When Venice Looked Eastward
Renaissance Artists Borrowed From Islam to Evoke Classical Culture

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.

When Giovanni Bellini painted his great "Feast of the Gods," in Washington's own National Gallery, he chose to show the residents of Mount Olympus partying with precious ceramics and inlaid metalwork recently imported from the East.

And when Venetian painters wanted to show the Roman-ruled Near East of Christ's apostles, what could be more logical than to imagine that it looked rather as the Holy Land looked in their own day, with minarets and camels and exotic people in turbans? They show Eastern dress as a way to add precision to the antique setting of the scene. Maybe it's not about commenting on contemporary religious relations between Islam and Christianity; it could be about making the history-- the Roman history -- in it more accurate.

I'm stealing some ideas here, in true Venetian style. In recent years, art historian Alexander Nagel has made waves in academia by insisting that Renaissance ideas about antiquity were very flexible, and full of such creative anachronisms. For Renaissance artists and thinkers, the classical world included many kinds of objects we simply can't imagine as ancient: They took 12th-century Italian manuscripts as guides for re-creating Roman ones; they regularly dated recent Byzantine icons and mosaics back to classical antiquity. (They claimed that some would have been made by St. Luke himself.)

One 15th-century Italian, looking at a delegation of Christian clerics and leaders who visited from Greek-speaking Constantinople in 1438, commented on how the delegation's clothes bore certain witness to the costumes of ancient Greece from almost two millennia before. In Renaissance art, classical Greek figures such as Aristotle, along with the Roman emperor Constantine and Pontius Pilate himself, came to be shown wearing the exotic outfits of their distant descendants in Byzantine Constantinople. (Who, by the way, always called themselves "Romans," and were indeed the direct political and cultural heirs to the ancient Roman empire.)

These "mistakes" don't mean that the great minds of the Italian Renaissance were in fact dunces; it's just that their ideas of what could count as historical evidence were very different from ours. I'd argue that the objects now at the Met suggest that Renaissance notions of antiquity were so very flexible that they could even include features that to us look purely Islamic.

This show includes the Chair of St. Peter, a famous bishop's throne crudely cut from stone, which had pride of place for centuries in an important church (San Pietro in Castello, then the city's cathedral) in the remote east end of Venice. From medieval times, the throne was said to be the very seat from which the great apostle Peter led his diocese in Antioch, now Antakya in Turkey. Yet the back of this absolutely Christian seat is made from a slab bearing an Arabic inscription -- a verse from the Koran, in fact -- cut off from a Muslim tombstone or possibly an imam's chair. Arabic may not have been spoken in Antioch around the time of Christ, when the city was a major Roman center, but for Italians living some 1,500 years later, Arabic script (which few could read) stood for that far-off time and place.

Rosamond Mack, a scholar at the National Gallery, has pointed out that Muslim scripts, or imitations of them, were also regularly used as decoration on the splendid robes of Christ and Mary in Italian paintings, and even, in at least one picture, on the armor of the Roman soldiers present at the Crucifixion. Drawings documenting that 1438 delegation show the Byzantine emperor himself wearing grand Ottoman robes with Arabic inscriptions. If a modern "Roman" wore such clothes, why not his greatest ancestors?

For Italian artists and their patrons, such magnificence -- even when it came with a Muslim accent -- was a necessary feature of the mythically great and wealthy culture that had ruled the world from Rome for centuries, including at the time of Christ.

That's why this show's painting of "St. Mark Baptizing Anianus," made in Venice by Giovanni Mansueti about 1518, features an elaborate architecture of classical arches and columns in colored marbles and gold, and then peoples it with turban-wearing Muslims in exquisite silks. The standard view is that the picture naively shows Alexandria, where the baptism of this unbeliever would have taken place around A.D. 42, as though it were an ideal Renaissance town, but with some modern infidels thrown in to emphasize the battle of the Christian West against the Muslim East. I believe that gets things backward: It's the Italian towns of the Renaissance that came to be modeled on the carefully considered, exuberant view of Roman antiquity offered in paintings like this -- which come complete with "accurate" depictions of the inhabitants of ancient lands, meant to guarantee the authenticity of the entire antique scene.

In a picture of St. Stephen preaching in Jerusalem, Mansueti's colleague Vittore Carpaccio fills his classical setting with what are (to us) clearly "Roman" triumphal arches and columns, mixed in with a crowd of towering Islamic minarets, and doesn't distinguish in any way between the two. Great engineering feats of any kind made sense, to a Renaissance mind, as signs of Roman culture.

Venetians such as Carpaccio may have understood the classical world better than almost anyone in Europe. In fact, they came closer to living it than most: Their city had always had the closest contacts with the Byzantine "Roman Empire" of Constantinople. They had always looked for power and profit to the eastern and southern Mediterranean, just as the Romans had.

That's how they picked up all the Islamic goods and skills that, for them, stood for the greatness of antiquity.

Venice and the Islamic World, through July 8 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Call 212-535-7710 or visit http://www.metmuseum.org.

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