'My yearning for the exotic was fuelled by its intoxicating combination of all things opulent and Eastern.'

The Reception of a Venetian Delegation in Damascus

The Reception of a Venetian Delegation in Damascus, about 1511, artist (Circle of Giovanni Bellini) unknown, 5ft 9in by 6ft 7in, The Louvre, Paris, France.

Lulu Lytle chooses The Reception of a Venetian Delegation in Damascus

‘For a teenager who had holidayed predominantly in the British Isles and was plagued by wanderlust, the first sighting of this painting—in a book—was thrilling. My yearning for the exotic was fuelled by its intoxicating combination of all things opulent and Eastern—extravagantly shaped turbans, abundant walled gardens filled with palms and cypresses, minarets, domes and ornately castellated walls, bath houses, monkeys and shaggy Bactrian camels resting on their journey to the bazaar.’

‘Rose-robed pages bearing silks are sharply contrasted with the white-gowned Mamluk viceroy and the black-clad Venetians.  Although I’m particularly drawn to Orientalist art spanning many centuries, I can think of few other paintings that so successfully convey the atmosphere of the authentic Orient as I imagined it, powerfully transporting the viewer to another time and place’

Lulu Lytle is co-founder and creative director of Soane Britain, maker of furniture, lighting, fabrics and wallpapers.

John McEwen on The Reception of a Venetian Delegation in Damascus:

This picture is a timely reminder that the Christian West and Islam have not always been enemies. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Most Serene Republic of Venice was at its zenith. It had scant natural resources, but, commercially, was where the West met the East. European wood, metal, grain, furs and leathers went east; Oriental spices, carpets, velvets, glass, astronomical and mathematical treatises came west. It created La Serenissima, Europe’s financial and maritime centre, which, in due course, produced great artists, not least Giovanni Bellini.

The masterstroke had been in AD828, when two Venetian merchants stole the relics of St Mark from Alexandria. This announced Venice’s maritime range and gave its ports, scattered among 118 islands, a heart: San Marco, with its basilica, palace and square.

The home of the Evangelist proved a vital bargaining chip with the Vatican. In the crusading centuries, Venice’s sanctified maritime power enabled it to flaunt the frequent papal decrees forbidding business with Islam.

The sketches of western artists who had travelled to Islamic lands were widely circulated in artistic circles and, in Venice, led to Oriental fashions and a pictorial demand for eastern scenes. This picture is of that genre. It shows the black-capped delegation approaching the Mamluk viceroy, who sits on a dais.

For all the turbans, minarets and laden camels, the architecture and exoticism is not un-Venetian. The Doge’s ceremonial ‘ducal crown’, said to derive from Phrygia (Turkey), and the white crown of Upper Egypt would not have looked out of place. The scene brings foreign news but is also a witness to integration.