by Roderick Conway Morris

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Venice's Love Affair With Egypt

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE, Italy 9 November 2011
Museo di San Marco, Venice
St Mark Healing the Shoemaker Anianus,
by Paolo Veneziano and his sons, 1343-45



For centuries most of the eastern spices on European tables were traded by Venetians via the markets of Egypt. Along with them came exotic textiles, dyes, glass, metalwork and other fine Islamic goods.

But Egypt itself - Alexandria in particular - was also of enormous religious and mythical significance for the Venetians. For it was from Alexandria that the remains of St. Mark had been hijacked by two Venetian merchants in 828, an event that, in the Venetian mind, came to be seen as the beginning of Venice's rise to power, empire and immense wealth.

The story of this remarkably enduring east-west relationship is related in 'Venice and Egypt,' illustrated by more than 300 paintings, sculptures, artifacts, manuscripts, books and prints at the Doges' Palace.

The exhibition opens with a masterpiece of pre-Renaissance Venetian painting from St. Mark's Basilica: a gorgeous panel, glowing with gold-leaf, divided into 14 sections. It was executed by Paolo Veneziano and his sons Luca and Giovanni in the mid-14th century and vibrantly reflects the fervid devotion the Evangelist's cult aroused in the lagoon city.

The scene of Mark's miraculous healing of the shoemaker Anianus has prominently in the background a great tapering tower, a representation of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. By the time of the panel's painting, the Lighthouse had become in Venice as instantly recognizable a symbol of Alexandria as the Eiffel Tower would become of Paris, immediately establishing the location of the action.

The Lighthouse appears no fewer than six times in the ancient mosaics in St. Mark's Basilica, with other more generalized Egyptian backdrops featuring pyramids, palm trees and camels.

Paradoxically, by the time these images began to appear in Venice, the Lighthouse was in a dilapidated state, so they could no longer have been derived from the reports of returning mariners and merchants. The Lighthouse in the Zen Chapel mosaics in the Basilica is especially close to ancient descriptions and images in classical friezes, for example, suggesting that careful historical research had been carried out to make the Zen version as accurate as possible.

In a section entitled 'The Journey,' the exhibition goes on to explore the golden age of Venetian travel between the 13th and mid-16th century, when the state's galley fleets and merchant ships plied the waters year in and year out, carrying merchants, pilgrims and adventurers, returning with their precious cargoes of spices and other Oriental luxuries. Here the story is illustrated with paintings, maps, navigational aids, antique prints and a splendid 19th-century scale-model of a light galley, with 156 rowers at their oars.

The first formal Venetian trade agreements with the Ayyubid Sultans of Egypt were made in the first decade of the 13th century, to be renewed regularly with their successors, the Mamluks, after 1250, and the Ottomans when they conquered the region in 1517.

Diplomatic exchanges brought to the treasury of San Marco prized pieces, such as two 10th-century Fatimid rock-crystal vessels, refined Islamic metalwork and ancient Egyptian pieces, among the first to reach Adriatic shores since Roman times.

Examples of these are displayed in a 'Treasures, Commerce and Politics' section, along with Arabic and Ottoman documents from the Venetian State Archive, reflecting the continual traffic of communications on commercial and political matters.

The opening by the Portuguese in 1497 of the direct maritime route to the Indies via the Cape of Good Hope did not bring the Egypt-Venice spice trade to a halt overnight. And the Venetians were nothing if not inventive in trying to compensate for this development.

Projects considered with Venice's Mamluk partners included trying to get the suppliers in the Indies to drop their prices to make Portuguese shipping of them unviable, attacking Portuguese ships in the Indian Ocean and digging a canal between the Nile and the Red Sea. But even though the pilgrim trade to the Holy Land remained brisk, the last regular galley fleet sailed to Alexandria in 1564.

Yet contacts with Egypt remained surprisingly lively, as the second half of the exhibition reveals.

The first humanists had been primarily interested in rediscovering ancient Rome and Greece, but their attention was increasingly directed toward ancient Egypt. Deciphering hieroglyphics became something of an obsession with some Renaissance scholars.

In 1505 the Aldine Press published the original Greek text of an ancient guide to the subject, 'Hieroglyphica,' one of a series of books on aspects of Egypt printed in Venice. A number of these key titles are displayed with the first-ever printed Arabic copy of the Koran, typeset in Venice in 1537 and 1538, a concept too ahead of its time to find its hoped-for market in Egypt and other Islamic lands.

Egyptian antiquities had been arriving in Venice since at least the 13th century, but in the 17th and 18th centuries some major private collections were amassed in the city, only to be dispersed after the fall of the republic in 1797. Some notable examples have been brought together for the exhibition from various institutions, as well as prints of interior designs and archeological views by the Venetian artist Giambattista Piranesi, an early connoisseur of Egyptian art.

The closing sections of the show relate the stories of three adventurous travelers, all born on Venice's mainland, demonstrating that Egypt remained a magnet even after the end of the Serenissima. All three left records of their journeys in the form of the antiquities, books, prints, paintings and drawings on show here.

Giovanni Battista Belzoni was born in Padua in 1778. A giant of man, he pursued disparate occupations - barber, hydraulic engineer, would-be monk, antiques dealer and circus strongman - wandering through Britain and Europe until he fetched up in Egypt. In 1816 he became the agent for Henry Salt, an Egyptologist and British consul in Cairo for whom Belzoni set out in search of antiquities. Belzoni's numerous discoveries were to form a cornerstone of the British Museum's Egyptian collection. The colossal head of Ramasses II, which weighs more than seven tons, is still one of the largest pieces at the museum. The sculpture also has been credited with inspiring Shelley to write the poem 'Ozymandias' in 1818. Belzoni died on the way to Timbuktu in 1823.

Scarcely less remarkable was the life of Giovanni Miani, the illegitimate son of a Venetian aristocrat, born of a domestic servant in Rovigo in 1810. Musicologist, author, composer of operas, collector of antiquities, explorer and eccentric, Miani met his end on his last expedition in 1872, having penetrated further south than any other European in search of the source of the Nile.

The exhibition draws to a close with some of Ippolito Caffì's finest paintings, made during his journey to Egypt in 1843 and 1844, among them an enchanting, seemingly timeless view of the beach and sleepy little fishing port of Suez.

The tranquil scene depicted was soon to be swept away, as presaged here by a fantastical bird's eye view from 1864, by the Trieste-born Alberto Rieger, of the 'Suez Canal,' the completion of which in 1869 might be seen as finally bringing the curtain down on Venice's thousand-year special relationship with Alexandria and Egypt.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023