Told often enough that the West and Islam are natural enemies, we start to believe it, and assume it has always been so. But the Metropolitan Museum of Art argues otherwise in ”Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797,” a show that, with classic Met largesse, recreates the spectacle of two different cultures meeting in one fantastic city, where commerce and love of beauty, those great levelers, unite them in a fruitful bond.
At its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries the Most Serene Republic of Venice was a giant, clamorous Costco-on-the-Rialto. All the necessities of life and most of the luxuries flowed into and through it from every direction, and in bulk, filling open-air stalls and salesrooms, piling up on piazzas.
Wood, metal, grain, furs and leathers from northern Europe were shipped from Venetian docks to Near Eastern and African cities, many formerly Christian and now Muslim controlled. In return came ultra-refined Islamic luxury goods: Turkish velvets, Egyptian glass, Transcaucasian carpets and Syrian brass work of a quality that matched and exceeded the finest of Europe.
Although much of this retail kept moving westward into Italy and beyond, Venice skimmed off the cream to adorn its churches and merchant palaces. And so thoroughly did the city absorb the cultural essences of these imports that it gained a reputation for being the most un-European town in Europe: a floating, glinting pipe dream of a metropolis with a style and a story entirely its own.
Visually the Met show, organized by Stefano Carboni, a curator in the department of Islamic art, presents Venice exactly this way. At the same time it acknowledges the tough entrepreneurial history running under the dazzle and glow.
The most famous early transaction between Venice and the Islamic world was not an exchange but a theft. In A.D. 828 two Venetian traders stole the body of St. Mark, the evangelist, from its tomb in Alexandria and brought it home with them.
The pretext was piety: to remove a revered Christian relic from Muslim hands. The rewards, however, were practical. With a single act of derring-do, Venice advertised its mercantile reach, reaffirmed its religious loyalties and gained a pilgrimage-worthy trophy saint to boot.
The accumulated chips would come in handy with the Vatican. In future centuries, when Europe was repeatedly forbidden by papal decree to do business with Muslim powers, Venice went right ahead, and got away with it, staying in touch with the larger world on which it depended for economic survival (it had no natural resources) and in which it took delight. That world is sketched out in the show’s opening gallery.