Dodge’s Palace: Witness of Islamic influence on Venetian monuments
Europe is a continent of stunning medieval palaces. Of the few that I have had the fortune to step into, the two really mind-blowing are the Schonbrunn in Vienna, and Dodge’s Palace in Venice. For serious art and architecture lovers, it would take weeks to really appreciate each one in its details. In this column, I shall write about what really surprised me at the famous Dodges Palace: the deep Islamic influence in its fascinating architecture. And soon, with a little bit of study into the subject, one realizes that it’s not only the Dodge’s Palace, the influence of Islamic architecture are all around it. From the clock tower to the basilica.
Architectural orientalism in Dodge’s Palace
Known as Palaso Dogal in Venitian, this palace was built in 1340. As the residence of the ‘Dodge’ or Duke of the republic of Venice. Over the next several centuries the palace was repeatedly extended, decorated, and rebuilt. It was turned into a museum in 1923. Today you may step into the palace from Venice’s famous St. Marks Square. It is not within the scope of this piece to dwell at length on its different portions, each worth several pages. Instead, I shall promptly turn to how Islamic art was incorporated into its architectural design and those of other tourist destinations around it.
Noted scholar Enrico Bonamano has termed this influence as “architectural orientalism”. Let’s first take the Dodge’s Palace. As you stand on St. Marks Square and face the palace, its beautiful façade actually incorporates Islamic architectural designs. The lovely merlons, i.e. the solid vertical part parts between the crenels, which give the façade much of its beauty are borrowed from distinct Islamic architectural styles. They have an uncanny resemblance to the merlons of Cairo’s Ibn Tulun Mosque.
Again, note that the Dodge’s Palace despite being the residential palace of Venice’s supreme ruler is complete without any fortification. This is truly unusual for any palace. According to Cambridge University architectural historian Deborah Howard, the Venetian envoy Nicolo Zen borrowed this unusually bold architectural plan from Islamic buildings after he visited Cairo in 1344. There he saw the Aiwan al-Kabir, the hall of justice, and the Citadel Mosque of Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad.
The exterior of the palace
The exterior design of the Dodge’s Palace bears striking resemblance to these Egyptian buildings. There are more oblique and not-so-visible influences as well. As you go upstairs one of the most beautiful chambers in the palace is the Shields Room, meant for visiting envoys’ meeting with the Duke. The walls are befittingly covered with giant, vividly colored maps of the Mediterranean, Italy, and Arabia. These maps were drawn much later by the 16th-century geographer Giovanni Battista Ramusio. Researchers have revealed that in these drawings he used numerous Muslim sources, including maps by the 13th-century prince Abu al-Fida.
So much for Dodge’s Palace, let us take a quick look at two of Venice’s most visited destinations. To your left will be the unmistakable Torre dell Orologio, the clock tower, built-in 1498. And in it, you can’t miss, is a huge blue zodiac dial. Only by studying the design of the dial would you know that this was certainly influenced by the clock face in al-Jazari’s treatise on robots. Al-Jazari was a late 12th and early 13th-century polymath from Mesopotamia.
The Islamic influence in the basilica
Then of course there is the famous St. Mark’s Basilica, one of Venice’s great monuments. The Stone window grilles of the basilica resemble the decorative tracery found very commonly in several Islamic religious monuments. The interior of the basilica’s atrium is decorated with large Biblical mosaics. These mosaics depict scenes of banquets as well as miracles, and scenes of camels crossing deserts. Historian Deborah Howard informs us these were modeled on similar scenes in illustrated Arabic texts such as al-Hariri’s Maqamat and the Persian epic, the Shahnama.
So, while Venice has always been known as a major European city, which played a major role in Europe’s maritime history, it was really built and developed borrowing achievements of the Islamic world.
(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)