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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of the Fondaco dei Turchi in Venice

What is the Fondaco dei Turchi?

The Fondaco dei Turchi is a 13th-century palace that once served as a storehouse and mosque for Turkish traders, and which now holds the city’s Natural History Museum.

Fondaco dei Turchi

Fondaco dei Turchi History

From the Iberian Peninsula to Asia, across North Africa and the Middle East, for over a thousand years you could find wayside stations for travellers to rest. In Spain and Iran, they were called caravanserai from the Persian blend of trading caravan and saray, meaning palace. In urban centres, they were more than just a roof over your head but grand stables, warehouses, and offices. Known as han in Turkish, the word derived from the Middle Persian khan, as used in Syria, meaning house, highlighting how merchants lived in them too. Wherever they may be, these wayfarers inns and warehouses were often built as squares or rectangles with a courtyard in the middle and a fountain in its centre. In Cairo, they were referred to as wikala, but more often than not the Arabic speaking world, especially in North Africa, called these important buildings funduq. It’s from the Arabic that the Venetians took their word for merchant ghettos, notably the Fondaco dei Tedeschi for Germanic traders and the Fondaco dei Turchi for Ottoman traders.

The Fondaco dei Turchi was not a true funduq however. It was originally constructed as a palace in the early 13th century by Giacomo Palmier. In 1381, the Venetian Republic bought the buildings for the Dukes of Ferrara and used the palace as a residence for visiting dignitaries until 1621. Originally, it would have therefore followed a Veneto-Byzantine design with a two-storey arcade on the front and narrow, deep rooms behind. As a Venetian structure, there was of course no need for stables, but a ground-floor portico for loading and unloading merchandise instead. What we can see today is in fact a 19th-century facelift, adding the ornamentation and towers on the façade to give it a neo-Gothic look whilst stripping the interior to create an internal courtyard which better suits a traditional funduq (though the well-head is an attractive 11th-century example). After the renovation, deplored by 19th-century English art critic John Ruskin, the building housed the Museo Correr collection and now is the Natural History Museum of Venice.

Nevertheless, the building still speaks to an extraordinary time of cross-cultural encounter. Between 1621 and 1838, Turkish traders lived and stored their wares here whilst participating in the bustling Venetian market. Muslims freely came and went during the day and prayed in a mosque inside. At night the fondaco was locked, both to keep their goods safe and so the Venetian authorities could keep an eye on them. Ottoman traders exchanged textiles, spices, wax, and jewels as well as ancient manuscripts and the latest news. Venetians had trading outposts too across the Ottoman Empire with a large diplomatic presence in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). It’s buildings like the Fondaco dei Turchi that remind us that the history of the Mediterranean was more than a clash of civilisations, cultures, or religions, but that myriad interactions occurred full of prosperity and prejudice, fear and fascination; and that those everyday interactions were mainly cordial coexistence. Venice was the mercantile entrepôt and social melting pot.

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