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The Italian city of Venice was once a maritime empire.

For a thousand years the city-state traded and maintained cultural links with the Islamic world. A new exhibit in Venice illustrates the mutual influence on ideas, customs and culture that flourished in the East-West relationship.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports some people see a lesson for contemporary relations between the West and the Muslim world.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: For many centuries, Venice, the lagoon city, was the liquid frontier between Europe and the Islamic world.

(Soundbite of cheering)

POGGIOLI: The building that perhaps best exemplifies eastern influences is the Doges Palace, fight of the exhibition Venice and Islam.

Mr. MALIDO FULIN(ph) (Architect): Look at there.

POGGIOLI: Architect Malido Fulin points to the crenulated decoration that runs along the top of the Doges palace.

Mr. FULIN: You see some have decoration, which is minaretus(ph), you know.

POGGIOLI: Little minarets.

Mr. FULIN: Yes.

POGGIOLI: Other Islamic examples are the latticed grilles and pointed arches of many Venetian buildings. Economic exchanges between Venice and Arabs, Mamelukes, Persians and Turks were intense, particularly from the 13th through the 15th century. Cultural cross-fertilization was constant.

Looking at the exhibit, it's sometimes hard to say whether a fabric, a glass object or a silver piece had been made in Venice in Islamic style or in an Islamic country for the Venetian market.

Venice sent its best painters to Istanbul to paint portraits of the sultans, while it was the Arabs who taught the Venetians the art of glass making, still today the city's quintessential art form.

Curator Stefano Carboni describes a 15th century painting depicting a baptism by St. Mark, where numerous man wearing large turbans mingle with Venetians.

Mr. STEFANO CARBONI (Associate Curator, Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art): And so we have a beautiful presentation of a Renaissance interior that looks very much Venetian, which is populated by Ottomans and Mamelukes, because that's what Venetians knew was contemporary.

POGGIOLI: She says the turban figures do not project a sense of tension or conflict.

Mr. CARBONI: Actually, they are integrated in these interiors. It's a kind of natural theme.

POGGIOLI: One major piece is the so-called throne of St. Peter, actually a 10th or an 11th century stone slab inscribed with Koranic verses. A surprising item is a copy of the first printed edition of the Koran, produced not from a Muslim, but from a Venetian printing press. And there's a carpet with Jewish symbols belonging to a local synagogue made by Arab craftsmen in Cairo in the 16th century.

Over the centuries, Venice's determination to trade with Muslims, infidels for the Vatican, earned the entire city's excommunication. Nevertheless, Venetian artists had few qualms about blending Islamic styles with Christian themes.

One striking example is a 14th-century painting of a Madonna and child in which her robe is a rich golden brocade embroidered with Islamic decorations.

Venice was also a crossroads through which the science, medicine and philosophy of the Middle East arrived in Europe. One Venetian woman, Josefina Vino(ph), came to the exhibit to seek her city's cosmopolitan past.

Ms. JOSEFINA VINO (Tourist): (Through translator) In order to maintain its supremacy in trade, Venice focused on diplomacy. It was the only European power to maintain permanent representatives in the cities of the Muslim world.

POGGIOLI: Young Venetian noblemen were often sent to the East to learn Arabic, Persian and Turkish, and some Doges were born and grew up in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Muslim merchants set up lodgings and warehouses in Venice. One of the most famous, the Fondaco of the Turks, still stands on the Grand Canal.

Military conflicts with the Muslim world did occur over the centuries, and Venetians even took part in some crusades, but the belligerent parties never cut off diplomatic contacts. And even after defeating the Turks in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, Venice the pragmatic continued to trade with the Ottomans.

Mayor Massimo Cacciari says Venice never tried to impose its values, its religious beliefs, or social system on the Muslim world.

Mayor MASSIMO CACCIARI (Venice): (Through translator) Venice had a strong sense of its identity but at the same it time it recognized the identity and values of other cultures, even when it was in conflict with them. This exhibit shows us that today either we all learn how to live side by side, each with our own distinct identities, or we'll be in permanent conflict.

POGGIOLI: The exhibit lasts until November 25.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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