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Art Through Time: A Global View

Converging Cultures Art: Pilgrim Flask

» Unknown artist, Venice, Italy

Pilgrim Flask

Pilgrim Flask
Artist / Origin: Unknown artist, Venice, Italy Region: Europe
Date: ca. 1500–25
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Free-blown glass, enameled and gilded
Medium: Glass, Jewelry, and Metalwork
Dimensions: H: 12 3/8 in. (31.4 cm.)
Location: Robert Lehman Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Because of Venice’s geographic location, it was perfectly suited to be a center of maritime trade.

It was also at a critical crossroads between the Eastern and Western worlds. During the Middle Ages and throughout the early modern period, Venice played an important intermediary role, first between Europe and Byzantium, and later between Europe and the Islamic powers to which the Byzantine Empire had fallen. Increasingly, traders and merchants from the Italian city-state came into close contact with Muslim culture, carrying both knowledge and material goods back to Europe. Although intended for the wider market, many imported luxury items, including carpets, metalwork, bookbinding, and glassware, never made it beyond Venice, where they were not only purchased, but also imitated and adapted.

From the thirteenth century on, Venice began to produce enameled glass objects like those exported from the Islamic world. Over the next three hundred years, the Venetians developed their own styles and techniques and garnered a reputation for the skill and artistry of their blown glass. As this pilgrim flask demonstrates, however, the influence of Islamic models was long-lasting. The term “pilgrim flask” is associated with a kind of flat-sided vessel that was originally used as a water canteen by travelers in the Middle East, and artisans in Syria and Egypt were the first to perfect the art of applying gilt and enamel decoration to glassware.

Expert Perspective:
Alan Chong, Curator of the Collection, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

“In the fifteenth century, as Venice began to expand its trading empire, it came into conflict with the Ottomans. The Ottomans were an Islamic dynasty. There are craftsmen from the East who are brought to Venice to produce metalwork and glass. Beautiful trays and vessels that were produced in what is now Lebanon and Syria were eagerly imported to Venice. Islamic glass was seen as so sophisticated in terms of coloring and lightness and shape. And immediately after glass was imported, it starts being copied by the glass makers in Murano. Venetian glass not only copies Islamic forms, it is quickly regarded as finer, lighter, more delicate, and therefore more superior, in the end.”

Additional Resources

“The Arts of Fire: Islamic Influences on the Italian Renaissance (May 4–September 5, 2004).” In Exhibitions. The Getty Web site.

Brown, Patricia Fortini. Art and Life in Renaissance Venice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2005 reissue.

Carboni, Stefano, ed. Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797. Exhibition catalogue. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

Carboni, Stefano, Trinita Kennedy, and Elizabeth Marwell. “Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. (March 2007).

Dursteler, Eric R. Venetians in Constantinople: Nation, Identity, and Coexistence in the Early Modern Mediterranean. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Mack, Rosamond E. Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art, 1300–1600. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

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