Venice of the East

2 minute read
Ishaan Tharoor

Every Easter, Venice’s dignitaries board an official boat, sail out into the Adriatic and drop a gold ring into the water, symbolizing by this centuries-old ritual the city’s marriage to the sea. For a long time, the union was a splendid and prosperous one. Thanks to its sprawling trade network, Venice became a wealthy imperial power in the 13th century, its institutions later mimicked by the Dutch and English. The city-state’s mighty fleets patrolled the Mediterranean, while its merchants haggled at the far reaches of the Silk Road, dispatching the wonders of Asia back to an awed Christendom.

Some of the bounty of this intercontinental enterprise is on display at Venice and Islam: 828-1797 — an impressive exhibition being held at the onetime seat of Venetian political power, the Doge’s Palace, until Nov. 25. Chronicling nearly a thousand years of exchanges with Egypt, the Levant (roughly present-day Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Western Syria), the Ottoman and Persian empires and beyond, the collection is as eclectic as the history it charts: ceramics colored with Armenian dyes, embroidered silks and enameled glass, carpets and flowing tapestries, maps and ancient texts, elegant portraits of aristocrats and ambassadors, and daggers and scimitars laden with jewel-encrusted malice.

A few wars notwithstanding, Venice’s relations with Islamic empires were deep and their influence enduring. The city’s world-renowned Murano glass industry employed techniques learned from Anatolian workshops, while Venetian bookbinders and cartographers imitated their Arabic counterparts. One of the exhibit’s showcase pieces — a hallowed marble throne from the Church of San Pietro di Castello in Venice — features a backrest that is actually a tombstone brought from Syria, still inscribed with Koranic scripture. The throne “tells a story,” says curator Stefano Carboni, “of cultures in tune with each other, of mutual understandings.” Venice declined as other European navigators explored and came to dominate the far greater waters of the Atlantic Ocean, but the legacy of its Eastern adventuring still dazzles and inspires. For more details, see www.museiciviciveneziani.it

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com