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Art in Renaissance Venice
Art in Renaissance Venice

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Trade in spices and sugar took Venetian merchants all over the Mediterranean and as far as China.1 Alum, an important chemical in the dying of fabrics, and therefore an important ingredient in the cloth industry on which so many urban centres relied, was imported from Muslim territories and, with sugar, was by far the largest import to the European mainland until the 1460s, when it was discovered in the Papal States at Tolfa. By the fifteenth century the Venetians had established an efficient merchant navy of state-owned galleys, which made regular journeys in convoy throughout the Mediterranean, the Baltic and to Flanders and England. By the 1440s the state convoys left Venice twice a year to Syria and once a year to Tunis, Barbary, the Black Sea, the south of France, Spain, Beirut and Alexandria. Only one of these convoys left the Mediterranean for Flanders and England. In addition, a few pilgrim galleys also went from Venice to the Holy Land every year. The number of sailings does not seem high by modern standards but the size of the Venetian craft and their organisation in convoys meant that they were relatively secure against pirates and other perils. A disadvantage was that the large number of people they had to carry meant that they had to put into port regularly to pick up supplies, another important role for their colonies such as Crete, ideally placed en route for the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

Venice’s trading partners affected not only the city’s economic prosperity but also its cultural identity, making it, as Paul Wood explains in this chapter, one of the most culturally diverse cities in Europe, a fact clearly depicted in many of its paintings. Cardinal Bessarion, who was from Trebizond on the Black Sea and called himself a ‘Greek’, wrote in the document giving his library to the city of Venice that

no place is more suitable, or more appropriate for my fellow countrymen in particular. The peoples of almost the whole world come together in great numbers in your city, but especially the Greeks, whose first port of call as they sail from their own lands is Venice. They have besides a familiar relationship with you; when they put ashore at your city it seems that they are entering another Byzantium. 2

But as this course shows, the use of the term ‘the East’ to describe all cultures east of western Europe can be misleading, simply because it carries with it connotations of the ‘exotic other’ and ignores the fact that Byzantine/Orthodox Christian culture was very different from that of Islamic/Muslim culture.

In this course written by Paul Wood, the influence of the unique cultures of Orthodox Christians, Ottoman Turks and the Mamluk kingdom on Venetian art are discussed in turn. Non-Christian culture was nevertheless kept at arms-length. While Orthodox art demonstrably had fundamental effects on Venetian painting as it was influenced by the intense spirituality of Byzantine and post-Byzantine icons, contact with the Ottoman and Mamluk territories resulted in the more superficial appropriation of motifs, costumes or even the exotic animals the Venetian merchants, diplomats and artists saw on their travels and which are common features of Venetian art.

Carol M. Richardson