Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Venice: Discovering Europe’s Silk Road City And The Early Carpet Trade

VENICE, April 24, 2009 – No-one knows exactly how oriental carpets first reached Medieval Europe.

But the first ones are believed to have arrived around 1200, the time of the fourth crusade, or earlier. And that makes it likely they came through Venice, the port which provided the ships to ferry the crusaders east.

Is it still possible to visit Venice today and find signs of the early rug trade?

The answer is yes – and right in St. Mark’s square. But you have to close your eyes to the throngs of tourists around you. Then, when you open them again, you have to imagine you are standing at the heart of a Silk Road City.

The signs that Venice was Europe’s terminus for the Silk Road are everywhere. And, fortunately, in recent years they have become the subject of scholarly study, so that now spotting and understanding them is becoming easy.

One such study is 'Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art 1300 – 1600' by Rosamond Mack (2001). It is an art history book which documents Venice’s trade links with the Eastern Mediterranean and Asian trade centers that made up the Silk Road.

Mack finds echoes of Silk Road cities as distant as Bukhara in the appearance of the Doge’s Palace which dominates St. Mark’s square.

Looking at the diamond patterns on the palace’s marble façade, she observes a startling similarity between them and the brickwork pattern at the base of the minaret of Bukhara’s famous Kalyan mosque, built around 1170.

Is the similarity coincidence? Venetian travelers such as Marco Polo regularly followed the Silk Roads eastward and it is likely they brought back not just precious stones and silks but also detailed impressions of what they had seen.

And, as Mack suggests, adding a Central Asian motif on the Doge’s palace -- whose decoration was completed in an era when Venetian traders could safely travel as far as China and India thanks to the Pax Mongolica (1240-1360)-- would be a way to publicly underline the reach and power of Venice itself.

Similarly, there may be echoes of Venice’s trade with Alexandria and Cairo in the stone pinnacles (three-tiered merlons) that stand like a fence along the roof of the Doge’s palace. They recall the crenellation atop Cairo’s Ibn Tulun mosque, completed in 879.

And there may be an echo of Damascus in the stone-lattice windows that decorate part of the façade of St. Mark’s cathedral. Mack notes their similarity to the window grills of the Great Mosque in Damascus, which was completed by 715.

Damascus, Byzantium, Alexandria and Cairo – as well as ports like Tana and Trabzond in the Black Sea -– were all the western end points of trade routes across Eurasia. Down these roads traveled camel caravans so big that they could carry the equivalent of a cargo ship of their time.

By sending private galleys, as well as regularly scheduled state convoys, to many parts of the Eastern Mediterranean, Venice extended that trade across the sea to Europe. The ships carried back silk, ceramics, glass, metalwork, sugar, and spices at a time when Europe was beginning to prosper again after the Dark Ages that followed the collapse of the Western Roman empire.

To pay for the luxury goods produced in Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean, the Venetian galleys brought wood, iron, woolen textiles, and silver from the West. Much of this trade in kind came from Central Europe, to which Venice – the middleman -- had the best access via the Brenner Pass.

What kinds of carpets moved down the Silk Roads to be sold in the great souks of the eastern Mediterranean and ultimately in Europe’s own greatest port, Venice?

The earliest depictions of oriental carpets in European paintings appear in the early 1300s and, as Mack notes, they include both geometric and animal-motif (phoenix-and-dragon) carpets that appear to be from Anatolia.

By the mid-1400s, carpets had become a commonplace enough status symbol that many wealthy Italian noblemen and merchants had their portraits painted with a prize carpet spread across a table beside them. These, too, are Anatolian but now almost exclusively geometric in design.

By the 1500s, according to inventories kept by some collectors in Venice and Florence, a huge range of carpets was available. The inventories list Mamluks from Cairo, Paramamluks presumably from Damascus, and North African, Ottoman, and Caucasian carpets.

And by the mid-1500s Persian carpets also begin appearing in European paintings.

How popular some carpet designs became is exemplified by the Lotto pattern – a yellow arabesque trellis on a red background. Lotto carpets are shown in more than 80 old master paintings and some 500 of the carpets – which were produced between the 15th and 18th centuries in Anatolia – still remain today.

It is interesting to note that the early carpet trade did not only make money for Venice. Carpets themselves became very much part of the city’s public image.

A visit to the museum of St. Mark’s cathedral – upstairs in the cupola -- helps tell the story. The collection includes an array of carpets from Safavid-ruled Persia in the 1500s. During religious festivals they were draped in front of the high altar of the church as symbols of the city’s wealth and power.

Similarly, for state processions in St. Mark’s Square, residents hung carpets from the windows and balconies to mark the occasion. And when Venice celebrated its sea victory over the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto in 1571, merchants covered the Rialto bridge with carpets for the three-day celebration.

This painting shows the Doge Andrea Gritti with his throne placed upon a Western Anatolian Star Oushak carpet. Painted in 1534 by Paris Bordone, it commemorates one of Venice's most important annual public rituals: the throwing of the Doge’s ring and its retrieval by a fisherman. The ritual symbolized Venice’s marriage to the sea.

Venice’s trade with the East spanned centuries and during this time the city changed its principal trading partners many times according to conditions of war and peace.

The Pax Mongolica that gave easy access to Central Asia collapsed with the Mongol empire and Venice shifted focus to Mamluk-ruled Syria and Egypt. The rise of the Ottomans shifted the focus yet again, to their new empire.

But throughout all the flux, there was one constant. The continuous trading – as well as the Greek-Roman-Byzantine artistic traditions common to both Italian and Near-eastern Islamic art -- created a shared taste in decorative, non-figurative art that spanned the Mediterranean world.

Mack describes how the luxury goods trade not only brought eastern textiles, carpets, glassware, and porcelain into Europe but also hugely influenced Europe’s own decorative arts industry.

So many textiles from China and the Muslim world came into Italy that Medieval and Renaissance artisans freely adopted those motifs into their own production. The fabrics that revolutionized Italian textile design beginning in about the 1330s, she says, were Tatar cloths arriving from central Asia, Persia, and Syria during the Pax Mongolica.

Over time, Italy’s workshops so successfully copied eastern designs, or Europeanized them in cosmopolitan ways that also pleased Eastern customers, that by 1400 Italian producers dominated the luxury textile trade in the Mediterranean.

Oriental carpets – which Italian artisans did not try to compete with – were the exception to the rule.

The shared tastes that characterized the Mediterranean world of the Renaissance can still be found in chance encounters in Venice today.

A short walk from St. Mark’s square, through the labyrinth of narrow streets, narrow bridges, and narrow canals, one finds a shop that suddenly seems to make time stand still.

There, for sale at the back of the small boutique, is a recently produced velvet ‘door curtain’ large enough for the salon of your Venetian palazzo. The fabric is emblazoned with richly embroidered cartouches that could give your palazzo the feel of a Renaissance court. But, amazingly, up close, the embroidery turns out to be highly stylized Arabic calligraphy.

Is the door curtain European or Islamic? The attendant of the shop, which is called Venetia Studium seems to find the question misplaced. “The pattern is Byzantine-Turkish,” she answers.

Venetia Studium is a design house with workshops in Venice that is trying to revive some of the styles that characterized the city’s booming Rensaissance-era textile industry.

The door curtain is not the only fabric with stylized Arabic lettering. There are many table coverings typical of Renaissance Europe and here, too, there are some with borders of graceful calligraphy.

Mack provides an explanation in her book of how Arabic script became – for a time -- an integral if unexpected part of Italian art.

She notes that Italian traders and ambassadors to the East developed a high regard for the ceremonial robes of Muslim courts. The distinctive ornamentation on these robes of honor were bands of Arabic inscription which expressed titles and phrases such as ‘the sultan,’ ‘the sultan the wise,’ or ‘blessing.’

As early as 1285, Italian painters adopted the same style to decorate the borders of fabrics appearing in Christian religious art. Most commonly, they painted the decorative borders – complete with a simulated Arabic calligraphy -- on the garments worn by the Holy Family or other sacred figures. At times, they also used Arabic lettering to decorate gilded halos.

An example is this detail from the Madonna and Child painted by Gentile de Fabriano in 1422.

Mack says it was possible for Arabic script to become part of Italian religious painting because the painters “correctly associated Arabic with the Holy Land but evidently did not know it arrived there in the 7th century as the language of Islam.”

That may make Arabic calligraphy the example par excellence of the Mediterranean world’s community of taste. The inscribed borders did not disappear from Italian paintings until the mid 1500s, when High Renaissance painters turned to images of classical Rome for their depictions of early Christianity.

By time time the calligraphy borders disappeared, Europe was already beginning a shift away from the Mediterranean as the focus of its trade to a new future of ocean routes to the Far East and the Americas.

The new ocean routes and the rise of the Atlantic powers would eventually put Venice and the other Silk Road cities out of business. But the influence the Silk Road had in sharing techniques, styles, and tastes across Eurasia has never disappeared and may help explain why Eastern carpets remain so fascinating for Westerners today.

As a visit to Venice makes clear, much of Eastern and Western art is a shared heritage.

(The picture at the top of this article is a detail from a painting by Vittore Carpaccio in the late 1400s.)

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Related Links:
Book review of “Bazaar to Piazza: Italian Trade and Islamic Art 1300-1600”


“Venice and the Islamic World 828-1797,” edited by Stefano Carboni


”East Meets West in Venice,” Saudi Aramco World magazine (March/April 2008)

Wikipedia: Pseudo-Kufic

Venetia Studium

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