Behnaz Atighi Moghaddam, Islamic art specialist at Christie’s in London, looks at a rare shield that ‘tells a complex story of cultural dynamics between two sparring empires’ — offered in the Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds sale on 26 October
In 16th-century Italy, parade shields, or ‘bucklers’, were worn by royal guards, military commanders and princes during triumphal processions and religious parades. The lavish designs on these purely ornamental pieces were indicative of power and status.
‘The technique used by the Italian masters to create this shield was called “cuoridoro”, which literally means gilded leather,’ explains specialist Behnaz Atighi Moghaddam. ‘The entire surface of the leather was covered with silver leaf, and given a golden hue by the application of a translucent yellow varnish. With the slightest movement, the entire surface would appear to glow — it must have been mesmerising.’
This shield, one of a number that survive from the second half of the 16th century, offers a window onto a fascinating cultural diplomacy that existed between the often-warring Venetian Republic and the Ottoman Empire, controlled from Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). Made in Venice's workshops by local craftsmen, the designs on these shields replicate the arabesque, split-palmette and heart-shaped knot motifs found on Ottoman weapons, ceramics and book bindings. But why?
‘The Venetians’ choice of Ottoman designs on their parade costumes comes as no surprise,’ the specialist explains. ‘In the 16th century, Europeans regarded the Classical heroes of antiquity as being of Ottoman descent.'
Indeed, for a 50-year period, there was ‘a vogue among courtly Europeans for travelling with personal guards in Ottoman dress because of their fierce reputation.’ Even King Philip II is said to have travelled with an ‘Ottoman’ entourage during his triumphal entry into Milan in 1548.
As for the Turkish artefacts that provided the inspiration for these objects, they came to Europe partly as spoils of war, but also as a result of ongoing trade between Venice and Constantinople. ‘Even during periods of conflict and hostility, both sides recognised the importance of maintaining commercial relationships,’ adds the specialist.
The relationship was in fact so important that the Venetian ambassador to Constantinople was the most senior and highest-paid member of Venice's diplomatic service during the 16th century.
Today, the majority of these Venetian-Ottoman shields are housed in the palaces belonging to their two most prolific commissioners: the Doge’s Palace in Venice and the New Residence, commissioned by Archbishop Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau, in Salzburg. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Wallace Collection in London also hold examples.
This particular symbol of wealth and glory, says Atighi Moghaddam, ‘tells a complex story of the cultural dynamics between two sparring empires at the height of their powers. It is fascinating to think of this object, the likes of which rarely come up for sale, in use by a prince during his parades throughout 16th-century Europe.'