03.02.25, Howard, Venice and the East

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Maria Georgopoulou

The Medieval Review baj9928.0302.025


Howard, Deborah. Venice and the East: The Impact of the Islamic World on Venetian Architecture, 1100- 1500. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. Pp. v, 283. ISBN: 0-300-08504-4.

Reviewed by:
Maria Georgopoulou
Yale University

Since the publication of John Ruskin's Stones of Venice the Oriental face of Venice has captivated the imagination of most and has turned the city into a portal to the East. Venice was the easternmost part of the Mediterranean that Ruskin ever visited so his evocative impressions of the city were based on a secondhand knowledge of the Islamic world and its mysterious atmosphere. This is not so with Deborah Howard's eloquent, imaginative, and lavishly illustrated book on Venice and the East. Not only are there hundreds of color photographs to illustrate the intimate relationship between Venice and the (Near) East and to bring this East closer to us, but the whole premise of the book is that the impact that Islamic art and architecture had on Venice was based on personal memories that the Venetians accumulated during their travels to the East.

The book explores the relationship between Venice and Islamic architecture from 1100 to the end of the fifteenth century, just before the arrival of the printing press. The bulk of the evidence, however, coincides with the rule of the Mamluk dynasty (1250-1517) and it is their great eastern emporia of Cairo, Aleppo and Damascus, with their separate quarters and polyglot communities that are viewed as paradigmatic Islamic cities that influenced Venice. Seven chapters detail specific Venetian spaces that display strong Islamic connections. A short appendix with original documents and a glossary complete the volume. I had a hard time understanding the purpose of the glossary. In some cases it offers etymologies in others it indicates usage by geographical location without making the reasons explicit. It is for instance hard to appreciate the reason and usefulness of the fact that two words of Greek origin, liago and bora, are simply listed as used in Venice.

Chapters 1 and 2 "Trade and travel" and "Transmission and Propagation" set the stage for the Venetian merchants' response to oriental travel and lay out one of the key concepts of the book: on the one hand, that the Venetians had a keen eye and exceptional skills of verbal description as well as a remarkable "cultural acquisitiveness"; on the other hand, that there existed in Venice an informed public who could "read" these imported forms into the fabric of their city as resonances of the republic's cosmopolitan nature. The Venetians' eastern experience was one of immersion and integration: Venetian merchants and artisans lived in Muslim houses, used local builders for the needs of their colonies, and brought little with them from home. Howard candidly admits that there is no hard evidence to trace the propagation of architectural principles and designs so she identifies different channels of transmission that ensured accurate reporting: oral tradition, evocative descriptions of travel narratives, and above all memory. The mechanics of transmission can therefore only be studied in formal terms.

The rest of the book considers the reception of Islamic forms in Venice. Chapter 3 attempts to add an Oriental foil to the well known Byzantine layers of the basilica of San Marco by insisting on direct references to Alexandria. Howard argues that in the cycle of St. Mark and in the atrium cupolas there is an attempt to explore a strong local (see eastern/Islamic) color placing special weight on Alexandria. It is hard to prove or disprove if the artists had first hand knowledge of monuments like the Pharos of Alexandria and the cupolas of the City of the Dead in Cairo. On the other hand, the supposed Alexandrine origin of the Cotton Genesis, the early Christian manuscript that has long been considered the model for the atrium mosaics of San Marco, does not necessarily tie the church with the Islamic world as any Venetian would know that it predated the arrival of Islam. When it comes to ornament Howard is unequivocally positing an Islamic provenance: the interlacing arches in the second Joseph cupola (fig. 93) are presented as Islamic elements despite their widespread presence throughout the Mediterranean. In fact, it seems to me that the medallions in the central zone of the vault of the cappella Zen are more Islamic in character if we want to ascribe an ethnicity to these forms. These geometric interlaces figure prominently in what has been called siculo-Arabic ivories of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. All these elements should have been placed within the context of other mosaics in San Marco that attempt to incorporate elements that reflect the international make-up of the city, as, for example, the representation of various peoples in the pendentives of the Pentecost dome.

Chapter 4, "The Merchant City," portrays Venice's eclecticism in its urban layout and in building designs as a reflection of its multiple holdings and experiences in various places. The labyrinthine qualities of the Merceria, the suq-like division of trades towards the Rialto, and the public loggia in the marketplace offer according to Howard a reminiscence of the East especially of the Venetian emporia within large merchant cities like Trebizond. The relationship of building types such as the fondaco and the eastern institution of the khan is an extremely interesting and complex one that the book brings to the fore and on which Olivia Remie Constable has been working for years.

Chapter 5, "Palaces," assumes that the layout of the facades of the palazzi reflects the inner confidence of the Venetian merchants and the republic in general. The new Gothic pointed arches are juxtaposed to the ogee arch, the billet molding or dentilled border, and the mihrab window, which, as Oriental motifs, would orient an informed viewer to the eastern connections of the family residing within the palace. This chapter contains concrete references to architectural details and yet it confesses that these features seem to allude to a mental image of the Orient and not to specific buildings. The historical connection of these elements with the homes of newly emigrated Venetian families from the Eastern colonies that became part of the nobility with the Serrata of the Great Council in the end of the thirteenth century is a brilliant way to justify the influx of these forms in Venice and it would have been great if the role of these families could be discussed more. I wonder, however, why we need to interpret the appearance of these forms in Venice as signs of appropriation and domination of the oltremare. Howard rightly emphasizes the ways in which forms acquire new meanings when they are transplanted into a new setting by invoking the literary notion of intertextuality. The multiplicity of meanings and the variety of connotations are made explicit in the discussion of the mihrab motif: once it was perceived as indigenous to Venice, the initial recognition would have aroused a reversed set of connotations. No Venetian thereafter could easily divorce the imagery of a real mihrab from the memory of home (159).

In Chapter 6, Howard interprets the Palazzo Ducale's rebuilding in the mid-fourteenth century as tightly related to the historical events of the time especially the victory of the Republic over the papal embargo of 1320: oriental allusions to Islamic modes in the design of the palazzo and the nearby granaries must have broadcast this victory whereas its unified Gothic front provided a magisterial home for the institution of the doge and the commune and a reference to Venice's trade partners. This is the only instance where Howard is willing to place Venice in a (minor) dialogue with Italy. She dismisses any connections that the building may have had with other communal palaces stressing the open, airy, light, non-fortified form of the ducal palace in Venice that combines a Gothic design with Mamluk-inspired details (color, size, cresting of the roofline, lozenge pattern in the tiles) as well as a Solomonic imagery to refer to the Bible and the Temple Mount. She does not stress, however, that the overall design and impression that the building gives out is distinctly Gothic and European and that many of the connections she proposes could in fact have roots in European art as well. For instance, the theme of the courtyard with a central cistern/fountain is not such an uncommon element on European soil to find it necessary to propose a connection with the ablutions fountains of mosques.

The final chapter considers Venice as a station in pilgrimage, a locus that adopts aspects of Jerusalem, Acre and Alexandria. The pre-pilgrimage tour available to the pilgrims in Venice does not, in my mind, necessarily pose Venice as a counterpart of the Holy Land nor does it make it de facto a votive destination. Howard's examples show that this was primarily a tourist and industrial tour with the relics tacked on in the end. The supposed metonymic relationship between Venice and Jerusalem seen either in the relatively loose topographical arrangement of the major public spaces of the city, in numerous mosaic references to an eastern paradise in San Marco, in the dedication of individual churches or in acquiring and displaying relics of the True Cross is not entirely convincing. I found it particularly odd that Howard chooses to disregard similar phenomena in other European cities where the similarities are more explicit. The author's premise is that "sacred places lie where sanctity is perceived not where archaeological evidence says they should be" (215). This may well be, but in the middle ages pilgrims were fundamentally interested in the authentic holy sites and had formulated conventions to replicate them in the West; none of Venice's churches ever attained this status. Even the one example where the author suggests that a Byzantine/crusader mosaic from the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem worked as a model for its San Marco counterpart, the scene of the Incredulity of Thomas, has recently been shown to belong to an eastern variant absent from San Marco: Christ pulls Thomas by the wrist to make him touch the wound. So, despite the interest of the Venetians in the crusades, Venice's connections with the Holy Land are not as evident as Howard would like us to believe.

A brief conclusion sums up the inquiry by blurring the distinctions between Byzantine and Islamic elements. The Pentecost dome of San Marco dominated by the empty throne of the Etoimasia (there is no reason to simplify the spelling of the word) is presented here as a Byzantine form garbed in oriental trappings, i.e. majestic cushions and rugs, to stress the connection between religion and trade. This oriental reading of a motif that had appeared in the Orthodox baptistery of Ravenna many centuries before the time that the book studies, suggests the complexities of this inquiry and the dangers of separating the different oriental traditions that informed Venice's cultural outlook. Cushions and rich textiles had also been a hallmark of the Byzantines after all.

Any division between East and West is artificially construed but it is more so when one of the key players -- in this case Byzantium -- is excluded. Howard skips the Greek world altogether in favor of a purely Muslim East. The methodological reason she offers for this choice is that "a major religious divide underlies" her topic. The uncorroborated notion that every Venetian merchant needed to negotiate the moral issue of dealing with Muslims after the pope's embargo is in fact the leitmotif of the book. Evidently, Howard assumes that in contrast to what happened with Venice and Islam there was no religious divide between Venice and Byzantium although the spoils of the Fourth Crusade of 1204 would tell a totally different story. In any event, things are more complicated because many of the monuments that Howard believes to have functioned as models for the Venetians were thought to be or were in fact buildings built and/or used by the Crusaders or the Byzantines. This is more so because the East that Howard circumscribes in this book is politically ruled by Muslim rulers (the Seljuks, Ayyubids, but primarily Mamluks and Ottomans) but has a strictly Judaeo-Christian geographical extent covering the "biblical world and that of the crusades," i.e. Egypt, Syria and Palestine, all areas with a rich Byzantine artistic past.

Although Venice was located in the west, through oriental travel and trade it belonged fully to the aesthetic orbit of the eastern Mediterranean and this is the way in which we can understand its intimate connections with Islam and Byzantium. Howard's erudite book frames this inquiry within a compartmentalized Mediterranean region posing religion as a major dividing force. In this scenario the only possible way to look at cross-cultural relations is through the paradigm of the appropriation of spoils, which insists on an outmoded binary view of the world. In the High Middle Ages Venice was not fascinated by an exotic East nor was she influenced by the Orient. Until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans and the discovery of the New World this relationship was rather an intimate, cosmopolitan borrowing of beautiful, exquisite forms, which -- like the artifacts that reached Venice from the East -- were valued for their craftsmanship and obviously signaled Venice's sophistication as a partner of the world defined by these civilized eastern emporia.

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Author Biography

Maria Georgopoulou

Yale University