Vol. 2    Issue 10   16-30 September 2007
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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Bill Gate
Single Parent Family

A Passage to Venice

Professor A. R. Momin

Venice, one of the most enchanting cities in the world, is located in the middle of a lagoon in northern Italy. The Venetian Lagoon is about 30 miles long and about 6 miles wide. The size of Venice is about 3 miles by 2 miles. The city comprises some 118 islands and nearly 400 bridges. The waters of the lagoon often rise and flood the city. According to the 2001 census, the population of Venice is 266,181. There are some 450 palaces, mansions and other buildings of major historic importance in Venice. The architecture of the city represents a distinctive synthesis of Italian, Byzantine, Islamic and Renaissance styles. A maze of streets and alleys, lined by shops, cafes and restaurants, adds to the city’s charm and vibrancy. Cars are not allowed in the city. It is entirely pedestrian. One may walk through the streets or travel by water taxis, water buses and small, decorated boats known as Gondolas.

St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) is the hub of the city. The Basilica of San Marco, which was constructed in the 11th century, is Venice’s most magnificent architectural monument. The mortal remains of St. Mark, author of one of the four Christian Gospels, are buried here. Thousands of tourists from across the world, especially from Europe, North America and the Far East, visit the Basilica and are amazed by its grandeur and rich decoration in mosaic and gold. In addition to its distinctive topography and layout, Venice is a shoppers’ paradise. Venetian masks and Murano glass objects are famous throughout Europe and North America. The whole atmosphere in the city is filled with joy and merry-making.

The beginnings of Venice as a city of islands and waterways date from early 9th century. The city’s strategic location on the trade route from the Orient to Europe facilitated its emergence as a flourishing centre of trade and commerce.

Europe and Islam

Islamic civilization played a highly significant role in the shaping of Western civilization in the Middle Ages. The legacy of Islamic civilization is reflected in science, medicine, astronomy, architecture, technology and engineering, philosophy, literature, arts and crafts. Science and medicine in the Islamic world reached the zenith of their glory between the 9th and 13th centuries. Muslim scientists, writers and translators acted as a bridge between classical Greece and Christian Europe. The intellectual and scientific movement, which blossomed in the Islamic world, played a key role in ushering in the Renaissance in Europe.

Works on science, astronomy, medicine and philosophy, written or translated by Muslim scholars, found their way to the Western world along two routes: Sicily and southern Italy (where Muslim ruled lasted for nearly two centuries), and southern Spain or Andalusia (where Muslim rule lasted for about eight centuries). The Crusades (1096 to 1274) also provided avenues of contact and interaction between Europe and the Islamic world. The Crusaders brought back from Islamic lands glassware, metal works, fabrics, medical knowledge, perfumes and spices, windmills and water wheels, the compass, and musical instruments. The astronomical and surgical instruments designed by Muslim scientists greatly fascinated their European counterparts. A young Italian merchant, Leonardo Fibonacci, while travelling in Algeria and Andalusia, became fascinated with the Islamic sciences. He learnt Arabic and diligently studied the works of Muslim scientists and philosophers. He then produced a Latin translation of al-Khwarizmi’s work on algebra. It is note-worthy that Leonardo Fibonacci is considered one of the founders of modern mathematics in Europe. Frederick II, who played a catalytic role in the flowering of the Renaissance in the thirteenth century, was a connoisseur and patron of Islamic arts and sciences. He established colleges, on the model of educational institutions in Islamic lands, in Naples, Messina and Padua. Gerard of Cremona (d. 1187) spent five years in Cordoba and produced Latin translations of nearly sixty scientific treatises in Arabic. Arnold of Villeneuve and Raymond Lully studied in Muslim Spain and then taught at Montpellier. Campanus of Novara studied mathematics at Cordoba and later taught in Vienna. Robertus Grosseteste studied in Andalusia and later lectured at Oxford. Roger Bacon, who studied the Arabic language and Islamic sciences at Oxford, declared that the knowledge of Arabic and Islamic sciences provided the only way to true knowledge.

Fine glassware, inlaid metal work, fabrics, carpets and decorative objects manufactured in Islamic lands became highly popular in Europe during the Middle Ages. Muslim craftsmen had developed a distinctive style of glass decoration, which was used on bottles, beakers, vases and other objects. The technique of enamelling glass developed by Muslim artists and craftsmen in Syria and Egypt was employed for the decoration of a special form of lamp with a large base and upper section and a narrow waist in between. Syrian glassware was highly prized in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries and was widely used in cathedrals, churches and abbeys.

Muslim craftsmen developed the technique of inlaying intricate designs in bronze, brass, wood, ivory, gold and silver. Inlaid metal work reached a state of perfection in Syria and Egypt in the 12th and 13th centuries. Inlay techniques were used on a variety of objects, including basins, bowls, platters, pitchers and candlesticks. The technique of inlaying designs in bronze, brass, silver and gold, which came to be known as damascening (derived from Damascus) in Europe, was imitated by European artists and craftsmen.

During the Middle Ages, luxurious fabrics and carpets were imported from Islamic lands to Europe on an extensive scale. The names of fine fabrics in English and other European languages betray their Islamic origins. Thus, a fine fabric known as damask in European languages derived its nomenclature from Damascus, where it was manufactured on a large scale. A fabric known as fustian was imported from the city of Fustat in Egypt. Muslin was imported by Italian merchants from Mosul in Iraq. This fine silk fabric was used in the canopy suspended over the altar in many churches in medieval Europe. Fabrics manufactured in the Spanish city of Granada came to known as grenadine in European shops. A fine fabric known as taftah in Persia, where it was manufactured, was much in demand in Europe where it came to be known as taffeta. In the 12th century, the Attabiya quarter of Baghdad was famous for the manufacture of a special silk fabric known as attabi silk. It was highly popular in France and Italy where it was known as tabis or tabby. The fabric of Baghdad came to be known as baudekin while that of Ghaza in Egypt was known as gauzes in Europe. A variety of fabrics manufactured by Muslim weavers and craftsmen in Islamic lands, including moirés, crepes, chiffons, chamlets, karsies and radzimiris, were imported to Europe and were highly appreciated for their fine quality, vibrant colours, exquisite designs and intricate patterns and motifs.

From the 12th to the 16th century, silk fabrics from Egypt, Spain, Persia and Turkey were used as vestments for the Christian Mass. They were also used as wrapping for holy relics in cathedrals, churches and church treasuries in France, Italy, Belgium and Holland. The coronation mantle of the Norman king Roger II (preserved in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna), considered to have been made by Muslim craftsmen in a workshop in Palermo in 1133, is of red silk with gold embroidery and is rimmed with an Arabic inscription in the Kufi style of calligraphy. Carpets made in Egypt, Istanbul and Persia were in great demand in Europe. Some of the exquisite wool carpets from the Islamic world have survived in European churches and palaces. In the latter part of the 19th century, William Morris, the most influential figure in the Arts and Crafts movement in Europe, drew considerable inspiration from the designs and motifs of Islamic carpets and textiles.

As early as the 11th century, ceramic bowls and decorative objects from Islamic lands began to arrive in Italy and other European countries. They were often set into the facades of newly built churches. In Pisa, for example, hundreds of these ceramic artefacts—locally known as bacini—were used as decorative pieces in churches built between the 11th and 13th centuries.

Venice and the Islamic world

Venice’s commercial, diplomatic, cultural and artistic relations with the Islamic world, especially with Damascus, Cairo, Alexandria and Istanbul, span nearly a thousand years. These relations were greatly strengthened during the Mamluk period (1250-1517) and the Ottoman period (1281-1924). The Mamluks were responsible for halting the advance of the Mongol hordes and for expelling the Crusaders from the Holy Land in the second half of the 13th century. Venice emerged as the Mamluks’ main European trading partner. A wide range of goods and artefacts, including textiles, carpets, spices, metal work, glassware, precious stones and paper were traded between Venice and the Islamic world. Some of the objects imported from the Islamic world were used for churches and church treasuries. Venetian traders sold furs, leather and other items from northern Europe in the bazaars of Cairo, Anatolia, Alexandria, Damascus and Istanbul. They returned from these places with luxury goods, including silk fabrics, carpets, glassware and metal work.

Several cities in the Mamluk Empire had a permanent Venetian diplomatic representative who liaised between his country and the local authorities. The cordial relations between Venice and the Mamluks may be gauged from the fact that Francesco Foscari, Venice’s longest reigning (1423-57) ruler—locally known as doge—was born in Mamluk Egypt.

Fine metal work intricately inlaid with silver and gold, which was manufactured in Damascus, began to be imported to Venice and other European cities from the early 14th century and soon became highly popular. Basins, ewers, carpets, candlesticks and incense burners from Islamic lands found their way into cathedrals and churches and in the homes of the Venetian aristocracy. A finely woven carpet from this period can be seen at the high altar of the Basilica of San Marco in Venice.

Finely inlaid metal work, glassware and other objects manufactured in Islamic lands were in great demand in Venice. Some of these objects were tailor-made in keeping with local tastes and cultural norms. Thus Latin inscriptions could sometimes be found on Islamic metal work along with Arabic inscriptions. From the early part of the 16th century there occurs a distinctive type of inlaid metalware known as azzimina (which is a Venetian adaptation of the Arabic word ajamiya, meaning non-Arab). It is likely that this type of metal work was specially made for export to Venice.

From an early date, textiles, velvets and carpets were imported from Islamic lands and were much appreciated in Venice. Some of the most refined vestments worn by the Venetian clergy were imported from Islamic lands. Textiles from Egypt, Damascus and other Islamic cities appear in the patterned cloak in a representation of Virgin Mary in a 14th century altarpiece as well as in the robes of Venice’s ruling class and the aristocracy.

Carpets manufactured in Islamic lands were regarded as a status symbol in Venice and other European cities. In the early 16th century, Venetian aristocracy had presented, on Henry III’s suggestion, sixty carpets made in Egypt to Cardinal Wolsey.

The architectural monuments of Venice, such as the Basilica of San Marco and Palazzo Ducale, reflect Islamic influences.

Trade and diplomatic relations between Venice and the Islamic world were intensified during the Ottoman period. Venice relied on the Ottoman Empire for the import of wheat, spices, raw silk, cotton, leather and calcified ashes for the Murano glass industry. In return, it exported finished goods, including glassware, soap, paper and textiles. The techniques used by Turkish craftsmen for pottery making, parade armor, book bindings and metal inlay greatly influenced Venetian craftsmen and artists.

An important landmark in the diplomatic and cultural relations between Venice and the Islamic world was the celebrated Italian artist Gentile Bellini’s diplomatic mission to the court of sultan Mehmet II between 1479 and 1481. Bellini stayed in Constantinople for two years and drew inspiration from Ottoman art and architecture. He also drew a portrait of sultan Mehmet II. After his return, Bellini represented Islamic motifs and designs in his paintings, which were highly appreciated in Venice and other European cities.

During the Middle Ages, Muslim scientists, philosophers and translators played a pivotal role in the transmission of the scientific and philosophical heritage of classical Greece to modern Europe. Venice was one of the important centres of this scientific and cultural confluence. Some of the important texts in science, astronomy, medicine and philosophy were initially printed in Venice. These included the Arabic translation of Ptolemy’s work on astronomy, Ibn Sina’s famous compendium on medicine, and Ibn Rushd’s philosophical writings. Paravicious translated Al-Farabi’s Al-Taysir into Latin, which was published from Venice in 1280. A Latin translation of Al-Zahrawi’s voluminous work Al-Tasrif, titled Liber servitoris de praepartione medicinarum simplicium, which describes chemical preparations, tablet making, extracts filtering and related pharmaceutical methods and techniques, was published by Nicolaus Jensen from Venice in 1471.

Sometimes tensions developed between Venice and some Muslim empires, which occasionally resulted in minor skirmishes. During the Middle Ages, some of the popes issued decrees forbidding Christian Europe to engage in business with the Islamic world. However, these aberrations had little or no impact on the commercial, diplomatic and cultural relations between Venice and the Islamic world. Imbued with pragmatism and a robust common sense, the Venetians continued to be the Near East’s favourite trading partner.

Venetian glassware

Venetian glass objects, such as lamps, bowls, plates, chandeliers, decorative artefacts and jewellery, are famous throughout the world for their exquisite craftsmanship, vibrant colours and beautiful designs. The techniques of glass making in Murano, one of the islands of Venice, were significantly influenced by Islamic lands.

Muslim craftsmen in Syria and Egypt began making fine glass objects in the 9th century. Some of the Crusaders returning from Islamic lands brought back Syrian glassware decorated with enamel or gilding. Such objects were often given to churches. An exquisitely made rock-crystal ewer from Syria is preserved in the treasury of the Basilica of San Marco in Venice.

The craftsmen at Murano initially imitated Syrian glassware and subsequently adapted glass work to local tastes and requirements. They imported raw materials necessary for the production of glassware—quartz, soda, cobalt, broken glass for recycling—from the Middle East. In the course of time, as glass making began to decline in Damascus and Egypt, Murano emerged as the prime centre of glass making. It came to export its fine glassware not only to other European cities but also to the Islamic world. Some of the Turkish sultans commissioned Murano’s craftsmen to make specially designed lamps and chandeliers for mosques and royal palaces.

Inspired by Venice, a glass factory was set up in Istanbul in the late 18th century. It continues to be in operation.

Exhibition on Venice and Islam

In recent years, especially after 9/11, a great deal of interest in Islamic art and architecture has been witnessed in Europe and the United States. A number of exhibitions on the cultural heritage of Islamic civilization have been organised in European and American cities in which exhibits and artefacts from well-known museums and private collections have been brought and put on display.

An exhibition on Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1791, organised under the auspices of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and other museums and institutions in Europe and the United States, is currently (28 July 2007 to 28 November 2007) being held at Pallazo Ducale in Venice. The exhibition focuses on the multifaceted relationship between Venice and the Islamic world over a period of nearly a thousand years. The exhibition is the fruit of collaboration between scholars and curators from various institutions in Europe and the United States and is promoted by the Venice City Council. Nearly 200 exhibits are on display at the exhibition. These include paintings, sculpture, miniatures, cartography, glassware, metal work, jewellery, carpets, textiles, lamps, ceramics and manuscripts. An illustrated catalogue is published by Marsilio. Some of the important exhibits at the exhibition include the marble and sandstone Throne of Saint Peter, dating from the 9th-11th century, which has an Arabic inscription (now at the Church of San Pietro Castello), a brass astrolabe dating from the 14th century, an illustrated manuscript of the Quran dating from 1537, a printed edition of the Quran dating from 1537-38, a manuscript of Imam Bukhari’s Al-Jami al-Sahih dating from 1529, and a manuscript of the Persian poet Sa’di’s celebrated work Bustan dating from 1530. The other exhibits include vases, bowls, containers, ewers, plates, carpets, candlesticks, perfume-burners, lamps, fabric, chests and shields.

The Jewish Ghetto in Venice

Following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D., Jews lived in wilderness for nearly two thousand years in Europe and other parts of the world. In the Holy Land Christian rulers forbade the Jews to enter or live in Jerusalem. Following the sack of Granada in 1492, a campaign of forcible conversion of Muslims and Jews at the instance of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, with the approval of the Church, was carried out. Those who refused were exiled or executed. About five hundred thousand Muslims and nearly two hundred thousand Jews were expelled from the country. In 1290, during the reign of King Edward I, all Jews were exiled from Britain. It was only after 366 years that they were allowed to return and settle in the country during the time of Oliver Cromwell. Jews were denied citizenship and religious and cultural freedom in much of Europe during the Middle Ages.

Following their forced migration from Spain, thousands of Jews took shelter in Islamic lands, where they were received with open arms. The Ottoman Empire provided a safe haven for the Jews of Mediterranean Europe and the Middle East. Ashkenazis from Germany, France and Hungary, Italian Jews from Sicily and Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal settled in an atmosphere of peace and tolerance in Ottoman domains. Mehmet the Conqueror invited Jews from Anatolia, Salonica and Edirne to settle in Istanbul and offered them special privileges.

In 945 Venice forbade her ships to carry Jews or their merchandise in the eastern Mediterranean. Until the 14th century, Jews were allowed to come to Venice for money-lending activities but were forbidden from settling in the city. They were allowed to settle in the city in 1385. On account of their diligence and business acumen they soon became an inseparable part of the city. During the 15th century the Pope issued a proclamation saying that all Jews should be evicted from European cities. The Venetians, pragmatic as they have been, decided to get around the decree by confining the Venetian Jews to the New Foundry island. They were allowed to visit the city and to carry on trading activities during the daytime but were required to return to their ghetto by the evening. The gates of the ghetto were locked from the outside. When Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797 he put an end to the forced segregation of the Jews and had the locks of the Jewish ghetto destroyed.

Though the Jewish ghetto still exists in Venice, most of the residents have migrated to other cities or are living in different parts of Venice. There are five synagogues, a Jewish museum and a few Jewish shops in the ghetto. The Jewish families living in the ghetto belong to various ethnic groups and speak a variety of languages, including Venetian, Ladino, Judaeo-Arabic, French and German.

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