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West Meets East in Venice

Over the next three centuries, they came into even closer contact with the sophisticated urban and multifaith civilizations that had developed in the Islamic world. Few people had believed the tales of the East told by Marco Polo, who had been nicknamed Marco Il Milione (of the million lies). Now, many Venetians saw for themselves the fabulous cities of Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo.

Just as the household gadgets of middle-class Americans define many people's aspirations in our newly globalized world, so the luxurious lifestyles of the elites of Muslim cities once inspired imitation all over the Islamic world. The nouveau-riche Venetians, too, sought to adopt Eastern habits of conspicuous, if elegant, consumption. Oriental silks, carpets, ceramics (especially Chinese porcelain), and glass were much in demand among the feudal nobility and the rising bourgeoisie—they helped give Venetian painting its sumptuous colors.

The Venetians expressed their political power too in terms inspired by or borrowed from Muslim lands. The Gothic façade of the Ducal Palace, which was begun in the mid 14th century, emphasized the city's lucrative trading links with the East. Its pink-and-white lozenge pattern was common in Muslim mosques and tombs along the Silk Road in Central Asia, where Venetian merchants traveled frequently. The crenellations on the roof of the palace were probably inspired by similar decorations in Cairo. The marble grilles on St. Mark's Basilica were modeled on those of the great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. The Venetian ruling class adopted Arabic words: sikka, tariff, arsenale, sofa.

Traces of that medieval world of traders and merchants survive now in the area around Campo Dei Mori in northern Venice. Decay here, unlike in much of Venice, is more than a patina; it hangs mournfully in the air. On the Palazzo Mastelli, there is a bas-relief of a camel, dating from the 14th century. Not far, on the Fondamenta dei Mori, the statue of an Oriental merchant with an oversize turban stands guard on the façade of the house where Tintoretto once lived.

You can only wonder whether Tintoretto, the son of a silk dyer, had any connection with Muslim merchants when you look at his 1562 painting St. Mark Saving a Saracen from Shipwreck at the Accademia. In the same, overwhelmingly rich gallery, Moorish slaves lurk incongruously in Veronese's version of the Last Supper. A marble throne with Arabic inscriptions sits in the church of San Pietro di Castello, which was Venice's main cathedral until 1807, when St. Mark's took its place.

Unlike much of Western Europe, with its sword-happy Crusaders, Venice often chose the way of compromise with the Islamic world. Its reluctance to fight Muslims often annoyed the pope in Rome. Religion was important to Venetians, but not as much as trade and coexistence. In 1454, Venice signed a peace treaty with the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II soon after he conquered Istanbul and ended Christian rule in the East. Twenty-five years later, the Doge of Venice sent Gentile Bellini to Istanbul, where he painted, memorably, the Sultan and a boy scribe. Bellini's two years among the Turks may explain the preponderance of turbaned merchants in The Procession in St. Mark's Square.

Two years after Bellini finished this large canvas, the Portuguese discovered the sea route to India and Venice's importance as a center for trade with the East diminished. The explorations of the New World and the renaissance in art and architecture began to give Venetians as well as other Europeans a sense of belonging to a large continent called Europe.

If the city had looked away from Europe as it rose to unprecedented wealth and power, soon it was slowly being drawn, by conquests and conflicts, into the Italian mainland. In 1797, it was finally invaded and defeated by Napoleon. After the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Venice became a stop on Britain's imperial highway to India. The East now began not in Venice but in Suez.

Reabsorbed into Europe, Venice offered convenient metaphors to novelists seeking to define the new worlds conquered by fellow Europeans. Venice "was not Europe" to E. M. Forster, but unlike India, it had "beauty of form." Keen to escape his dull ancestral burghers in Germany, Thomas Mann in his famous story identified Venice with the rational and Apollonian West, threatened only by an East of uncontrollable Dionysian energies.

Shorn of its Asian associations, Venice became part of the 19th century European and American religion called "culture." Only such rich and influential visitors as Henry James enjoyed the privilege of travel then. These Grand Tourists created a sentimental and romantic image of Venice as a city outside time and history that has survived to this day.

This is unfortunate. For the image obscures Venice's extraordinary contemporary relevance. It makes it harder to remember that the city is where East and West met, mostly amicably, in both commerce and art, and where multiculturalism was an unselfconscious, everyday reality, embraced by almost all its inhabitants, rather than a political slogan of ethnic minorities. For the city's most resonant message today is surely this: that a civilization flourishes most when it is open to external influences, when it ceases to be a fortress and lets itself become a crossroads, a place of chance encounters and unexpected minglings.

I was in Venice not long ago when I read in a newspaper one morning that Pope John Paul II, clearly distressed by the state of the world, had appointed an envoy for a "dialogue" he wished to conduct with religious figures in the Islamic world. The press in Italy seemed full of reports of such grand and seemingly meaningless gestures. But I didn't turn the page of my newspaper to read on, and as I lingered expensively in Caffè Florian, a long and vain letter to the pope began to compose itself in my mind.

I thought of exhorting him to begin his dialogue with the Church's old adversary, Islam, in Venice, the city that had often ignored his predecessors' call for a crusade against the infidels. Of course, I never wrote to the pope, but now I can't help thinking that Venice's record of disobedience probably offers some lessons in diplomacy to all of us. Even more: the city's pragmatic cosmopolitanism may be an antidote to the ideological deliriums of a world losing touching with its past.

PANKAJ MISHRA is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure. His latest book, An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), will be published this month.


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