Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Fondaco dei Turchi, Venice

[1] Facade of the Fondaco dei Turchi on the Grand Canal.
Many people coming to Venice make a point of visiting the Jewish quarter of the city (the original "ghetto"), where diverse communities were compelled to live together in a tightly-controlled enclave. But the idea of having foreigners or a minority religious group reside in a separate area  was not exclusive to the Jewish population; Ottoman Muslims also experienced similar treatment in the city. While the Jewish Ghetto was located on the ruins of an old industrial zone, however, the Ottomans were living in style in a former palace located directly on the Grand Canal: the Fondaco dei Turchi. [1] Their German counterparts were also housed within a restricted area in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, a Renaissance-style palace also on the Grand Canal near the Rialto bridge. In general, a fondaco (Ven. fontego) was a place where foreign groups, in most cases merchants or bankers, lived together and plied their trade. Thus the fondaco would not only serve as a residence, but also a warehouse for goods or a market for conducting business. In the case of the Fondaco dei Turchi, there is no doubt that there also would have been some kind of mescid for prayer on the premises, and would have been the only mosque in Venice. For our blog readers who focus more on the Middle East, this type of institution might sound very similar to a khan or caravanserai; and, as Olivia Constanble argues, it is no wonder that such establishments commonly found in the Islamic lands would be integrated into the urban life of Venice, which was an important connecting point between Europe and the Dar al-Islam. The Italian word "fondaco" itself is clearly related to the Arabic "funduq," a word that in the Maghreb or Levant referred to hostels for foreign merchants (usually Venetian or Genoese). In short, for the medieval and early modern periods, putting up foreign traders in their own digs was a shared practice throughout the Mediterranean.


[2] Engraving of the Fondaco dei Turchi, from the
Natural History Museum, Venice. Date unknown. 
The Fondaco dei Turchi was established in the early 17th century, and was in active service for about two hundred years, until 1838. Even by the 1620s, however, the building allocated to the Ottoman merchants already had a long history. It was first built as a palazzo for Giacomo Palmier of Pesaro in the 13th century--hence the fancy facade, with marble paneling and rows of columns stacked on top of each other. In 1381, the Venetian Republic bought the palace for the residence of Niccolo d'Este, the Marquess of Ferrara, as well as visiting dignitaries. By the 17th century, Venice decided to transform the palace into what was essentially a one-building ghetto for the Ottoman merchants. The layout of the palace--a large, rectangular building looking onto an inner, central courtyard--was suited to its new function. Efforts to control this foreign minority, whether for reasons of security or propriety--were reflected in the management and organization of the physical space itself. Like the Jewish Ghetto and the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the Fondaco dei Turchi had a curfew at night, requiring the foreign traders to be inside and accounted for by evening. There was also a stipulation that the courtyard of the fondaco should not be overlooked by another building, and at no times were weapons or women permitted within the walls. All of these policies limited both physical and visual access to the building, allowing these merchants to carry out their trading conveniently located in the heart of Venice, while at the same time carving out and "containing" this community of foreigners in the city. (It is not quite correct to say that the Fondaco dei Turchi was for all "Ottoman" merchants; Jewish and Greek traders, while technically being subjects of the Ottoman Empire, lived in other parts of Venice.) 


[3] Interior courtyard of the Fondaco dei
Turchi, now the Museo Correr, or the Natural
 Based on the present appearance of the Fondaco dei Turchi, with its grand facade and dozens of windows, it is hard to imagine this location as a closed enclave. But it should be kept in mind that what visitors see today is largely the result of a major renovation/reconstruction in the mid-19th century, after the fondaco had fallen into disuse. Even though the building is often cited as representative of early medieval palaces, Juergen Schulz has demonstrated that only the facade on the canal is from the 14th century, with over two-thirds of the structure being demolished and rebuilt. An engraving showing the building presumably during its time as the fondaco (indicated by, if nothing else, the turbaned gentleman in the bottom-left corner) conveys a space that is much more closed off from the city around it. [2] According to the image, the prominent entrance colonnade appears to have been blocked off from the canal by a low brick wall, and the side windows on the second level were also walled up. 

[4] Musicanti di Brema, Maurizio Cattelan,
Installation in the Natural History Museum
as part of the 55th Venice Biennale, June 2013.
After the Fondaco dei Turchi closed in the 1830s, and the extensive renovations of the mid-19th century, the building became the Museo Correr in 1865, and subsequently has come down to the present day as the Natural History Museum of Venice. The interior courtyard of the palazzo [3], while largely a 19th-century reconstruction, still evokes a sense of how closed-off the building could have felt during its days as the fondaco. Now, as contemporary visitors wander around the galleries of the Natural History Museum, even taking in some of the more light-hearted installations in conjunction with the Venice Biennale [4], they will hopefully also come to know how this place once served as an important point of connection--and separation--between Ottomans and Venetians in the heart of the city. 




CONSTABLE, Olivia Remie. Housing the Stranger in the Mediterranean World: Lodging, Trade, and Travel in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
SCHULZ, Juergen. "Early Plans of the Fondaco dei Turchi." In Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 42 (1997), 149-159.



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