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The Merchants of Venice

The Merchants of Venice

Issue 90 March 2012

Although the Crusades raged, Arub Saqib discovers that the trading interaction between Venice and the Islamic world meant cross fertilisation of ideas and architectural influences continued.


Of all of Europe’s grand Medieval cities, perhaps the one where the influence of the ‘Orient’ is most notable is Venice. Historically, this city was the economic trading centre of the Mediterranean, especially in the 11th and 12th centuries, when the Sultanate of the Ottoman Empire was establishing its global presence. From the 11th to the 16th Century, complex religious and political issues dominated Venetian history, placing the city in an uneasy cultural balance between East and West. Despite the Crusades, Venice tried to maintain good relations with the Muslim world, in the interests of trade.


In Medieval Italy, coming onto the period of the Renaissance, each major city demanded its own sort of architectural monument. The source material of Venice’s monumental works was vast; given the exposure of its peninsula to all the varied, powerful cultures of the Mediterranean world, in particular Byzantium and Islamic.


After the great fire of 1105 destroyed most of Venice’s timber constructed houses, a process of rebuilding was initiated. This expansion of the city was in parallel to the remarkable growth in the use of the Venetian dialect, which is infused with Arab words, even in official documents, where one would expect to find Latin or Greek. An example is the Arabic word for ‘trading post’, funduk, inspiring the Venetian word fondaco. This is the first point of entrance that the Orient made into Venetian architectural identity. The family palace of established traders served not only as the home but also as the headquarters of the merchant’s trading; i.e. a trading post.


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