The exhibition opens with a gallery dedicated to the Venetian experience of traveling to and living in Islamic lands in the eastern Mediterranean. As recent scholarship convincingly demonstrates, trade, travel, and cultural and diplomatic relations were the most important vehicles for the exchange of artistic ideas between Venice and her Muslim neighbors. Maps give a sense of place and a realization of the close proximity of Venice and Damascus, Alexandria, Cairo, Istanbul, and other major Islamic cities, while Venetian travel diaries provide insight into the Venetian perspective of these Near Eastern places.
The main body of the exhibition unfolds chronologically and thematically. Some of the earliest Islamic objects to arrive in Venice were destined for churches and church treasuries, which suggests they were highly prized. The varied ways Islamic glass, rock crystal, carpets, textiles, and metalwork were put to use in Venetian ecclesiastical settings are explored and explained in the galleries. Also holding an important early presence in Venice were medieval Islamic scientific instruments and illustrated manuscripts, which were far more advanced than anything available in Europe at the time. Venetians enthusiastically acquired and translated into Latin famous Islamic texts, like Avicenna's Canon, helping them to spawn their own medical and technological advancements.
The heart of the exhibition comprises objects from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when Venetian interest in the Islamic world peaked. This is abundantly clear from the numerous representations of Islamic costumes and architecture in manuscript illumination, prints, drawings, and sculpture. The point of departure for these images was Gentile Bellini's diplomatic mission to the court of Sultan Mehmet II between 1479 and 1481. During and after his visit to Istanbul, Bellini represented Islamic figures and settings in his paintings, and his many pupils, like Vittore Carpaccio and Giovanni Mansueti, followed suit. Many of these artists' most magnificent "orientalizing" paintings and drawings, now dispersed all over the world, are featured in the exhibition.
In the second half of the sixteenth century, Venetian relations with its Near Eastern neighbors became more complex. While trade between the two spheres generally continued as frequently as ever, Venetians often felt threatened by Ottoman military might and began representing Muslim subjects in less sympathetic ways, as seen in Venetian prints, drawings, and even wooden ship decorations. At the same time, Ottoman-style arms and armor were at the height of popularity in Venice. Elaborately decorated Turkish shields and quivers, along with their Venetian imitations from the armory of the Doge's Palace, are included in the exhibition.
An impressive number of Venetian institutions, including the Armeria del Palazzo Ducale, the Basilica and Tesoro di San Marco, the Biblioteca dei Frati Minori di San Michele ad Isola, the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, the Gallerie dell'Accademia, the Museo Civico Correr, the Museo Franchetti alla Ca' D'Oro, the Museo Storico Navale, the Museo Vetrario, and the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, are lenders to the exhibition. Other European museums, libraries, and private collections in Berlin, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt-am-Main, Munich, Stuttgart, Ecoen, Paris, Sèvres, Cividale del Friuli, Florence, Milan, Padua, Rome, Verona, Chatsworth, and London have also lent major works, as have U.S. museums in Corning, Baltimore, New York, Princeton, Saint Louis, and Washington, D.C.