The first contacts: from Cleopatra’s charm to the success of St. Mark’s Lion. From the middle of the 8th century, when the rising Abasside Empire that established itself in the new city of Baghdad began losing interest in the sea, Venetian vessels raised their anchors and sailed towards the Orient. The story of the friendly relations between Venice and Egypt, however, began already during the Roman age, as can be testified to by the many findings discovered in the Veneto region and displayed in the exhibition, in a sort of “antecedent section”. The conquest of Egypt by Julius Caesar enhanced the relations between Rome and the Orient and a number of Egyptian artefacts reached and travelled along the coasts of the Adriatic Sea: a few eloquent examples are the Tesoretto tolemico of Montebelluna, the Sphinx’s head from the Archaeological Museum of Verona, the Statuette of Isis from Aquileia as well as the Head of an Isiac priest from the Civic Museum of Trieste or the small bronze statuette of Anubis, dating back to the 1st-2nd century A.D., discovered in Costabissara, in the vicinity of Vicenza. And if Cleopatra and her love-story with Antonius – from which Western interest in Egypt forcefully exploded – are recalled at the beginning of the exhibition by a number of coins depicting the queen and her two Roman captains and lovers, it is the monumental work by Francesco Fontebasso known as The banquet of Cleopatra, from the Terruzzi collection, which – further on in the exhibition – recalls the charm and myth of the Egyptian empress. Extremely old evidence of the contacts between the Venetian area and the Egyptian one, in fact, lies in the legend of Mark the Evangelist, founder of the Church of Alexandria and evangelist of the Tenth Regio, which comprised Venetia and Histria and had its capital in the metropolis of Aquileia. The gift from the Byzantine Emperor Heraclios to the Patriarch of Grado in the year 630, from Alexandria and now immovably kept in the so-called Treasures of Saint Mark of Saint Mark’s Cathedral, also falls under the same tradition: it is from these treasures that some extremely precious works such as the Urn of Artaserse 1st or the Ampulla of the Rams, made in Cairo in the late 10th century, are presented in the exhibition. The figure of St. Mark – elegantly depicted in a painting by Lorenzo Veneziano – thus becomes crucial not only in legitimizing the political independence of the Serenissima, but also in the framework of the thousand-year-old relationship between Venice and Egypt and, in particular, between the Serenissima and Alexandria, from whence a long sea voyage began for the two merchants Bono and Rustico, who carried the Saint’s body to Venice. The multimedia aspects of the exhibition allow the audience to “scrutinize” the details of the mosaics in Saint Mark’s basilica and its stories, to “enter” the canvases of the Gallerie dell’Accademia or the enormous, immovable painting by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini of the Brera Gallery of Milan, whereas the Reliquary of St. Mark, sent especially to Venice by the Vatican Museums, sits beside stunning illuminated scripts and the Pala Feriale by Paolo Veneziano, lent exceptionally for the first time ever by the Marciano Museum: perhaps the most important painting of the entire Venetian trecento period, depicting the various phases of Saint Mark’s story. In the Byzantine tilework chosen as the “trademark” of this event-exhibition, all the symbols of the founding story of this tale clearly stand out: the saint conversing with a merchant, a ship that indicates the sea as the means and place for contacts and relations, the beacon of Alexandria of Egypt – one of the seven wonders of the world, still existing at the time and icon of the Egyptian city – the Arabian buildings, which clearly inspired the architecture of the Palazzo Ducale. The exhibition also recounts the progressive establishment, from 1261 onwards, of the image of the lion as the symbol of the nation of Venice – for centuries connected to Saint Mark only in religious contexts – at precisely the time when Governor Baybars of Cairo, who had a lion in his coat of arms, was nicknamed “the Lion of Egypt”; as a result, bills of entry, coins, the Piecework register of Alexandria, the beautiful Saint Mark’s Lion by Jacobello del Fiore, as well as the Golden Dinar of Baybar, all depicted “his” lion.
Along the route to the East: consuls, ambassadors, merchants and pilgrims. Relations between Venice and Egypt continued all through the Middle Ages: the Eastern route was constantly run, initially by individual merchants venturing away from their country and then later by actual enterprises supported by the Veneto nation, known as mude: convoys of ships that sailed together for greater safety. The wide perspective offered by the exhibition in these sections is truly fascinating: geographic and navigation maps, views of Cairo and of Alexandria – like the extraordinary one by Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg; astrolabes and astronomical globes, also of Egyptian origin, that were used to define geographical knowledge and the vision of the world, the instruments of the time (with the splendid one dating back to 1225 lent by the Museum of Capodimonte); Venetian and Alexandrian coins that made the exchanges possible, with examples of forged pieces, a 4-metre model of a galley, diaries and letters (including the one in Arabic dated January 10th, 1473, sent by the Mamluk sultan to doge Niccolò Tron), merchants’ records, the reports of consuls and ambassadors in charge of negotiating the best deals and protection for all Venetian subjects. And then, original Coptic fabrics – also testified to in the exhibited iconography by Martial in the painting of the Dinner at Emmaus – fragments of extremely old Mamluk pottery, a carpet from Cairo that is almost 10 metres long, lent by the Scuola Grande of San Rocco, a piece that is one of a kind. Huge amounts of exotic goods arrived in Venice and left to markets all over Europe, but the lagoon city also became the favoured haven for pilgrims heading to the Holy Land, such as Saint John the Almsgiver, born in Cyprus and whose remains were transferred to Venice in 1249, celebrated in the exhibition by a painting by Francesco Galizzi da Santacroce, set in the square of Alexandria of Egypt, as well as by the precious pediment of the urn in gilded, polychrome wood. Many are the characters revived by the documents exhibited, as testimony of the mutually strong ties and interests that bound Egypt and Venice who, despite the reiterated papal decrees prohibiting trade between Christians and Muslims, continued to work towards maintaining active and prosperous contacts, even applying for the Pope’s concessions and – if necessary – paying the Apostolic Camera all the “pledges” due.
Imaginary Egypt: the greatest artists of the Veneto tackling the land of Pharaohs. Truly spectacular is the section dedicated to imaginary Egypt, depicted and immortalised by the artists of the Veneto, who approached Egyptian “themes” by representing stories from the Old and New Testament or episodes taken from classical sources. Great masters flow by such as Giorgione, Titian, Bonifacio Veronese, Tintoretto, Paolo Fiammingo, Strozzi, Fontebasso, Pittoni, Amigoni, Piazzetta, Giandomenico Tiepolo – with the complete series of 27 engravings on the Picturesque ideas on the flight into Egypt – up to the Nineteenth century painters such as Molmenti and, especially, Pietro Paoletti, whose grandiose work Death of the first-born of Egypt from the Brera Gallery, restored especially for the exhibition (as were many other pieces) and measuring almost 3 metres in length, is displayed; the work is distinguished by such a degree of philological value in its archaeological detail as to legitimize the hypothesis of a connection with Champollion, the decryptor of Egyptian hieroglyphs. The most represented testamentary subjects include Abraham the Patriach, depicted for example in the enormous canvas by Antonio Zanchi from Santa Maria of the Giglio, Abraham teaching astrology to the Egyptians, and his great grandson Joseph, son of Jacob. Joseph is remembered both in the extraordinary work by Tintoretto, lent by the Museum of Prado for the occasion – Joseph tempted by the wife of Putifarre – in which the protagonist, a slave at the service of the captain of the guards of Pharaoh Putifarre, dances for the wife of the Egyptian sovereign in an alcove with a typically Venetian panelled ceiling, both in the sumptuous canvas by Amigoni, also from the Prado, and in two drawings by Fontebasso. Of all the characters, however, it is especially Moses who inspired Veneto artists and commissioners: the fascinating Test of fire of Moses by Giorgione, from the Uffizi Gallery; the magniloquent Finding of Moses by Bonifacio Veronese, from the Brera Gallery, but also the two stunning works by Pittoni (also fresh from restoration): The crossing of the Red Sea and The finding of Moses. A previously unseen gem is the work by Fontebasso, from a private collection, depicting Moses and the Pharaoh’s crown. The overview also points out the various approaches with which the artists face the Egyptian theme: from indifference to the context to total fantasy as in Tiepolo’s capriccios, from the repetition of patterns and iconographic matrixes to descriptive objectivation. Attention to the environment can be noted particularly in the large canvases adorning the Voting Hall of Palazzo Ducale perfectly in line with scenes from the Battle of Lepanto and, almost in contrast, where the exhibition chooses not to linger on elements of separation (essentially only episodic), but rather on the friendly encounter between Venice and Egypt. Then there are some cases in which the Egyptian theme is deliberately allegorical and subtends an intent of political controversy, as in the case of the xylography with Titian’s Submersion of the Pharaoh’s army, in the aftermath of the constitution of the League of Cambrai in 1508 and of the attack launched against the Serenissima by the main powers of Europe. It is from this theme that the erudite philologism of Paolo Fiammingo derives, in the previously unseen canvas possibly made for an unidentified Egyptophile man of letters, as well as the experiments by the two architects Piranesi and Jappelli, who invented a “plausible” Egyptian style: the former in the design of fireplaces – many examples of which are displayed – and the latter in the famous Egyptian Hall of the Caffé Pedrocchi in Padua, a historicist project of brilliant eclecticism also described in an original video created for the purpose.
Cultural intertwining and great adventures. From knowledge to cross-inspiration. Later sections of the exhibition feature the “cultural intertwinings” with Serlio’s Third Book, which includes the drawing of the Great Pyramid of Cheops as measured by the Patriarch of Aquileia Marco Grimani, or the texts on Egyptian medicine and botanics by Prospero Alpini di Marostica, which contain information on a variety of plants, including that of coffee; the “publishing industry” with some absolute unica proposed herein, such as the first copy of the Quran in Arabic ever printed in Venice, between 1537 and 1538; the interest and curiosity in the hieroglyphs (for example, through Polyphilo, Horapollo or the book by Pierio Valeriano, all exhibited); the “collections” with the fascinating gnostic gems bearing inscriptions of magical formulae and a number of splendid Egyptian objects collected by Venetian aristocrats (the Grimani’s, the Nani di San Trovaso, etc.), traced only recently and exhibited here for the first time ever. And then, the great adventures of the historical-scientific research of the 1800’s: with Giovanni Miani, the geologist and naturalist who conducted a study campaign along the path of the river Nile, and Giovanni Battista Belzoni, the famous Indiana-Jones-like archaeologist. An extraordinary character, Belzoni, and a true protagonist of Egyptology, whose enterprises – the transfer of the huge statue of Ramses 2nd as far as the Nile, the discovery of the Abu Simbel temple, of the city of Berenike, of the tomb of Seti 1st in the Valley of the Kings and of the entrance to Chefren’s pyramid – are still remembered. Besides his portrait, his passport and a few autographic letters, the exhibition also features the complete series of water-coloured engravings depicting his legendary enterprises. Many are the curios exhibited that can be linked to these two emblematic characters to testify to a profound and renewed interest in Egypt: from the extraordinary Mummy of Nehmeket (1069-525 B.C.) preserved at San Lazzero degli Armeni, coated entirely by a fine mesh of multi-coloured glass-paste beads, restored for the occasion, to the golden funerary mask in gold from the 26th-30th dynasty brought from Trento; from the necklace of Nile shells, 86 cm long, to the Crocodile Mummy – the incarnation of god Sobek, the Lord of the Waters – recovered by Miani in a cavern near Asiut and currently preserved at the Natural History Museum of Venice in a dedicated hall. The long, fascinating course of the exhibition is concluded by the works by Ippolito Caffi, the landscape artist from Belluno: a series of 11 beautiful paintings and 4 drawings portraying Egypt – works of exceptional significance for their poetics and the level of documentary and naturalistic objectivation achieved – and the Suez Canal. The spectacular painting by Alberto Rieger of 1864 foreshadows the final opening of the Mediterranean Sea to the Orient (the Canal was inaugurated on November 17th, 1869), based on the project by engineer Luigi Negrelli of Trento and the Venetian Pietro Paleocapa, also author of the main works at the mouths of the port of Venice. The “Pharaoh’s canal” that had been designed and pled by the Venetian Senate in the early 1500’s was at last becoming reality.
This exhibition is about history, culture, art, but also dreams.