Even at peak periods of military confrontation the exchange of gifts across contested frontiers was commonplace. Venice in particular was a Christian state repeatedly in confrontation with the Ottoman Empire. Yet during the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, Venetian records mention scores of gift exchanges in both directions, particularly in the period 1520–1566 when Suleyman the Magnificent ruled in Istanbul. As Stefano Carboni relates in his book Moments of Vision, “This is also the period that marks the closest proximity in artistic production between Venice and the Ottomans or, better, that denotes a peculiar vogue in Venice for ‘Oriental’ patterns.”4 As in earlier times, the most desired products were those of the highest artistic value, whether a portrait of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror by the Venetian artist Gentile Bellini on the one side, or luxurious silk brocades and velvets on the other. Nor was the flow of fine Islamic goods limited to exchanges with the Ottomans. In 1603, an embassy sent to Venice by the Safavid ruler of Iran, Shah ‘Abbas I, gave to the doge a selection of very fine carpets crafted from silk and silver–wrapped thread.
To this day the tradition of gift exchanges continues, a recent example being Saudi King Abdullah’s presentation of a heavy gold necklace and medallion — the King Abdulaziz Order of Merit — to President George W. Bush in 2008. (Although, in all likelihood, the necklace was produced by Italian rather than Saudi jewelers.)Back to the top.