(On the Aesthetics of Architecture: Venice and Islam: A Dialogue Between Two Cultures (Examining Venice’s Trade-links with the Eastern Mediterranean). Analyzing the Islamic Influence on Venetian Gothic Architecture of the Ducal Palace in Venice, Italy, through the works of 19th century British Architect, John Ruskin.)
“We may be pretty sure that this building is a good one: none but a master of his craft would have ventured to do this,” John Ruskin, Stones of Venice. The Doge’s Palace was the center of power in the Venetian Republic between 1100-1500. John Ruskin, a famous nineteenth century British art critic, saw the most heavily Eastern ornament in the Doge’s Palace in Venice. “The Doge’s Palace contains Arab elements…it is the central building of the world” (Ruskin). Ruskin’s lacey language in his writings in Stones of Venice is a seduction of La Serenissima; it describes how the serenity of Venice is wed to the social, political, and economic influences from trade-links along the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Venetian Republic opened a European door to the Islamic territory, resulting in a reciprocal and mutual relationship between the East and West. Without Muslim trade, Venice would not have existed; it would have dissipated into a poor mercantile community. At the height of its Empire, Venice dominated the Mediterranean as a prosperous mercantile commerce from the 12th through 16th century. With the exchange of ideas and commodities with the East, Venice began to develop its architectural significance as the merchants began to build the Venetian Gothic style. This emergence was not just an architectural innovation, but also had profound social and historical significance in Venice’s rise to power.
Venice gained power as a city through their mercantile trade with the East– for unlike the rest of Italy, they were able to look past the religious differences and were able to see the relationship as a business opportunity. Venice’s relative isolation from mainland Italy aided in its connections with the Byzantine Empire and then later with the Islamic world. Exchanges with the Eastern Islamic territory transformed a mercantile community into a highly individual culture, possessing unique characteristics of Islamic architecture.
Venice’s relations with the Eastern World were concerned, above all else, about doing business. The Venetians were not concerned about religious and cultural differences being an issue, for they were far more interested in building up the wealth of their Empire. Impeding foreign religions did not pose any threat to a city that was already on the brink of nothing. Venice’s widespread use of open colonnades and loggias in their architecture resulted from their open relationship with the East. There was no need to build a defense system when no reason existed for Venice to do so in the first place. The Adriatic was a gateway to the Middle East; “it gave Muslims a taste of Europeans as people to do business with.” Although the Venetians did not want anything to do with Eastern religion, it was only inevitable that in a matter of time the influence of Islamic architecture would make its way into the minds of traveling Venetian merchants and builders.
The minds of Venetian Gothic builders helped to shape and form Venice from a city of mercantile trade into a city of glory and power that resulted from relations with the East during a time that the rest of Italy was not willing to do so. Ruskin acknowledges that the Venetians sympathized to the full with the great instinct of the Eastern races “…while the North was building their dark streets and grisly castles of oak and sandstone, the merchants of Venice were covering their palaces with porphyry and gold” (Ruskin). It has been said that Ruskin’s Venice is “an infinitely suggestive sort of dream” and after more than a century, he still better captures than anyone else the strangeness of Venice, the veiled emanation of privacy. The Eastern Islamic World and Venice created a dialogue between two cultures, and through Ruskin’s book, Stones of Venice, he makes discernible declarations in examining Venice’s trade links with the Eastern Mediterranean that not only shed light on the architectural influences of the time, but also the social, historical, economic, and cultural exchanges that occurred.
Venetian merchants would go along the trade routes from Venice down into the Eastern Mediterranean and stop along places such as Cairo, Israel and throughout the Islamic East. Not only would they bring back business and trade, but they also brought back a wealth of architectural knowledge that they obtained while on these trips.
In Stones of Venice, 19th century British art critic, John Ruskin, revives the Gothic architecture of Venice which he believed peaked at the height of its empire during the 13th century. He is able to make meaning of Venice’s past in a way that is different from other architectural critics. He guides the audience to see the relation of two things differently, being the Medieval West and East. The analysis of Venetian architecture in Ruskin’s book takes a social-historical account which works as “a guide book, a technical manual, an art criticism, and a philosophy” (Ruskin). Ruskin’s work requires statu pupilaris, or freedom of thought, while bridging the connections between the Islamic East and West– which Ruskin webs together with lacy language in his book. As far as John Ruskin is concerned, the most distinguishable influences of Islamic architecture in the city of Venice are seen best through analyzing the arches, doors, and windows of the Gothic buildings
Ruskin was a critic of architectural aesthetics, conscious of Eastern and Western trade, and challenged the means behind the Venetian Gothic builders, their materials, and methods. He believed that the greatest distinctive character of the style lay in the minds and hearts of the workmen who built it” (Ruskin). Artists begin not with a visual impression but with his idea or concept, this concept comes from other pictures which Ruskin believed lied behind the minds and imaginations of Venetian Gothic builders from their cultural and social exchanges with the East. Much of the architectural influence present in Venice was first filtered in the East. Words such as “fondaco” (trading post), “doana” (customs hall) and “arsenal” (dockyard) are Islamic in origin as is the profile of Venetian arches.
To be able to recognize the Islamic Influences in Venetian Architecture, it is first helpful to take a social, historical, and cultural account in understanding Venice’s allegiance to both worlds. As a social function, the Venetian form of Islamic architecture “cannot be divorced from its purpose and the requirements of the society in which the given visual language gains currency.” The most pertinent Venetian buildings in showing this influence are the Doge’s Palace, Ca d’ Oro, San Marco, and other principal Gothic palaces. With a foundation in understanding the cultural, historical, and social of Venice as the tie between the East and the West, it is easier to distinguish the distinctive Gothic architecture of Venice.
Ruskin’s critical analysis of Venetian architecture focuses on how the aesthetic influences came in to the city during throughout the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries, paying special attention to the Islamic influence over Venice’s architecture, as the merchants traveled and worked to employ their “spirit of the Gothic.” If resemblance is reflective, then Venice’s emulation of Islamic culture speaks best through the social-historical exchanges that occurred between the Medieval West and Eastern Empire. With such trade of goods came shares of architectural exchanges–such influence as seen in the style of Venetian Gothic Architecture. Venetian Gothic Architecture is the product from trade between the Venetians and Mamluks beginning in the thirteenth century; diplomatic ties were strengthened as both empires continued to profit from the exchange of materials and goods as well as artistics styles, techniques, and architecture.
Ruskin’s Venice is a parable, “…he saw it as a figure of civilization betrayed- he deduced particular moral reasons for the fall” (Ruskin). Ruskin was a Christian and at the time of Venice which he analyzed, the majority of Venetians were all Roman-Catholics. However, Ruskin was able to draw upon Venice’s Islamic connections from his awareness of Eastern Orientalism. His critique is a historical instrument that recognizes a new organization of Venice’s architectural history and its ties to the Eastern Islamic culture. He provides some of the “richest examples of architecture raised by a mercantile community” (Ruskin). Ruskin’s thoughts and ideas had monumental impact that transformed the historical account of Venetian architecture into a philosophy of Venetian Gothic. It was the first time an art critic had the ability, mental capacity, and mindset to be able to recognize Venice’s relations with the East in a way that was different from the already obvious Byzantine, Greek, and Roman influences.
Ruskin focuses on the arches of windows and doorways as evidence for his argument because he considers them the “most distinctly traceable” elements of a building. Stone grates were commonly found throughout Islamic architecture throughout the Middle East. For example, the stone grates at the Great Mosque were built around 715 in Damascus, Syria, which are echoed in Venice. In the first half of the 13th century, Venice adopted Islamic emulations and similar stone grates. Among many portals, the most significant are seen at the Porta San Alipio. Aside from the interior qualifications of Venetian Gothic, Ruskin outlines the ways in which to determine whether a building is of a fine Gothic style. “If it has the steep roof, the pointed arch, and gable all united, it is nearly certain to be a Gothic building of a very fine time” (Ruskin).
Arches are a focal point of Ruskin’s interest. The Venetian ogee arch resembles the Gothic style that merchants derived to from the East. Along with boats of silks and spices, the Venetian merchants returned with their minds drenched in new architectural styles to employ across Venice. The ogee arch was used throughout the Islamic World beginning as early as the 3rd century. The arch is distinguishable by culminating to a point while in contrast the Roman arch was rounded. It is characterized by its “double continuous curve and passes from concave to convex.” While the ogee arches are present over a number of portals around San Marco, there are three distinct examples that best exemplify the Venetian ogee arch, all which were incorporated into Venetian Gothic during the first half of the 13th century. At the Capella Zen Chapel in Venice the ogee arch was placed over the window. The Islamic emulation of Islamic arches are again seen in the Porta San Alipio and again at the Porta del Fiore. However, the latter emulation is considered to be a variation on the original ogee arch because it “passes from concave to convex twice before it culminates to a point.” These arches were seen throughout the Middle Empire by Venetian merchants.
The Doge’s Palace was once the center of power in the Venetian Republic. Three prominent architects that influenced Italy were therefore also three elements of the Doge’s Palace: Lombards, Roman, and Arabs, with a strong focus on the latter. Doge’s Palace is of Gothic Style because it fulfills the irregularity test to be Gothic. “The Ducal Palace general idea is sternly symmetrical; but two windows are lower than the rest of the six, and if the reader will count the arches of the small arcade as far as to the great balcony, he will find it is not in the center, but set to the right-hand side by the whole width of one of those arches. We may be pretty sure that the building is a good one; none but a master of his craft would have ventured to do this” (Ruskin).
Ruskin saw the most heavily Eastern ornament in the Doge’s Palace in Venice. “The Doge’s Palace of Venice contains the three elements in exactly equal proportions- the Romans, Lombard, and Arab. It is the central building of the world” (Ruskin). The facade of the Doge’s Palace marks a striking similarity to that of the Mosque of Altinburgha al-Maridani in Cairo, Egypt, built between 1340 – 1510. The resemblance in the facade of the Doge’s Palace from this mosque is seen in the similar styles of the arcades and crenellations. It is one of the most important mosques remaining from the Mamluk Era between 1250 AD – 1527 AD. It left behind a opulent heritage of architecture–combining religious, funerary, educational, and other functions into multifunctional complexes. This is significant because it shows the relations between the Venetians and the Mamluks.
The Doge’s Palace distinctly mirrors the three-tiered merlons modeled on crenellations on Cairo’s Ibn Tulun Mosque. In fact, in some images, it is difficult to tell between the two if it were not for the canals surrounding the Venetian Palace. This is significant because it implies the results from Venice’s trade with Alexandria and Cairo. The similarity is in the stone pinnacles, that “stand like a fence” along the roof of the Doge’s Palace and mirror the crenellations of Cairo’s Ibn Tulun Mosque. Also, the diamond patterns on the palace’s marble facade echoes a mirroring similarity between the Doge’s Palace and the brickwork pattern at the base of the minaret of Bukhara’s famous Kalyan mosque, built around 1170.
Venetian merchants domesticated elements of Islamic architecture by adapting the styles into Venetian homes. This acquisition indicated their success in mercantile trade with the East as well as spread the aesthetics of Venetian Gothic style across Venice. One of the Eastern Palaces that influenced this adaptation was the Amir Bashtak al-Nasiri’s palace because of its distinctive “telephone-dial” motif in the marble decorations. Venice’s palaces were built off of architectural ideas that were brought back from the East in the minds of Venetian merchants.
The love of color is another tie that links Venetians with the Eastern World. According to Ruskin, Venetians and Arabs share their “distinct love for color and principe for color application” (Ruskin). He claims that the true judgement of St. Marks is “the perfection of that color-faculty…for it is on its value as a piece of perfect and unchangeable colouring…to discern the beauty of St Marks. It possesses the charm of color in common with the greater part of the architecture, as well as of the manufacturers of the East…” For the Egyptians, Greeks, Goths, Arabs, and medieval Christians all agree, that “none of them, when in their right senses, ever think of doing without paint, and therefore, when I said earlier that the Venetians were the only people who had thoroughly sympathized with the Arabs in this respect, I referred, first to their intense love of color, which led them to lavish the most expensive decorations on ordinary dwelling-houses; and, secondly, to that perfection of the color-instinct in them, which enabled them to render whatever they did in this kind” (Ruskin). Venice shined superiorly over the North because of its treasures from the East, “…the skill and the treasures of the East had gilded every letter, and illuminated every page, till the Book-Temple shone from afar off like the star of the Magi.”
Before separately coming to know each of the “Mental States of Gothic Mind” it is necessary to come to understand them as a whole. According to Ruskin, the requirement of Gothic Architecture shall “both admit the aid, and appeal to the admiration, of the rudest as well as the most refined minds, the richness of the work is, paradoxical as the statement may appear, a part of its humility, or simplicity. This modesty lied at the heart of the Gothic School– “it is shown not only in the imperfection but in the accumulation of ornament” (Ruskin). Ruskin delineates the style of the Gothic architecture throughout what he referred to as the Mental States of Gothic Architecture. Of all the points that he addresses, he places most emphasis on the Gothic Naturalism because according to Ruskin, there is “no such thing as ‘neutral Naturalism.’” He implies that all thoughts in the mind of the builder had to have been influenced by other styles and in the case of Venice, it was the East. This is how the Venetian Gothic came to be as a distinguished architecture because the Venetian merchants returning from their Eastern trade routes would employ their new architectural visions from the East into the Venetian edifices.
It is no surprise that Islamic architecture and orientalism had a significant influence on the development of Venetian Gothic Architecture. Oriental influences echoed throughout Venice, such as in the churches of San Marco, Doge’s Palace and other Gothic Palaces as well as Eastern influences in Venice’s window panels and crenellations. These venetian buildings are significant because of the way that they resemble Islamic mosques and palaces. Eastern Islamic builders relied heavily on “repetition, rhythmic patterns, fractals, geometric patterns, as well as piers, columns, and arches all interwoven in alternating sequences.” Some of the finest examples being the Hagia Sophia, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and the Taj Mahal in India, for their Islamic domes that had been incorporated into the Western architecture.
Characteristics of Moorish architecture were prominent throughout Venice. Moorish style is characterized by its decoration of “stylized foliage motifs, Arabic inscriptions, and arabesque design work, with walls covered with glazed tile” (Ruskin). In fact, the back of Saint Marks chair is inscribed in Arabic. Ruskin’s book further delineates the Moorish influences such as foliage over the development of Venetian capitals, and so forth. In Venetian Gothic architecture, there is an obvious effort to equal Moorish architecture, which Ruskin refers to as Arabian, being “surely intended” effort.
Alexandria was the major port for Venetian merchants and as such much of the Islamic architecture listens to the Egyptian city. The Domes of San Marco mark a striking resemblance with the City of the Dead in Cairo, Egypt. Venetians used architecture as a social standpoint to build upon against their neighbors of the rest of mainland Italy. Architecturally, the church of San Marco is primarily dominated by Byzantine architecture. However, there are Islamic attributes that have been combined with Byzantine architecture. With the domes being more visible from the water, they emphasized their roles as the center of the city. Venice’s ties with Alexandria began in the 828 when two Venetian Merchants were able to steal the relics of Saint Mark from Alexandria.
The domes, vaults, and minarets became prominent features of Venetian Gothic style. In Mamluk and Venetian architecture their significance was often in the beautification of the city skyline. In the words of John Ruskin:“now we can see a dockyard stretching to the horizon, with flat arches to let the ride through it; – this is the railroad bridge…at the end of those arches there rises, four or five domes, rising over the center of the line, but the object which first catches the eye is a sullen cloud of black smoke brooding over the Northern half of it, and issues from the belfry of a church. It is Venice.”
Vaults and domes were rare in Venice because they required “a more concentrated load distribution” and considering Venetian builders were using materials to support builds that other parts of mainland Italy were using for window decoration says a lot. Open truss roofs were frequently used in church building but vaulting became more common in the Gothic period. Vaults were made secure by timer tie-beams stretched across the nave, such as 15th century Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice. These were often richly decorated as if to conceal their functional purpose. Notable vaulting can also be seen in the 1140 Basilica of Santi Maria e Donato, Murano. Another example can be seen in the architecture of the Courtyard of the Doge’s Palace and the Domes of the Basilica of San Marco, Venice with the Sultan Ahmed Blue Mosque, in Istanbul.
With Cairo being the artistic and intellectual capital of the Near East, it is no surprise that Mamluks architecture significantly influenced Venetian architecture as well. The origin of the pink and white motifs is from the Mamluk culture. Venice acquired the use of white and pink marble facings for they are commonplace among Mamluk tradition. This is seen by comparing Saint Mark the Evangelist, 1260, on the North Facade of Saint Marks with the entrance to Sultan Qaitbay, 1474 AD. It seems as if their use on San Marco as well as other Venetian structures such as Ca’ d’Oro and the Ducal Palace is a great example of how Venice has assimilated Eastern Culture and used it as their own.
Mamluk decoration “especially enameled and gilded glass, inlaid metalwork, woodwork, and textiles- were prized around the Mediterranean as well as in Europe, where they had profound impact on local production. The influence of Mamluk glassware on the Venetian glass industry is one such example.” In Ruskin’s book, he speaks of “the traceries of the windows, which in Northern Gothic only support the glass, at Venice, support the building; and thus the greater ponderousness of the traceries is only an indication of the greater lightness of the structure” (Ruskin).
Venice is a magnificent symbol of oriental prototypes. Finely carved traceries reminisce of Moorish screen walls, and “the lozenge pattern of its marble decoration finds parallels in Persian geometrical wall patterns. These were originally created with brickwork and later with glazed tiles. The crenellation of the Palace’s roofline has, unlike many of its Italian counterparts, no defensive purpose and is instead purely decorative thus showing the clear influence of Islamic models.” Other examples are seen in the detail of the south facade of the Doge’s Palace in comparison to the Kalyan Minaret, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, 12th century.
Saint Mark’s Basilica has always had “an oriental aura to the Western eyes.” Its architecture is a distinct blend of Italian and Eastern elements and echoes of the “great churches and mosques of Istanbul and Damascus.” “The earliest parts of the building belong to the eleventh, twelfth, and first part of the thirteenth century; the Gothic portions to the fourteenth; some of the altars and embellishments for the fifteenth and sixteenth and the modern portion of the mosaics to the seventeenth” (Ruskin).
The outside walls of San Marco were richly encrusted in mosaics, displaying a direct link to the Islamic tradition. They are also “inlaid with fine reliefs and sculptures looted in Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, which blend harmoniously with those created by local artists.The Basilica’s tall cupolas deliberately allude to those crowning contemporary Islamic mausolea in Egypt. They were built in the thirteenth century on top of the existing lower Byzantine domes. The shape of the arches of some of its portals lend the church a distinctly Moorish character. The two at either end of the façade also incorporate grilles in Islamic style.”
In the words of Ernst Gombrich, “All art originates in the human mind, in reaction to the world, and it is precisely because all art is conceptual that all representations are recognizable by their style.” Ruskin saw the Renaissance as the downfall of Venice, for it was “degrading her style and fatally weakening her values…and in the very stones of Venice, he claimed, its moral corruptions could be traced” (Ruskin). If we come to know the future by understanding the past, then Venice was built on Islamic influences. The prosperous wealth that Venice came to be known by is a leading example that results when positive cultural exchanges occur between Western and Eastern worlds.