VENICE, May 8, 2009 – It is impossible to visit Venice and not wonder what the first carpets that came to Europe through this great trading port looked like.
After all, Venice is home to Marco Polo, who very early on registered his appreciation of oriental rugs when he visited Konya in the Seljuk-controlled Sultanate of Rum in Anatolia.
The quintessential Venetian traveler of the 13th century mentioned the fineness of the carpets he saw and it is clear they were part of an already thriving commercial industry.
Another famous traveler of the time, Ibn Battuta, noted that Konya carpets were being exported to Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Persia, India, and China.
Here is a Seljuk rug of that era which was discovered in 1905 buried under the layers of prayer carpets that accumulated over the centuries like geological strata on the floor of the great mosque of Alaeddin in Konya.
But one cannot be sure of what kinds of carpets reached Europe until much later, the early Renaissance period of the 1400s. That is when Europeans fell so in love with rugs that they began to regularly include glimpses of them in paintings.
The paintings are not of rugs per se. The rugs only appear as trappings, sometimes with just a corner or edge showing, like stage props. And the only reason to include them in the pictures seems to have been to enhance the beauty of religious scenes or prove the wealth of the nobles and merchants sitting for their portraits.
But because the paintings can be dated, the paintings offer both a wide sample of rugs on the European market and even give some idea of the market trends over time.
Are there some surprises?
One is that the first carpets to show up in the paintings are not the kinds of sumptuous and complicated court workshop carpets one generally associates with days gone by.
Instead, almost all the carpets to appear in pictures before 1450 are of rather simple pieces with highly exotic animal motifs. They are rugs that – astonishingly – can remind a modern viewer of our own enthusiasm for ethno and tribal works today.
One of the animal carpet designs is shown in this detail from a fresco painted in 1440. The fresco is one of three large mural paintings by Domenico di Bartolo to decorate the wall of a hospital (the Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala) in Siena and celebrate the main activities of the facility. Those activities were to care for the sick, distribute alms to the poor, and to raise and marry off orphan girls.
Under the feet of the girl in the fresco (‘The Rearing and Marriage of Female Foundlings’) is a carpet with a curiously Far Eastern looking dragon-and-phoenix motif.
There are no known surviving rugs of this type, so scholars have had to look for something resembling it from the same period. The closest parallel seems to be this carpet from Anatolia, woven in the early to mid 1400s.
It is unclear when the dragon-and-phoenix motif carpets first came to Europe. But the motif itself appears to have a history that much pre-dates the carpets themselves.
Rosamond Mack, in an article entitled ‘Oriental carpets in Italian Renaissance paintings: art objects and status symbols’ (Magazine Antiques, Dec. 2004), says confrontations between fantastic animals such as a dragon and phoenix were common in the textiles and other arts of Mongol-ruled Asia in the 1200s and 1300s.
During that time – the Pax Mongolica – art motifs were easily shared across Eurasia as trade along the Silk Roads flourished. The Silk Roads ran from China across Central Asia to the Eastern Mediterranean.
Many scholars believe that, along the way, motifs like Chinese animal patterns were stylized and simplified into more geometric forms as they were adopted by Islamic weavers. Mack observes that Turkoman tribesmen migrating from Central Asia, in turn, may have brought the stylized motifs to Anatolia.
Rug scholar Nalan Turkmen dates the motifs’ appearance in Anatolia to the early 14th century, after the fall of the Seljuks. He writes that the carpets “represent a new stage in Turkish carpet weaving which coves two hundred years from the early 14th century to the late 15th centuries” (‘Tracing Central Asian Turkmen Carpet Designs Through Parallels With Anatolian Carpets,’ Oriental Carpet and Textile Studies, Volume V Part 1, 1999).
The vast majority of the carpets in early Renaissance Europe are believed to have come from Anatolia and phoenix-and-dragon motifs are just one of a variety of different compartmentalized animal designs that appear in the paintings of that time. Mack notes “the majority (of the animal design carpets) show pairs of birds flanking a tree, and the rest have various animals alone or in pairs.”
These animal carpets are from the 1400s during the Ottoman period.
As to why the designs were popular with Europeans of the early Renaissance, one can only guess. But European art of the just-ended Medieval period made wide use of fantastic creatures, including unicorns, so the stylized animal design carpets would have seemed exotic, but not strange, to European eyes.
Animal carpets were far from the only carpets reaching Europe at the time. There were also Anatolian carpets with geometric designs, as well as carpets woven in Cairo and Damascus. But the animal carpets stand out for their popularity and, also, for one more great surprise. And that is the fact that, after 1450, they completely disappear from the European market.
The trend is recorded in the paintings. Suddenly, almost all the carpets pictured are geometric designs and only the faintest echoes of the once so dominant animal carpets remain.
The faint echoes take the form shown in this detail from a painting by Carlo Crivelli in 1486. The animals are reduced to a mere cameo appearance within the compartments of the rug’s complicated 16-point star pattern.
A surviving example of the same kind of carpet is shown below. The carpet is believed to have come from Anatolia, but there is no known record of where the style was woven. The best rug scholars have been able to do is name the style after the Renaissance painter who depicts it: Crivelli himself.
If animal carpets suddenly vanished from the European market after 1450, what could be the reason?
There are two possible explanations.
One possibility is on the producers’ side. Some rug experts believe that by this time the Ottoman authorities who ruled Anatolia were becoming stricter about depicting life forms in works of art. That is in line with Muslim prohibitions against making something to look like God’s creation, because it includes an implicit claim of an ability similar to that of God.
Nalan Turkmen observes that “when animal figures disappeared from Turkish carpets in the 16th century their place was taken by geometric motifs such as octagons or diamonds set in the compartments of a squared ground.” He adds that animal figures do not reappear again in Turkish carpets until the late 16th century and then only as a filler, not as a main motif.
The other possibility to explain the disappearance of animal motifs carpets in Europe is on the consumers’ side. By the mid-1450s the Renaissance had come to fully dominate Europe’s cultural life. And with its emphasis on humanism, logic, and science, it may have left no room in the market for artwork that appealed to a Medieval fascination with mysticism and symbols.
Whatever the reason, it seems things in the early carpet market never stayed the same for long -- just as in the carpet market today.
Here is the kind of geometric carpet that took the place of the animal carpets in Renaissance paintings after 1450. It is a Memling pattern, named after the artist Hans Memling, who depicted it often in the late 1400s.
It is interesting to note that Renaissance collectors – or at least the people who valued carpets enough to make them available to artists to copy – were not collecting either antiques or even the most extraordinary carpets of their time.
Throughout the 200 years or so of the Renaissance, the most complex Mamluk and Ottoman court carpets almost never appear in paintings and no-one knows whether this is because they were rare or because they were simply extremely difficult to paint. Persian carpets do not appear until end of the 16th century. Then, too, the finely-knotted silk carpets woven at Kashan and Isfahan are rarely represented.
Instead it seems the Europe’s carpet owners, especially as carpets became commonplace in the homes of the well-to-do by the mid 1600s, mostly bought and valued carpets that reflected the commercial trends of their day – again, much the way most people do now.
The fact that these carpets are extraordinarily beautiful is perhaps the biggest surprise for a modern viewer of all. It seems to be due as much to the high-level of the carpet industry at the time as to the discerning eye of the early collectors. And that is a situation contemporary carpet lovers can only envy.
(The picture at the top of this article is Marco Polo’s family home in Venice.)
RETURN TO HOME
Oriental Carpets in Italian Renaissance Paintings: art objects and status symbols, by Rosamond Mack, Magazine Antiques
Wikipedia: On Oriental Carpets in Renaissance Painting
The Carpet Index: The Oriental Carpet in Early Renaissance Paintings
Medieval and Renaissance Material Culture: a gallery of Renaissance paintings
Seljuk Textiles and Carpets
Old Turkish Carpets
Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts: Ottoman Court Carpets
Ottoman Dynasty Carpets and Rugs