NEW YORK.- With nearly 200 works of art from more than 60 public and private collections around the world, Venice and the Islamic World, 828 1797 is the first major exhibition to explore one of the most important and distinctive facets of Venetian art history: the exchange of art objects and interchange of artistic ideas between the great Italian maritime city and her Islamic neighbors in the eastern Mediterranean. Glass, textiles, carpets, arms and armor, ceramics, sculpture, metalwork, furniture, paintings, drawings, prints, printed books, book bindings, and manuscripts tell the fascinating story of the Islamic contribution to the arts of Venice during her heyday, from the medieval to the Baroque eras. 828, the year two Venetian merchants stole Saint Marks hallowed body from Muslim-controlled Alexandria and brought it to their native city, and 1797, when the Venetian Republic fell to the French conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte, form the chronological parameters of the exhibition that opens at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on March 27, 2007.
The exhibition is made possible by The Hagop Kevorkian Fund. Additional support is provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Oceanic Heritage Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris.
Marco Polo is simply the most famous of the thousands of Venetian merchants who set sail for the east in search of fortune. For centuries, Venetian merchants traveled annually to the great emporiums of the Levant to acquire spices and luxury goods such as silks, carpets, and porcelain. Venices own markets in turn brimmed with precious and exotic commodities, earning the Italian port the sobriquet the Bazaar of Europe. Venice is also often referred to as the mirror of the East because her architecture and urban plan incorporate typical Islamic features and ornamental flourishes.
Venices status as a Christian city clearly set her apart from the Muslim world; however, religion posed surprisingly few hurdles to trade relations. Pragmatism is probably the term that best defines Venices relations with the Muslim Middle East, commented Stefano Carboni, Curator and Administrator in Charge of the Metropolitan Museums Department of Islamic Art, the exhibitions curator, and a Venice native. Despite all of the wars, Venice remained a privileged partner, thanks to an almost perfect balance between religious spirit, chameleon-like diplomacy, and acute business sense.
The exhibition will open with a gallery dedicated to the Venetian experience of traveling to and living in Islamic lands in the eastern Mediterranean. As recent scholarship convincingly demonstrates, trade, travel, and cultural and diplomatic relations were the most important vehicles for the exchange of artistic ideas between Venice and her Muslim neighbors. Maps will give a sense of place and a realization of the close proximity of Venice and Damascus, Alexandria, Cairo, Istanbul, and other major Islamic cities, while Venetian travel diaries and painted views of Near Eastern peoples and places will provide insight into the Venetian perspective of these foreign lands.
The main body of the exhibition will unfold chronologically and thematically. Some of the earliest Islamic objects to arrive in Venice were destined for churches and church treasuries, which suggests they were highly prized. The varied ways Islamic glass, rock crystal, carpets, textiles, and metalwork were put to use in Venetian ecclesiastical settings will be explored and explained in the galleries. Also having an important early presence in Venice were medieval Islamic scientific instruments and illustrated manuscripts, which were far more advanced than anything available in Europe at the time. Venetians enthusiastically acquired and translated into Latin famous Islamic texts, like Avicennas Canon, helping them to spawn their own medical and technological advancements.
The heart of the exhibition will be comprised of objects from the 15th and 16th centuries, when Venetian interest in the Islamic world peaked. This is abundantly clear from the numerous representations of Islamic costumes and architecture in manuscript illumination, prints, drawings, and sculpture. The point of departure for these images was Gentile Bellinis diplomatic mission to the court of Sultan Mehmet II between 1479 and 1481. During and after his visit to Istanbul, Bellini represented Islamic figures and settings in his paintings, and his many pupils, like Vittore Carpaccio and Giovanni Mansueti, followed suit. Many of these artists most magnificent orientalizing paintings and drawings, now dispersed all over the world, will be featured in the exhibition.
During the Renaissance, wealthy Venetian patricians surrounded themselves with luxuries, among them opulent works of art imported from the Islamic world. To compete, Venetian craftsmen of the decorative arts began imitating objects of Mamluk, Timurid, Safavid, and Ottoman manufacture. Sections of the exhibition will be devoted to side-by-side displays of Islamic and Venetian ceramics, book bindings, textiles, and metalwork.
Gilded and enameled glass was a domain in which Venetians gradually began to compete seriously with the Near East, and by the late 15th century Venetian glassmakers were supplying lamps to mosques in Mamluk Egypt. Later, they would be commissioned to create lamps for Ottoman mosques as well. Italian velvets, silks, and brocades, too, were in great demand in Near Eastern markets.
The exhibition will show that artistic transfer sometimes flowed from West to East as well. In the second half of the 16th century, Venetian relations with its Near Eastern neighbors became more complex. While trade between the two spheres generally continued as frequently as ever, Venetians often felt threatened by Ottoman military might and began representing Muslim subjects in less sympathetic ways, as seen in Venetian prints, drawings, and even wooden ship decorations. At the same time, Ottoman-style arms and armor were at the height of popularity in Venice. Elaborately decorated Turkish shields and quivers, along with their Venetian imitations from the armory of the Doges Palace, will be included in the exhibition.
A theme running throughout the exhibition is the presence of Islamic art in Venice through the centuries, and in each gallery Islamic objects with long histories in Venetian collections will be spotlighted. While Venetians were not necessarily collectors and connoisseurs of Islamic art in a modern sense, it can be said that they did especially admire Islamic luxury goods, acquired them in significant numbers through trade, and in general had more first-hand knowledge of Islamic art and culture than any other Europeans, including other Italians, for many centuries.
An impressive number of Venetian institutions, including the Armeria del Palazzo Ducale, the Basilica and Tesoro di San Marco, the Biblioteca dei Frati Minori di San Michele ad Isola, the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, the Gallerie dellAccademia, the Museo Civico Correr, the Museo Franchetti alla Ca DOro, the Museo Storico Navale, the Museo Vetrario, and the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, are lenders to the exhibition. Other European museums, libraries, and private collections in Berlin, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt-am-Main, Munich, Stuttgart, Ecoen, Paris, Sèvres, Cividale del Friuli, Florence, Milan, Padua, Rome, Verona, Chatsworth, and London will also lend major works, as will U.S. museums in Corning, Baltimore, New York, Princeton, Saint Louis, and Washington, D.C. Many of these works of art have never or only rarely traveled.