In the Autumn of 1271, Marco Polo set off from Venice on the long journey east to Kublai Khan’s summer palace at Xanadu on the Mongolian steppe. Polo’s expedition had two objects. The first was to convert the Mongol Emperor to Christianity. This was not as unlikely a proposition as it sounded. There were many Eastern Christians among Mongol ranks; indeed Kublai Khan’s half-brother, Hulagu, had a Nestorian Christian mother. When Polo’s father and uncle, Maffeo and Niccolo, had met the Great Khan three years earlier on their first journey eastwards, the Emperor had shown great interest in the Western form of Christianity, and had given them a letter addressed to the Pope. In this the Khan asked for "a hundred persons of the Christian faith, intelligent men, acquainted with the Seven Arts, and able clearly to prove to idolaters that the Law of Christ was best, and that all other religions were false and nought." The brothers said that if they could provide this, Kublai Khan, and all his subjects, might well convert.
The Khan had also asked the Polo brothers to bring to him what he had heard was the most sacred of all Christian relics: a sample of the holy oil from the lamps that burned at the reputed site of the Resurrection, the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which was widely believed to possess miraculous properties.
The Papal Legate in the embattled Crusader Kingdom of Acre, to whom the Polos had delivered their letter, understood that this was a crucial chance for Christendom. The Mongol Empire ranged from the Euphrates to the Pacific; it was the largest Empire the world had ever seen. If it could be turned into a Christian Empire, then surely the days of Islamic power would be numbered, and the Crusader kingdom saved. So the Legate gave permission for the Polos to take a vial of holy oil East with them, and sent them off with, if not one hundred, then at least with two "intelligent men of the Christian faith," both Friars, who were given extraordinary powers of ordination and absolution.
But the Polos also had a second more hard-headed and less idealistic object in setting off on such a daunting journey to the edge of the known world. For the Polos were not professional diplomats, but instead ambitious Venetian traders. They hoped to use their expedition to make money and bring back solid information about further mercantile possibilities in the East.
Such financial concerns are clearly evident in Marco Polo’s Travels. This celebrated but now little read book is in fact a surprisingly dry and factual guide to the commerce of the mainly Islamic lands through which the Polos travelled: Seljuk Turkey, Ilkhanate Persia, Afghan Central Asia and the Islamic Silk Road cities that edged the Gobi desert, before addressing the trade of China proper and that of Kublai Khan’s great capital of Khan Balik, now Beijing. The Travels contain lists of goods available on the caravan routes, as well as advice on how to overcome the difficulties on the way: where to stock up with provisions, where to keep an eye out for robbers, and how to cross a desert. It is, in short, a book by a merchant for other merchants.
For all the romantic topspin given to the book by Marco Polo's ghost writer, a Genoese troubadour named Rustichello, with whom Polo was later imprisoned in Genoa, and for all that the book was regarded as a compendium of marvels by his amazed contemporaries (hence the name given to some of the manuscripts of the Travels such as Il Milione – a thousand thousand marvels- or Le Livre de Marveilles) Polo's book was in fact intended as an ordinary merchant's manual, and was essentially very similar to other manuals of the same time, such as the Pratica della Mercatura of the Florentine, Francesco Pegolotti. Indeed of its type it is a very fine example.
In the event, the diplomatic side of the Polos expedition was an abject failure. The two Friars got no further than the coast of Asia Minor before fleeing back in panic to Acre, and Kublai Khan never converted to Christianity; instead some of his descendants, as well as all those of Hulagu, became Muslim. But the Polos did succeed quite magnificently in their other object- to come back to Venice with more accurate and detailed information about the trade of the Silk Route than was available at the time from any other source, in either the Islamic or Christian worlds, all of which Polo dutifully recorded in the Travels.
The Polos also made a great fortune, just as they had hoped and planned. According to Gasparo Malipiero, a neighbour of the family, the three travellers arrived back in Venice in rough Tartar clothing with ‘something of the Tartar in their faces.’ Everyone was horrified, but the three men went home and changed into new robes, gave presents of cloth to their servants, and put on a banquet for their relatives. At the climax of the feast they stood up and in full view cut open their old rags, revealing a mass of huge jewels sewed into the lining of their rough travelling clothes.
Remarkably, the gist of this story has recently been confirmed by radiocarbon datings from archaeological excavations of the old Polo property in Venice. These showed that the house was extensively rebuilt at the very time of Marco Polo’s return, indicating that he soon invested at least some of his massive trading profits in rebuilding and extending his family mansion.
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Given what Marco Polo symbolises for Venice--even its airport is named after him--it is entirely appropriate that the first exhibit one comes across in the wonderful new show at the Metropolitan Museum, Venice and the Islamic World 828-1797--as well as the exhibition’s poster and the cover of its catalogue--is a magnificent 15th century full page illumination from the Bodleian Library’s copy of the Travels entitled Marco Polo’s Departure from Venice. The three Polos, dressed in their pink merchant’s attire, can be seen leading a group of Venetian dignitaries past the Piazza San Marco along the Riva degli Schiavoni to the docks and the galleon anchored and waiting in the Venetian lagoon. In the lower right hand corner, Marco is seen again, sailing off on his ship, while on the lower left exotic animals--leopards, lions and a bear- prowl the rocky shoreline beyond, indicative of the dangerous, exotic and unexplored regions to which the Polos were heading.
The story of the Polos is a very Venetian one, for throughout the history of La Serenissima, the lure of profits and hard-headed mercantile pragmatism consistently overcome both religious prejudice and political idealism: Pope Innocent II was not the only Pontiff to complain about the way Venice always put its colonial and economic interests over the flag of Christendom. Instead, centuries of Venetian merchants comprehensively ignored intermittent Papal bans on trade with the infidel, even when backed up by threats of excommunication.
For Polo was only one of many tens of thousands of Venetians who sailed East. Century after century, Venice remained the ‘liquid frontier’ between Islam and Christendom. Indeed as for much of its history it had no substantial land empire, its commercial viability entirely depended on links with the East: the history of Venice, as the exhibition well demonstrates, is a history of fortunes made through trade with the Middle East and the wider Islamic world. One Venetian diplomat put very simply the symbiotic position of Venice vis a vis the Muslims: "Being merchants," he wrote, "we cannot live without them."
Nor did they attempt to. Venice concluded important trade agreements with Muslim Grenada, the Emirs of Morocco and the rulers of Seljuk Turkey. But the Venetian’s closest and most lucrative ally and trading partner was always the Cairo-based Mamluks- the same regime whose armies, under Sultan Baibars (an ex-slave once allegedly returned to the slave market on account of his unusual ugliness) were in the process of snuffing out the last enclaves of the Crusaders on the coast of Palestine even as the Polos set off on their journey to the Great Khan.
Indeed one of the principal motives for the Venetians diverting the Fourth Crusade from attacking Muslim Egypt to storming Christian Constantinople in 1204 was to protect the extensive trading privileges that Venice enjoyed with the Mamluks: at the very moment the Venetian Doge Dandolo was negotiating with the Crusader leaders about the price to be paid for transporting them to the East, a group of his Venetian diplomats were in Cairo planning a trade agreement with the Sultan and promising him that Venice would never countenance an expedition against Egypt.
So close did the relationship between the two trading partners become that to some extent the Mamluks depended on Venetian naval strength to protect their coastline, while in return the Venetians reserved 45% of all their investment in overseas commerce for the Mamluk trade. Both the Egyptians and the Venetians were merely the Mediterranean middle men in a far wider trading network that transported the spices and luxury products of India, China and the Far East to the emerging cities of Northern and Western Europe; but in the process both groups creamed off the massive profits which filled both Cairo and Venice with the fine buildings which can still be admired in both today.
In the face of frequent Papal anathemas, the Venetians continued to sell the Mamluks metals- especially gold, silver, tin and lead- woollens, linens, furs, coal and, somewhat surprisingly, hats. In return they carried to their wharfs and piazzas a huge range of spices, especially pepper, as well as pigments, pearls, precious stones and damasks. They also brought back thousands of the dazzling art objects with which this remarkable exhibition is so richly filled: luxurious carpets and velvets, gorgeous silk brocades and glass, porcelain and gilded bookbindings, illuminated Persian manuscripts and inlaid metalwork.
Diplomatic missions between Venice and the Mamuks were common: the first room of the exhibition shows a wonderfully rich wall-size canvas of a Venetian embassy arriving in Damascus in 1511. The emissaries line up in their belted black robes and ermine against the backdrop of the great Ummayad Mosque and the projecting wooden kiosks, flat roofs and latticed windows of the Old City. Here they wait in line as their leader presents his credentials to the ruler like some pre-modern Nancy Pelosi, except that the ruler of Damascus then wore far more exotic fan-like headware (known apparently as the "waterwheel turban") than is usually favoured by Bashir Asad, and Nancy Pelosi is not known to have travelled to Damascus bearing large numbers of Parmesan cheeses, which seem to have been the diplomatic gift most eagerly favoured by 16th century Mamluk governors; (nor indeed was she given in return "chickens, sweetmeats and watermelons" as her Venetian counterparts once were.)
To help facilitate this mutually beneficial trade, there were permanent Venetian consulates and large Venetian communities in all the principal Mamluk trading cities- not just Cairo, but also Alexandria, Damascus and Aleppo (as well as, later in the Ottoman period, Salonica, Bursa and Istanbul.) Here visiting Venetians could find lodging, food, a church and even a public bath.
It was customary for young Venetian noblemen to be sent off to spend their teenage years learning both Arabic and Persian, as well as the business of trade, in the Venetian trading settlements in the Levant and a number of Venetian doges, such as the longest reigning of all, the fox-like Doge Francesco Foscari (r. 1423-57), were actually born and grew up there. Doge Andrea Gritti (r. 1523-1538) fathered three illegitimate children in his youth in Istanbul, one of whom later became the close friend of Suleyman the Magnificent’s Grand Vizier, Ibrahim Pasha. It was in this way that a remarkable number of Arabic loan words (as well as some from Persian and Turkish) entered Venetian dialect, including, significantly, the Venetian term for their gold ducats- zecchino- from the Arabic, sikka, a mint. By the same route much Islamic culture, philosophy, science, technology, as well as more mundane recipies and remedies, tastes and ideas, all passed Westwards through the mouth of the Venetian lagoon.
Inventories and wills left by these merchants show the degree to which they came to acclimatise themselves to their lives in the heart of the Muslim world: as well as objects clearly brought from home such as harpsichords, "a songbook with all the sonnets of Petrach on parchment" and "a wardrobe from Padua painted in chiaroscuro for storing cloth," many more are clearly of Levantine origin and indicate the trans-cultural and assimilated life lived by these Venetian expatriates: inlaid Islamic inkwells, pen boxes, pomanders and scales were all of local manufacture, as were the much-prized Mamluk carpets that Venetian craftsman tried and failed to imitate.
The later wills are also full of many items of Arabic dress which the Venetians explicitly asked to be allowed to wear in a treaty renegotiated with the Mamluks in 1442. According to the exhibition catalogue, a pair of long bright orange silk Mamluk underdrawers once worn by a Venetian merchant apparently survive in Brussels, though these historic longjohns were not, alas, on show in the Met.
Specialist art historians have long been writing about the ways that Venice introduced Muslim ideas and material culture to Europe, most recently in Deborah Howards magnificent Venice & the East, reviewed in these pages by Hugh Honour [volume 49, number 17, November 7th 2002.] Howard pointed out in particular the debt Venetian architecture owed to that of the Mamluks: even the great Doges Palace was closely modelled on a Mamluk palace in Cairo, while the intricate and distinctive key pattern on its outer façade appear to be derived from the brickwork on Seljuk Turkish tombs and mosques. Many other major Venetian public buildings such as the Basilica of San Marco and the Fondaci del Tedeschi and dei Turchi, as well as hundreds of smaller houses and palaces, show the unmistakable influence of the Islamic world in their ogee windows and latticed grilles, their rooftop platforms and covered balconies, their crenelations and their courtyards, as well as in a more generalised love of colourful and elaborate ornament and sculptural panels.
The Met exhibition could not, of course, include architecture in its survey, at least other than in paintings and photographs, but it makes up for this with a really astonishing display of moveable objects: never before has it been possible to see so many beautiful Islamic art works brought back by Venetian merchants from East- and to see them immediately beside the objects they inspired on arrival in La Serenissima.
In some cases, Venetian craftsmen worked hard to produce straightforward copies of Islamic objects: amazingly close imitations of Islamic inlaid metalwork were being made from the 11th century onwards. More remarkably, the entire Murano glass industry, the quintessential Venetian art form which thrives to this day, was born from imported Arab technology and began by slavishly reproducing Fatamid and Mamluk designs, motifs, shapes and jewel-like colours- so much so that earlier generations of scholars wrongly believed much early Venetian work, especially that in enamelled glass, to be imported from Syria and Egypt.
One exquisite piece of Ayyubid painted glassware on show, formerly from a Venetian collection, shows Christ entering into Jerusalem on the back of an ass, with depictions of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock, all in an entirely Islamicate style. It remains unclear whether the piece was of Christian Arab manufacture; or perhaps was intended for visiting pilgrims or for export to Christian Europe; or whether quite simply, as the cabinet text notes "the decoration reflects a cultural milieu remarkably unfettered by religious boundaries."
In other cases, the influence is more subtle: Islamic textiles clothe Renaissance virgins in sumptuous brocades and damasks; madonnas stand holding the infant Jesus in velvets fringed in kufic and skirted by borders of palmette and pomegranate patterns. Mamluk carpets with their rich reds, greens and blues, adorn the floors, walls and even the tables of Venetian family portraits.
Moreover, this influence was two-way flow of tastes and influences--a pragmatic interpenetration and dialogue of civilisations: even as Venetian silks came to be fashionable in Ottoman Turkey--as the catalogue notes, "surprisingly few of the fabrics or imperial caftans preserved in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul were manufactured in Turkey; many can be identified as Italian,"-- so Islamic silks from Bursa were commonly being used for eccleciastical vestments in Venice: the exhibition highlights a spectacular silk chasuble decorated with designs of slim cedar trees resembling those in the finest Iznik porcelain.
Venetians also imported the latest in Islamic technology, as the fabulously intricate fourteenth century Mamluk astrolables on show demonstrate; long-forgotten ancient Greek authors also reappeared via translations from the Arabic. Yet increasingly, from the 17th century onwards, the Venetians also exported their new discoveries Eastwards: the first printed Koran emerged not from an Arab but a Venetian printing press.
Indeed the whole exhibition can be read as a subtle rebuke to those who like to see the relationship between the Christian and Islamic world exclusively and simplistically in terms of jihads and crusades, clashes, violence and destruction. There were certainly many belligerent interludes; but it was clearly a more complex and multifaceted relationship than this, with contact propelled partly by pragmatism and partly by mutual interest; by the fascinated admiration of scholars and the plagiarism of craftsmen; and by friendship and rivalry, as well as by diplomatic manoeuvring and war. Indeed as Deborah Howard argues in one of her two notably thought-provoking contributions to the catalogue:
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