The historic link between Venice and Istanbul could help Nicosia find Common Ground, writes Rory Olcayto
Before leaving for Venice this year, I’d read that Turkey would be exhibiting for the first time, along with Kosovo, Angola, Kuwait and Peru, all of which had remained Biennale virgins until now. But given the historic links Venice shared with the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s debut seemed the most significant and potentially the most interesting.
Despite an outward fascination with each other, (brilliantly explored in Orhan Pamuk’s The White Castle) the Ottomans and Venetians, especially towards the middle of the last millennium, had an uneasy, tough relationship: trade links were strong but they fought seven wars and both empires suffered as interest in the Americas grew. Their fortunes, in other words, were closely linked.
The Arsenale itself, where the Biennale is centred, underwent a major expansion in the 1570s after a rare Venetian victory over the Turks at Lepanto (commemorated in a stone portal carving within the complex) in their bid to control Cyprus. And while that battle has been celebrated in artworks, literature and music ever since, most recently by American painter Cy Twombly who created 12 canvases on the subject for the art Biennale in 2001, the truth is a little hazier.
Just two months before the conflict, Famagusta - and Cyprus - fell to the Turks, depriving Venice of its biggest colony, and remained under Istanbul’s rule for the next 300 years. The Ottoman prime minster of the day, Grand Vizier Mehmet Sokollu, explained to the Venetian ambassador Marcantonio Barbaro: In wresting Cyprus from you, we deprived you of an arm; in defeating our fleet, you have only shaved our beard.
Lepanto (pictured) marked a turning point for more than Ottoman expansion. It was also the beginning of the end for Venice and its slow transformation from city into playground, personified today by its film festival, various biennales and its reputation as a stonebuilt Disneyland.
Yet Common Ground between these two warring states can be found everywhere. The word Arsenale, for example, is Turkish in origin. Kılıç Ali Pasha, who captured the Maltese flag at Lepanto, and was the only Turkish admiral to come away with any glory in that battle, was actually an Italian convert (his mosque in Istanbul, modelled directly on Hagia Sophia, is one of Sinan’s best). Don Quixote author Cervantes was captured in that battle, too, and held by the Ottomans in Algiers. There he heard tales of the Hoja, a Turkish folk hero who rode his donkey backwards and regularly pricked the egos of Sultans, Khans and warlords with his razor-sharp wit. Scholars think Sancho Panza was modelled on this ‘fool’.
In the end, I couldn’t find the Turkish pavilion. It seemed they did a no-show. But the Cypriots turned up - with a tourism installation that barely acknowledges the island’s tragic circumstances.
Today, sadly, for reasons that require more than a column to explain, the island and its capital Nicosia are divided. It is the last city in Europe to remain so. Crucially Cyprus, with all its present-day political and economic troubles, provides the most vital common ground between Venice and the Ottomans, who between them ruled it for most of the last millennium. How right it would be if Venice, and the Biennale, could help bring their architects together and set them thinking about Nicosia as one glorious place again.