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West Meets East in Venice

In 1869, when he was 26 years old, Henry James visited Venice for the first time. Like many New England grandees, James sought in Europe the monuments of Greco-Roman antiquity and the Renaissance. However, Venice seems at first to have disappointed him. "I can't for my life surrender myself to the genius of Italy," he wrote to his brother, William. He said he felt "more and more my inexorable Yankeehood."

James was not much impressed by either St. Mark's or the Ducal Palace, which the English critic John Ruskin had called the "central building of the world" for having combined the Roman, Lombard, and Arab styles of architecture. "Travelling Companions," a short story James published a year after that first trip to Venice, seems to express its author's attitude to the strangeness of St. Mark's Square when the main protagonist describes himself as a "half-stupefied traveller to the age of a simpler and more awful faith. I had left Europe; I was in the East."

James probably didn't know that he had stumbled upon an essential historical fact about Venice: its intimacy with the East. The city had been raised, as the British politician and novelist Benjamin Disraeli put it, from the "spoils of the teeming Orient." Venetians pursuing Asian goods undertook long journeys centuries before the European age of exploration that began with the Renaissance. It was the wealth created by this trade with Asia that turned Venice, which began in the sixth century as a straggly settlement on the island of Torcello, into the greatest city of the Mediterranean, and gave it a maritime empire that reached as far as Cyprus. A colony of Venetian merchants existed in Alexandria from the 14th century. Turks, Arabs, Armenians, Greeks, and Africans traveled to the city, and even established permanent outposts in it.

To modern sensibilities, the city does not appear to have changed much over time. With its beauty and glamour, it now serves as a consolation, however temporary, to those of us who live buffeted and bewildered by the modern world. But the city also embodies a long and complex history of cultural encounters between East and West. This history describes another way of living in an economically and culturally interdependent world—something that takes us beyond the buzzwords we now use (globalization, clash of civilizations) to understand the troubled state of our own linked societies.

I knew vaguely about Venice's eastern connections when I first visited it in 1998. I was under the spell of Thomas Mann's symbol-laden novella Death in Venice. The first place I went to then was the Lido, on whose desolate beach, amid the Moorish extravaganza of Hotel Excelsior and the Art Deco elegance of the Hotel des Bains, Mann's refined writer-protagonist plays out his passion for a young boy.

The Lido, with its broad avenues and promenades, was recognizably of the West, like the cities I had seen since I left India in 1996. The spacious Baroque palaces and grand boulevards of Paris, the Renaissance town houses of London, and the mock-Roman grandeur of the Mall in Washington, D.C.—they all conformed to my idea of the modern West, whose immense achievements in science and technology from the Renaissance onward seemed to have reached an apotheosis in the grid glass canyons of Manhattan.

I wasn't prepared for the traces Venice still displayed of its connection to the East. Being in Venice itself was to be taken back to the premodern world of my childhood: the small medieval towns in India, the labyrinth of alleys where an occasional decaying mansion stood amid buildings of old exposed brick, and the gloomy houses in whose cramped, often windowless, rooms I had dreamed of escape.

The dappled light on the water and the stones, and the cool damp of the alleys, brought back memories of mild winter afternoons in Benares. Emerging onto St. Mark's Square, facing the strangely familiar jumble of domes, columns, and capitals, I felt myself back in the arcaded courtyards of the great mosques and madrassas (seminaries) in India to which shop-lined alleys lead, dark passages suddenly opening out into expanses of light and color.

I didn't know then that other travelers to Venice had felt the same. Visiting in 1782, the English author William Beckford had written, "The variety of exotic merchandise, the perfume of coffee, the shade of awnings, and the sight of Greeks and Asiatics sitting cross-legged under them, make me think myself in the bazaars of Constantinople." In 1850, the French writer and aesthete Théophile Gautier had described St. Mark's as an "Oriental dream." Beckford had been more explicit: "I cannot help thinking St. Mark's a mosque."

My own sense of déjà vu was partly explained when I read Ruskin on St. Mark's in The Stones of Venice: "It possesses the charm of colour in common with the greater part of the architecture, as well as of the manufactures, of the East; but the Venetians deserve especial note as the only European people who appear to have sympathized to the full with the great instinct of the Eastern races...while the burghers and barons of the North were building their dark streets and grisly castles of oak and sandstone, the merchants of Venice were covering their palaces with porphyry and gold."

It had been easier to notice and understand Moorish influences in Spain and Sicily, which the Arabs ruled for centuries. But how had Venice absorbed its Eastern influences?And how had they managed to be so concealed?

For the first seven centuries of its existence, Venice had looked toward Byzantium for its trade, security, art, and identity. But as the Byzantine Empire weakened, and the Arabs quickly spread across the Mediterranean, Venetians developed stronger links with the Levant and then, even farther, with the spice markets of India and Central Asia, becoming part of a global network of trade. The Venetians finally proclaimed their independence by sacking and looting Constantinople in 1204.

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