Venice Looks East

Rose Malloy and Michael Hosler-Lancaster

Fifteenth-century Venice was a global crossroads, dominating trade and transit throughout the Mediterranean. While Venetian kinship and commercial networks connected the Adriatic and Mediterranean worlds, her citizens at home were active and curious consumers of maps in many forms, from practical navigational charts to lavishly decorated maps and images of faraway places, which let even the citizens who never left the city participate in a popular culture which stretched from the Near East to the Americas.  Since the advent of the compass in the thirteenth-century, Venice had been a center of production for portolan charts, navigational maps developed from pilots’ lists of distances and directions, without decoration or inland details, which became increasingly useful as exploration expanded the known world. Maps also connected Venetians with antiquity: Ptolemy’s Geography, first translated into Latin in 1406, provided detailed instructions on how to create projections using latitude and longitude, spurring a new phase of map production on ancient models.  With the advent of print, decorative maps for popular consumption multiplied along with travel accounts of pilgrimages and merchant voyages, costume books, and histories and elegiac poems.  The Ottoman world was a particular focus of Venetian mapmaking and illustration.  Venice had long had stronger cultural ties to the Byzantine world than to Western Europe, so the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 traumatically de-familiarized this pivotal point of cultural reference. Increasingly frequent Ottoman entanglements on the seas led to Venetian commemoration of victories and losses, and spurred an interest in geographical knowledge of the East.

Coelestium Corporum et rerum ab ipsis pendentium accurata explicatio per instrumenta
Giovanni Paolo Gallucci (1538-1621?)
Venetiis: Apud Iacobum Antonium Somaschum, 1605

John Crerar Collection of Rare Books in the History of Science and Medicine

This work of Giovanni Paolo Gallucci includes sophisticated, for the period, astronomical rotulas, or wheels, which could be used to pinpoint the direction of star formations. Tools like these were used to navigate while at sea. Venice’s economic supremacy depended on its extended contact and trade with civilizations to the east of Italy, and thus also on the navigational expertise of its merchant fleet.

Venetia Trionfante
Vicenzo Marostica
In Venetia: Appresso Domenico Farri, 1572

Rare Books Collection

Venice’s position depended on its maintenance of good trading relationships with the cultures of the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, Venice’s self-image was that of a city victorious. Venetia Trionfante (“Triumphant Venice”), a poem attributed to Vicenzo Marostica, tells the story of Venice’s victory over the Ottoman Empire. Marostica likened Venice’s triumph to that of the Greek gods over the Giants and of David over Goliath. The poet ended his tribute to the city by stating that “the names of the warriors, in front of whom the corpse of Muhammad lay fallen, are registered in golden letters in the book of life.”

Liber geographiae cum tabulis et uniuersali figura
Venetiis: Per Iacobum Pentium de Leucho, 1511

Rare Books Collection, Carter Harrison Collection

Liber geographiae cum tabulis et uniuersali figura is a Latin version of Jacopo d’Angelo’s translation of Ptolemy’s Geographie, with notes and commentary by Bernardo Silvano. Early modern cartographers incorporated the geographical knowledge of the New World brought back by explorers with Ptolemy’s ancient descriptions to create images of the globe like this one. Well-known territories around the Mediterranean are illustrated with much more certainty than the New World—what is now North America appears as a mere set of islands.

Habiti Antichi, et moderni di tutto il mondo
Cesare Vecellio (ca. 1521-1601)
In Venetia: Appresso i Sessa, [1598]

Rare Books Collection

Cesare Vecellio, cousin of the artist Titian, published this book depicting “the clothing of diverse nations, which I have assembled and explained.”  Each image is accompanied by an explanatory text. Costume books were popular in Venice during this period; nine were published there between 1540 and 1610, suggesting a city engaged with and curious about other cultures.  Despite differences in faith, the Ottoman Turks are included in the European section of the book—an acknowledgement by Vecellio of their inclusion as geographic “insiders” in European history—while Persian and Arab costumes are delegated to the African and Asian section. 

La geographia
In Venetia: Per G.B. Pedrezano, 1548

Rare Books Collection, Carter Harrison Collection

Like Liber geographiae cum tabulis et uniuersali figura, this is a work of geography based on the writings of Ptolemy, a Greek scholar of the 2nd century CE. Published by Pietro Andrea Mattioli, this work includes some of the astronomer’s work in Italian. A flourishing Venetian interest in mapping out the world, especially as it pertained to exotic locales such as Asia and the New World, was in no small part due to desires to expand trade routes. Venice had regular economic contact with the Ottoman empire in the region of Asia Minor and the civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean due to its extensive trading.