Glass Bridges: Cross-Cultural Exchange between Florence and the Ottoman Empire

Glass Bridges: Cross-Cultural Exchange between Florence and the Ottoman Empire

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Glass Bridges: Cross-Cultural Exchange between Florence and the Ottoman Empire

Reena Devi (University of Edinburgh)

Master’s Thesis, University of Edinburgh (2009)


The exchange of objects and people across physical borders amidst an atmosphere of cultural and religious differences holds a relevance that transcends time, echoing throughout the pages of history and persisting in the twenty-first century. This movement of objects and people through the means of trade, travel and diplomatic exchange forms the basis of multi-faceted cross-cultural relations, at times even creating a sense of cultural convergence. This concept will be examined in this paper through the analysis of interactions and exchanges between the Ottoman Empire and Florence. Only upon grasping the literal movement of objects and people across physical borders, the metaphorical movements between faith and skepticism, order and chaos, exteriority and interiority can be fully understood. Even objects of trade are based on an idea, a preconceived notion the buyers possess regarding the specific object or material, reflecting in the sellers’ perceptions of the buyers’ demand for it. Such a web of ideas and thoughts form the crux of cross-cultural interactions, which occur against the backdrop of tension, created by the push and pull of opposing religious beliefs and social biases. Hence, it is necessary to first consider the crusading rhetoric and religious conflict which was an important undercurrent in the relationship between Italian city-states such as Florence and the Ottoman Empire.

The fall of Constantinople on 29 May 1453, after an intense and aggressive siege by the Ottoman Turks, has often been cited as a turning point in the ties between Europe and the Levant, specifically with the Ottoman Empire. Powerful crusading rhetoric echoed throughout the continent in the years that followed. By late fifteenth century, the term ‘barbarian’ became popular in describing the Ottoman Turks, its ideological relevance mainly due to the unrelenting pace of Turkish advance. Yet it was events such as the failed crusade at Nicopolis (1396) that may have forced Florentine scholar and statesmen Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406) to rise above the crusading polemic and consider the Ottoman’s military and social organization. His description of the power and ambition of the Turks was admittedly designed to alarm his contemporaries. However, his description of Turkish customs indicated a keen interest in their culture and displayed more accurate knowledge than he had previously demonstrated in earlier writings.

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