NEW YORK - Those who see the Christian and Islamic worlds as implacable foes, always destined to be at loggerheads, like to use the phrase “clash of civilizations” to describe the struggle. But a breathtaking new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art here shows that for several hundred years during the Middle Ages, a Christian city and the Muslim lands of the Middle East not only tolerated each other, they profited handsomely from their relationship.
For Venice and the Islamic world, it was the cash of civilizations.
With almost 200 objects from more than 60 public and private collections, “Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797” documents the many ways in which the East and the West enriched each other’s cultures, with Venice serving as the middleman. Against the backdrop of wars in two Muslim countries - Iraq and Afghanistan - and a diplomatic confrontation with a third, Iran - the exhibit seems timely, despite the fact that the period covered by the show ends 210 years ago with Napoleon’s conquest of Venice.
By then, the city-state’s glory days were long over, but for centuries, its perch off the northeastern coast of Italy made it an ideal entrepot between the flourishing Islamic empires to the east and the struggling young societies taking shape in Western Europe.
In fact, said exhibit curator Stefano Carboni, the city of canals was often described as the “liquid frontier” between East and West.
With no natural resources of its own, Venice depended on trade for its prosperity, but the city’s first famous encounter with the Islamic world involved outright theft. In 828, two Venetian merchants smuggled the bones that were said to be the remains of St. Mark, the author of one of the Gospels, out of Alexandria, Egypt, by hiding the saint’s relics under layers of pork. The merchants knew that Muslims considered pork haram, or prohibited, so the local officials would not inspect the cargo closely.
St. Mark became Venice’s patron saint, and the saint’s symbol - a winged lion - became a common decorative motif that still adorns columns, doorways, and walls in the city.
Despite that shifty start, the city’s commercial dealings with the Muslim world were usually more straightforward. A large 1511 painting by an anonymous Venetian shows a diplomatic delegation from the city presenting themselves to the extravagantly turbaned ruler of the Mamluk empire in Damascus. Amid the exotic costumes of the Syrians, the Venetians are somberly clad in black.
As Venice’s trading empire developed, raw materials such as timber, metal, grain, and fur from Europe passed through the city on their way East, in return for luxury goods from Syria, Egypt, Turkey and beyond. Although the average Venetian could not read Arabic, fabrics embroidered with Arabic inscriptions became highly fashionable, and some of the most elaborate vestments worn by Venetian priests were imported from Muslim lands. Venice became known as the most un-European city in Europe.
One of the most impressive objects on display is a 16th century carpet, probably made in Egypt, that measures nearly 32 feet long and more than 12 feet wide. Covering most of the floor space in one gallery, the carpet belonged to a religious guild, but Carboni, the head of the museum’s Islamic art department, explained that the carpet was too valuable to be used as a floor covering. Wear markings suggest it covered a vast table at the guild.
The Venetians were content to import carpets and never developed their own rug-making industry, the curator said. But that was not true of other arts and crafts, as “Venice and the Islamic World” makes clear.
Among the most delicate items in the exhibit are two thin glass beakers covered with distinctly Arabic enamel patterns. Made in about 1260 in Syria, the beakers represent the sophistication that Arabic glassmakers achieved during the Middle Ages.
Next to them are two other beakers, strikingly similar in shape and decoration. But these were made in Venice, probably a few decades after the Syrian examples. As the Syrian glassworks declined, the Venetians took over the business. The Venetian island of Murano became the center of their glass industry, where it remains today.
Whether it was inlaid metalwork from Cairo, lacquerware from Persia, or Greek and Latin philosophical texts that Muslim scholars had translated into Arabic, the pattern was repeated in other fields.
“No matter what the art form or craft, the influence of the Islamic world on Venice is clear,” said Carboni, a native Venetian.
Venetian merchants did their best to remain middlemen during the Crusades, supporting the Christian forces but maintaining trade ties with Muslim rulers.
From its height of wealth and influence in the 15th and 16th centuries, the city started to decline as Portuguese and Dutch sailors opened up trade routes with Asia by sailing around Africa. Just as important, the city’s former trading partner to the east - the Turkish Ottoman Empire - started an often-brutal campaign to conquer the city’s trading outposts in the eastern Mediterranean.
With that change in fortunes, the Venetian image of Muslims changed dramatically. In the final gallery of “Venice and the Islamic World,” a stunning decoration from the stern of a 17th century Venetian warship says it all. The 12-foot carving shows a bare-chested Muslim in chains.
(Stevenson Swanson is a national correspondent in the Tribune’s New York bureau.)