525/26)
Pen and brown ink, brush and gray-brown wash, over traces of black chalk on paper; 4 7/16 x 11 in. (11.3 x 28 cm)
Collection du Baron Edmond de Rothschild, Département des Arts Graphiques, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Carpaccio used and reused the Muslim figures that he drew on this sheet in many of his paintings, including those from the Scuola di Santo Stefano cycle. Two of these figures—the one farthest to the left and the other third from the left—wear the zamt, a Mamluk bonnet made of fur. The others are crowned with the kind of turbans worn in the Ottoman empire, which are tightly wound around a taj, a small scull cap.

Il volo del Turco (The Flight of the Turk), 1816 (after the original of ca. 1548)
Venice
Engraving on paper; 3.9 x 5.9 cm (38.5 x 59 mm)
Museo Civico Correr, Venice

Beginning in the mid-sixteenth century, Turkish acrobats performed a spectacle known as the Flight of the Turk—il volo del Turco—on a tightrope in the small piazza before Venice's Ducal Palace during the pre-Lenten festival of Carnival. The act served not just as amusement but also as a moral commentary, for Venetians considered such street performers to be uncivil and full of vice. In the playful and uninhibited atmosphere of Carnival, Venetians expressed their ambivalence about their Muslim neighbors and trading partners through this spectacle.

Turk on a Horse, 1618
Attributed to Francesco Basilicata (active first half of 17th century)
Venice
Engraving on paper; 3.7 x 4.9 cm (37 x 49 mm)
Museo Civico Correr, Venice

In preparation for military battle, Ottoman Turkish cavalrymen often learned cirit, a dangerous equine game that later developed into a highly engaging court spectacle. Riders took great risks by riding backwards, vaulting, and somersaulting on horses galloping at full speed. This intriguing print of a cirit rider is attributed to Francesco Basilicata, a cartographer and military engineer for the Venetian Republic, a man well aware of the formidability of the Turkish cavalry and its importance within the Ottoman military.

Aristotle and Alexander of Aphrodisias, late 15th or early 16th century
Ulocrino (active 1485–1530)
Padua
Cast bronze; 2 7/8 x 2 1/4 in. (7.2 x 5.5 cm)
Museo Civico Correr, Venice

This magnificent little relief, which could be held in the hand or hung on a wall, is a product of the sophisticated and learned milieu of Renaissance Venetian humanists. It depicts Aristotle, seated on the right beneath a tree, directly addressing his commentator Alexander, who stands on the left holding an open book. Aristotle wears a brimmed round hat like that often used in Venetian art to denote a figure's Greek origin, while Alexander, though he too was Greek, is crowned with a turban in the Ottoman style. In the art of Venetian humanist circles, the turban often evokes the wisdom and learning of the figure wearing it, identifying him as a veritable hakim, or sage. In Venice, where access to the writings of Aristotle and other classical authors came in part through Arabic translations and commentaries, the ancient and Islamic traditions mingled with one another. Making sharp distinctions between the two cultures evidently was not yet considered important or even necessary.

Shield, 17th century
Turkey
Cane, wood, silk, steel, gold; H. approx. 6 9/16 in. (17 cm), Diam. 27 1/2 in. (70 cm)
Museo Civico Correr, Venice

This object belongs to a group of Ottoman military trophies captured by Francesco Morosini (1618–94), admiral of the Venetian fleet, on campaigns in the eastern Mediterranean during the second half of the seventeenth century. Today preserved in the Museo Civico Correr, the Morosini trophies are the largest and most important holdings of Ottoman arms and military equipment in Italy. This circular shield is constructed, in typical Ottoman fashion, of a length of cane coiled around a wooden disk, with the cane wrapped in colored thread and the center reinforced with a domed metal boss, which bears a Qur'anic inscription. The textile has an intricate radial pattern rendered in white, pale yellow, pale brown, blue, and silver against a deep red ground. The richness of the decoration suggests that a Turkish soldier of high rank once carried this shield.

Incense burner, first half of 14th century
Probably Egypt
Pierced brass, inlaid with gold and silver in two sections; Diam. 3 1/2 in. (9 cm)
Museo Civico Correr, Venice

In the Islamic world, these small metal balls inlaid with gold and silver were used as incense burners in court settings. Literary references tell how they were rolled over silk carpets to produce aromatic—and highly atmospheric—vapors. In Venice and elsewhere in Europe, on the other hand, these kinds of objects appear to have been most often used as hand warmers, although here too they could contain musk or amber burned as incense.

Bow case, 17th century
Ottoman empire, possibly the Balkans
Steel, leather, gold; L. 26 3/8 in. (67 cm), W. 11 1/4 in. (28.5 cm)
Museo Civico Correr, Venice

This object belong to a group of Ottoman military trophies captured by Francesco Morosini (1618–94), admiral of the Venetian fleet, on campaigns in the eastern Mediterranean during the second half of the seventeenth century. Today preserved in the Museo Civico Correr, the Morosini trophies are the largest and most important holdings of Ottoman arms and military equipment in Italy. This bow case was probably originally accompanied by a matching quiver, the two pieces forming a garniture that had been essential equipment for mounted archers in Asia and the Middle East for centuries. The fact that Morosini was active in Greece and the eastern Mediterranean suggests that this bow case may be provincial Ottoman, possibly Balkan, in origin.

Flask, 17th century
Turkey
Leather, velvet, silver thread; H. 9 1/2 in. (24 cm), W. 7 1/4 in. (18.3 cm)
Museo Civico Correr, Venice

This object belong to a group of Ottoman military trophies captured by Francesco Morosini (1618–94), admiral of the Venetian fleet, on campaigns in the eastern Mediterranean during the second half of the seventeenth century. Today preserved in the Museo Civico Correr, the Morosini trophies are the largest and most important holdings of Ottoman arms and military equipment in Italy. This flask is typical of seventeenth-century Ottoman military equipment in that it is an essentially utilitarian object transformed into a luxury good through the use of richly embroidered textiles.