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Fixed compass

Venice & The East: The Impact of the Islamic World on Venetian Architecture, 1100-1500 By Deborah Howard. Yale University Press, 2000. 283pp. £45

This is a unique book. It is a fascinating enterprise, but one which builds its story slowly and surprisingly circuitously; the imagining of a city, with one eye firmly shut.

Howard creates a tapestry, interweaving medieval Venice and the Islamic world - the essential but precarious mutuality of trading links across their religious and cultural divides; the cultural memories transposed, re-presented back home in Venice, and then becoming home thoughts from abroad, brought to mind by the next sights seen in the East.

'Memories of past events encoded in architecture brought the biblical world and emporia of the East into the city's cultural horizons, ' to be compressed like strata in its own formation. They were infused into Venice's townscape, consciously and unconsciously recalled, even if rarely copied directly. Thus Howard talks of how 'Venice accumulated alter egos in a collage of overlapping identities. . . references. . . slippery and fleeting deja vu experiences or conscious, rational interpretations'.

In one of her most memorable passages, she builds a picture of the Venice of the European pilgrim: it is become not just the setting-out point for the Near East, but almost the first destination, its townscape woven by the pilgrim 'into a ritual. . . as a dream-like induction', its topography 'a flickering mirage of the Holy City' itself.

Howard clearly enjoys spinning this story, backed up by a vast range of learned source material - but with that one eye shut.

Did medieval Venetian spaces (see picture) really 'acquire the labyrinthine qualities of their eastern counterparts' any more than a number of other tightly built medieval cities? While accepting that her view is only eastwards - and thus she gives only a sentence Tafuri's positing of Venice between the transalpine empire and the southern papacy - placing a plan of the Rialto next to Aleppo market is not enough to convince me of the particularity of these links.

Arguing how the Venetian window subtly alludes to the Moslem mihrab, Howard explains her thought clearly and subtly. But her following set of linked elements - balconies, roof terraces, courtyards - seem to suggest no more than Mediterranean or even European-wide similarities.

'Current methodological polemics no longer reflect the practice of serious historians in any of the fields concerned with cultural transmissions.' These are the last words of the book - the final footnote, quoted from Anthony Grafton. The challenge of the topic of cultural exchange is Howard's subject; her method is original and her conclusions highly suggestive.

If for much of the book Howard's theme is elusive, her tale always is fascinating and full of incident and erudition. We are shown all sorts of glimpses (not least into the medieval Near East), and we will certainly not walk the Venetian calle with the same eyes again.

John McKean is professor at Brighton School of Architecture

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