When Venice Looked Eastward

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 13, 2007

NEW YORK -- White columns, crisp togas, elegantly pristine forms -- that's the trademark look of ancient Greece and Rome. We know it well, because we've seen it in movies, on TV, even in Washington's official buildings.

But what if there was once a rival image of the ancient world that conceived of it as positively Eastern in its extravagance? Can we imagine the Roman court of Pontius Pilate as looking more like Istanbul or Damascus than like Monticello?

Renaissance Venetians preferred precisely such imaginings. A show called "Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797," now drawing crowds to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, lets us see how that Italian city, especially in its heyday from about 1200 to 1550, was swimming in Eastern borrowings. And we can see how those loans from the East shaped its notions of the ancient world -- or maybe it was the search for classical antiquity that triggered the borrowings in the first place.

The central project of the Renaissance was to recover the great cultures of antiquity. However contrary it may seem to us, many Venetians seemed to feel that borrowing from contemporary Muslim cultures, even at their most flamboyant, could help in that recovery.

The Metropolitan show only sets out to get us halfway to such notions. It's all about the fact of the contacts between Venice and the East. It demonstrates how many of the styles and objects that look classically "European" to our eyes actually have their roots in Islam.

A gorgeous velvet cloth, in deepest burgundy, with ornate garlands sheared into its pile; a classic leather bookbinding, worked with a gold medallion in the center of its cover and golden scrollwork reaching out from its four corners; a precious box with water-clear rock crystals set into its sides and carved into classical columns at its corners, then framed everywhere by an elaborate floral tracery of gold-on-black lacquer -- all these look like high points of one of the great flowerings of Christian European culture. Yet every one of them depends on the direct influence of the great Islamic cultures of their day.

The lacquer work on the box is done in a technique invented by the Turks, then copied by envious Italian artisans -- who felt it made a natural backdrop for the object's Roman-style columns.

The leather binding on a book by a great Renaissance scholar of classical texts and architecture named Fra Giocondo looks perfectly European -- it's close to what bibliophiles still order for their finest volumes. But it was in fact copied from the bindings on Persian tales and Egyptian Korans.

Some Ottoman and Venetian textiles are so similar that scholars can't be sure which is which. That's because the borrowings often went both ways. Italians riffed on Eastern motifs and techniques, then Turkish weavers borrowed back from the Italian reworkings.

A lovely portrait of the Venetian doge Francesco Foscari, who died in 1457, shows him wearing the most sumptuous cloak and cap, in gold and red velvet. It's only after seeing the Met show, with its array of gorgeous Islamic textiles, that most people would recognize the foreign source and look of these state robes. Renaissance borrowings from Islam are so much a part of what now counts as European art that we can barely recognize their Muslim roots.

Maybe that's because even the Renaissance artists who were doing the borrowing might not have acknowledged those roots for what they were. Of course, Venetian artists and patrons would have known that they were taking on foreign forms and styles -- no one else in all of Europe was as closely linked to the Near East. And they would have known that those forms and styles came out of a distinctly Muslim culture. But their reading of those loans, and their intention in the borrowing had little to do with Islam. They felt that by borrowing from contemporary Constantinople and Alexandria and Jerusalem, they were getting the culture of the Romans who had once ruled those lands.

The finery of the Sultans' courts in Cairo and Constantinople -- long the greatest city of the Christian Roman Empire, until it was finally captured by the Turks in 1453 -- was a rare clue, for Italian artists, to what the long-lost finery of the Romans might have looked like.

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