The shores of the Adriatic have always been involved in intense maritime traffic.
Between 800 and 1300, in spite of the great diversity of populations and governments, and in spite of the frequent wars and struggles between peoples, strong links were established among the centres on both shores of the sea. In particular, from the 13th century on, the Republic of Venice began to make its name with an increasing trading power rather than political power. Destined to become a point of reference, or at the least a point of greater exchanges of languages and artistic phenomena, Venice was linked to the oriental Byzantine world which it acknowledged as its most active centre of economic and artistic interests.
The links between Venice and Byzantium were to lead to rich and varied artistic production with the contribution of eastern artists from Greece and Dalmatia up to the early fifteenth century. In subsequent centuries Venice opened up to new languages.
Venice’s relations with the East were always close: the eastern countries were regular ports of call for the whole duration of the Republic.
Between 800 and the year 1000 Venice intensified and developed sea traffic, reaching increasingly distant ports: this paved the way to Venice’s fortune and its control of the seas towards the East, augmenting its power and authority. The three great powers of the day were the Teutonic empire in central Europe, the Greek empire between the coasts of Asia Minor and the Balkans, and the Arab empire: three empires of different structures but each of them motivated by great religious power and a firmness of ideals that went beyond the strictly political.
Rivalry notwithstanding, the German and Byzantine empires shared a common ideal: awareness of being the legitimate heirs of the Roman empire, continuers of the Eastern and Western empires. When in the 9th century Venice took to the seas with the negligible power of an independent Republic dedicated to trade, the problem of the Arabs (then known as “Saracens“) scarcely affected it.
Venice’s basic political line was oriented towards Byzantium, due to an irrepressible attraction felt for the most active centre of its economic interests, of art, of splendour and of a theocratic conception of government.
In art, as in every other aspect of its life, Venice was born Byzantine and essentially remained so for centuries. Political, social and commercial relationships, its geographical location and the character of its people all linked Venice with the East, right from the earliest centuries of its existence. Later when its constitution grew stronger and trade increasingly intensified, Venice began to be enriched by works, and here too it was influenced by the East and Byzantium as well as by other places where Byzantine art flourished (Ravenna, Grado, Parenzo). Artists were brought from the East to reproduce typically Byzantine models, works and mosaics.
This bond was also aided by the absence of a strong classical tradition and the lack of relations with the Italic civilisation on the mainland. Venice became the most typical oriental environment in the west.
Until 1300 and beyond a very great deal of inspiration was drawn from schemes and models of oriental art, but over the following centuries this influence gradually weakened with the advent of other currents. The first city to give Venice artistic models and forms was Byzantium with the gold, enamels and gems of its court’s refined and luxurious art. Then between the 12th and 14th centuries it was the Arabic-Islamic civilisation that supplied Venice with new sources of inspiration and forms for its own creations.