The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Venice and the Middle East

Yesterday I went to the Met to see this exhibit on "Venice and the Islamic World." While not perfect, the show was facinating. Did you know the first Koran was printed in Venice in 1537? Or that Venetians learned the art of glass-blowing from the Arab world, Syria in particular?

There are many examples throughout the exhibition of the ways in which craftsmen in Venice and Muslim countries imitated each other's work, competed, and at times produced strikingly similar objects. There are also examples of the kinds of luxury items (and I mean LUXURY: we're talking robes embroidered with gold, linen boxes made of crystal) that Venetians traders brought to and from the Middle East.

It was impossible not to think of these by-gone trade routes as terribly romantic and surprisingly cosmopolitan--the show reminded me of Amitav Gosh's "In An Antique Land," a wonderful book that partly traces Gosh's research into the Indian Ocean trade and into a family of Arab Jewish merchants who lived between Tunisia, Egypt and India (it also gives a wonderful portrait of Gosh's life in a small Egyptian village).

And although there wasn't nearly enough Venetian painting in the show, the canvases, illuminated manuscripts and portraits (many Sultans commissioned Venetian painters to portray them), also reminded me of Orhan Pamuk's "My Name is Red," a great novel that deals with the crisis in the world of Ottoman miniaturists provoked by the encounter with Renaissance painting.