Saturday, May 05, 2007

Venetian Khichdi

Just came back from a wonderful exhibition at the Met called Venice & the Islamic World: 828-1797, a truly eye-opening (for me) look at the range and breadth of Venice's trading contacts with the Eastern Mediterranean, and the artifacts, textiles, and objets d'art that testify to the extent to which that which passes for the "clash of civilizations" obscures and conceals the nature of cultural exchange, influence, and even misunderstanding and violence. The curators (both at the Met and at the exhibition's first home at Paris' Institut du Monde Arabe, ) are to be commended for a magnificent job here (as is the helpful commentary by John Julius Norwich and more specialist scholars), as the influence on each other of Venice; and the Mamluke sultanate, the Ottoman Empire, and even the Safavids of Iran, are illustrated in a variety of ways. The preferred mode is juxtaposition, and examples of glassware, bookbindings, and metalwork from the Near East (some impossibly delicate work by the master metalworker Mahmud Al-Kurdi is included) are set beside pieces by Venetian imitators, the latter developing a distinctive style with time, and in the case of glassware eventually replacing Near Eastern dominance with transporting glasswork. The true standout object on display is a pair of gilded miniature doors, inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones, including lapis lazuli reminiscent of nothing so much as the sky -- I moved on, but didn't want to (you can see a picture here, although photography does not begin to do justice to the doors' otherworldly opulence). And let's not forget the magnificent paintings, by Bellini (the famous portrait of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II is part of the exhibition), Carpaccio, and Veronese (represented by the propagandistic, cluttered, and riveting Allegory of the Battle of Lepanto).

The exhibition does not preach so much as demonstrate the problem of drawing lines between "East" and "West", not simply in the context of literature and philosophy but even where ordinary objects (albeit expensive ones) are concerned: beakers, carpets, books, and scabbards, especially when the place in question is Venice, dependent on maritime trade for its very lifeblood, and with an appropriately easygoing outlook vis-a-vis its Muslim trading partners, at least until Ottoman hegemony imposed greater strain on the relationship. Indeed I found myself wishing for more objects from the seventeenth century and after, as hostilities led to changes in the way Arabs, Turks, and other Near-Easterners came to be depicted in Venetian art, and not for the better -- although the massive (and arresting) wood sculpture of a naked Turk in chains from the ship of Venetian naval hero Francesco Morosini makes the point forcefully enough.

In sum: if you're in the vicinity (and even if you're not), I highly recommend the exhibition.

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