Orientalism in Venetian Art

My daughter is studying for a Master’s degree in Germany. She’s at the University of Marburg which has a long history in the subjects of philology and language. Lucy’s degree is in comparative German and French linguistics. She studies the development of language and how it changes over time, amongst other things. Recently she was assigned the book ‘Orientalism’ to read and consider. The book was written in the 1970s by Edward Said. It’s regarded as very important in explaining how ‘westerners’ developed a view of the ‘east’ from the Crusades onwards. A relationship that has always been one of distrust and fear.

This got me thinking about Venice, my favourite city on Earth and how Venice traded with the east from the 11th century onwards. Venice developed a way of trading with the ‘Orient’ in a way that respected their differences and tolerated any cultural confusions. These are casual notes to my daughter….

Here’s what I said….

Hi Lulu,

Thinking about ‘Orientalism’ and the Edward Said book, I came across the paintings of Gentile Bellini (Venice) 15th century. Bellini was from a painting family. His brother Giovanni (possibly more famous today than him) although at the time in the 15th century Gentile was the more esteemed of the two. He was sent by the Venetians on a diplomatic mission (to Istanbul) as part of a charm offensive to butter up the Turks (Ottomans). The reason for this was that the Venetians controlled many of the Eastern Mediterranean trade routes and it was very important that they had good access and good relations with Constantinople, Eastern Med, Alexandria (Egypt), Coastal Syria, Lebanon and of course (nearer to home) Greece and Dalmatian Coast (Croatia and Montenegro). When Bellini was in Constantinople he painted this portrait of Mehmet II (Ottoman leader) at that time. The first image is slightly colour-enhanced to show the richness of the frame and the opulence of the ‘treasure chest’ in the foreground.

Gentile Bellini The Sultan Mehmet II 1480 Oil (19th-century repaint) on canvas, perhaps transferred from wood, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG3099

Bellini also painted this amazing masterpiece below (so detailed and exceptional). You may have seen this when you went to the Accademia. Title:  Miracle of the relics of the true cross at San Lorenzo (Venice) – 1500 – this painting has been recently restored. The lucidity of the water and the ghost like, ethereal characters (angels?) swimming in the water are almost magical in quality.

Accademia - Miracolo della reliquia della Croce al ponte di San Lorenzo - Gentile Bellini
Accademia – Miracolo della reliquia della Croce al ponte di San Lorenzo – Gentile Bellini

Gentile Bellini is credited with introducing ‘the oriental image’ into Venetian Art and narrative. For example – painting men in turbans, eastern clothing and featuring eastern architecture….

Eastern Architecture already existed in Venice – Basilica di San Marco is very oriental, with its multiple domes and intricate carved stone work and mosaic decorations – you could compare it with the Blue Mosque in Istanbul or The Church of Hagia Sofia – also Istanbul. Two more examples of works by Bellini with a decidedly Eastern flavour…………Firstly (below) this is St Mark (patron saint of Venice) preaching in Alexandria (during his life time – roughly contemporary with Jesus)………………..Although the painting is a medieval rendition of a Biblical subject. 1504-1507 (Brera Gallery, Milan)

St Mark Preaching in Alexandria - Gentile Bellini 15th century
St Mark Preaching in Alexandria – Gentile Bellini 15th century – Brera Gallery, Milano
Accademia - Procession in piazza San Marco by Gentile Bellini
Accademia – Procession of the True Cross – Piazza San Marco by Gentile Bellini – 1496. Accademia Galleria, Venezia

Secondly the painting of the Procession of the True Cross through Piazza San Marco – demonstrating the importance of Christianity at the heart of the Venetian Republic, whilst at the same time showing the mosque-like Basilica of San Marco in the background.

General point – the Venetians were instrumental in the Crusades and the fight by the morally superior (they believed) Westerners to reclaim the Holy Land from the Eastern Menace (Turks, Ottomans and other non-Christians). Much of the painting and art in Venetian churches was designed to reinforce the legitimacy of the Crusaders. There’s also an assumption here of an automatic right on behalf of Christians to seize all relics associated Christianity.

In the painting of St Mark preaching in Alexandria (Egypt) a large group of turbaned gentlemen are depicted on the right hand side of the painting. Whilst on the left the bishops and cardinals of the Christian church are shown. A selection of veiled ‘innocents’ are centre stage. I wonder if this mirrors the tradition in ‘Last Judgement’ scenes to present Paradise on the left of the image and Hell or Inferno on the right. A curious convention. What’s even more interesting is this effort through ‘narrative’ to refocus Christian history westwards to Italy – especially Rome (HQ of Roman Catholic Church) and Venice (Patron Saint St Mark) as legitimate trading partners with ‘the east’…….The more I think about this the more interesting it becomes.

Venice at the height of her territorial expansion controlled all of the Eastern Mediterranean including Corfu, Crete and Cyprus. Venice briefly controlled Istanbul (although not for long) that was too much of a stretch.

Repubblica di Venezia - extent of Venetian territories 15th and 16th centuries
Repubblica di Venezia – extent of Venetian territories 15th and 16th centuries

History is fascinating – through the study of history we learn about human behaviour, trade and territorial expansion.

Happy Thinking! Have a great day Lulu,

Love Mum xx


Susan Rennie (Sue) commented on the Bellini painting ‘Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo’ (c. 1500) by artist Gentile Bellini – so here’s a little more information:

The picture is rich in detail and shows a procession day when the ‘relic of the true cross’ donated to the Venetians in 1369, accidentally falls into the canal. Immediately various people jump into the water to rescue this priceless relic. However the honour of retrieving the cross goes to the hero of the hour Andrea Vendramin who just happens to be from a very noble Venetian family and is also boss man of the Guild (Scuola) who had commissioned the painting in the first place. The lady on the left (front of painting in green velvet and gold) is thought to be Caterina Cornaro – Queen of Cyprus. Whilst the gents on the right are thought to be high ranking members of the guild and possibly a pair of Bellini brothers! The woman on the right of the painting, at the side of the canal appears to be ‘encouraging’ her Moorish slave to jump into the water to retrieve the cross.

Miracle of the relic of the (true) cross at San Lorenzo – Gentile Bellini c. 1500 – Accademia Gallery, Venice

March, 2021

9 thoughts on “Orientalism in Venetian Art

  1. As always a very interesting read. Guess Lucy(Lulu) is following in Mums footsteps.
    I have seen the Bellini painting in Academia. It is brilliant, so much to spot (just lacks a bit of washing on a line!)
    Over on the right hand side there is a ledge with a black man on it, he looks as if he is just about to enter the water, or is the girl behind him about to push him? i have been taking a closer look in my book on Italian Art. he is wearing
    only shorts, am guessing he would be a slave? What do you make of it, Surely a slave wouldn’t just dare to jump
    into the water when there is something so special taking place?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are so sharp eyed Sue! Quite right the slave is being encouraged to jump into the water by his ‘mistress’ however the hero status goes to Andrea Vendramin (from a very noble Venetian family) to actually retrieve the relic.


  2. Yet again your excellent combination of erudition, historical knowledge, art, descriptive writing and general interest leaves me speechless, Janet – an outcome which greaty pleases my Wife!
    well done. I always look forward to your postings. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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