Thursday, April 3, 2014

Image of the "El Turco" in Quattrocento Italy

Pinturicchio, St Catherine's Disputation, 1492-94
(Sala dei Santi of the Borgia Apartments, Vatican)
"I am not Italian, I am not an art historian, a student or even an academic and I am not even Christian! How many Turks do you see running around Italy, blogging about galleries and churches full of Madonnas and Saints... none! For years something in me searched for a way to connect with others. I found it in art and particularly in the faces and graceful poses of one particular artist whose works seemed to call me to action." 
                                                                                               -  Hasan Niyazi 
That artist was of course, Raphael, which is why we are honoring Hasan's memory and the light he brought to our lives on Raphael's birthday, April 6, 2014. Hasan connected, inspired, impelled so many of us to stretch the boundaries of our potential, vision and purpose, making us see what was right in front of us in a whole new way... today we are doing our best to continue the conversation that was so abruptly interrupted on October 28, 2013. This post will be part of a virtual collaboration, #raphaelhasan, celebrating the life of Hasan Niyazi.

Here are a few images of "El Turco" standing around in Italy.

Standing Man,  Workshop of Gentile Bellini,
(late fifteenth century)
(Stadelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt)
After his famous expedition to Istanbul which resulted in the most widely recognized likeness of an Ottoman Sultan, Gentile Bellini is cited as being one of the most credible sources for the Oriental mode in Venetian painting. The conquest of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmet II in 1453 brought Europe in direct contact with the Ottoman Turks arousing great interest in the customs and manner of dress of these "Orientals." Bellini was not the only source of information however, visiting merchants and the ambassadors also provided the Venetians with eyewitness accounts. Generally accepted as the work of Gentile Bellini, the several drawings of Turks which have been attributed to Costanza Ferrara by Julian Raby, do seem to be quite authentic in their costumes and visage.[1]

Procession in the Piazza San Marco, Gentile Bellini, 1496
(Galleria dell'academia, Venice) 
There are many legends regarding Sultan Mehmet II's library and collections with its priceless Bibles, Torahs along with precious Qurans, antique and Persian manuscripts. Philippe de Montebello has even claimed Mehmed II's collection as the first Universal Museum.[2]  One of the most intriguing items allegedly displayed there was a Madonna and Child in front of which Mehmet kept candles burning. Bellini was commissioned to paint a manuscript illumination of the Madonna and Child as well as frescoes for one of the four pavilions Mehmet II was building inside his new palace compound. Unfortunately, only the Persian Pavilion survives to our present day as the Tiled Kiosk on the grounds of the Archaeological Museum. 

Pinturicchio, The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, 1492-94
(Sala dei Santi of the Borgia Apartments, Vatican)
Seated Janissary, Gentile Bellini 1479-81
(British Museum)
Styling himself as the new Alexander the Great, it has been suggested that Mehmet II invited Bellini into his household and intimate circle, emulating Alexander's relationship with his favorite artist, Apelles. After spending a year in the Sultan's household, Gentile Bellini returned to Venice bearing gifts: the most precious of these were a gold medallion and chain, a letter bearing the Sultan's Tugra, commending Bellini, and a Knighthood of the Golden Spur. Bellini's impressions from his trip to exotic Istanbul has been noted in two of his paintings, in some minor architectural details of Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria and three turbaned figures in the background of the Procession in the Piazza San Marco which are thought to be the inspiration for Durer's drawing Three Standing Orientals.

Pope Pius II in the Port of Ancona, Pinturicchio, 1505-07
(Piccolomini Library, Siena)
By the sixteenth-century the Turk had become a familiar and accurately depicted figure in Italian art. Some of the best examples of this trend can be found in the frescoes Pinturicchio painted for Sala dei Santi in the Borgia Apartments in the Vatican Palace where he used Bellini's Standing Man and Standing Turk exactly as they appear in his drawings; meanwhile The Seated Janissary can be seen in his Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.  Finally, in Pinturicchio's fresco of Pope Pius II in the Port of Ancona (while embarking on a Crusade), the figure of the standing Turk (at the far right) has been identified as Cem Sultan, Mehmed II's younger son who was a hostage and eventually died at the papal court.

The Seated Scribe, Gentile Bellini, 1479-80
(Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston)

The Seated Scribe representing an imperial page, probably like the ones Bellini encountered daily in the palace, after some debate has been attributed to Gentile Bellini. It is a pen in brown ink drawing which has been painted using water color and gold on paper. The method of production as well as the coloring has been noted as responding to the Islamic influence the artist had been exposed to in Mehmet's court.  I like to think of this particular drawing as the visual manifestation of the confluence of ideas and traditions between east and west for a brief moment in time.

Europe and the Ottoman Turks lived together as neighbors, rivals and trading partners for four more centuries, the changing political conditions dictating how each saw and represented the other. According to Giovanni-Maria Angiolello, after Mehmet's death, his son and successor, Beyazit II had his father's portrait along with other Western paintings sold in the Bazaar where they were acquired by Venetian merchants. The works Gentile Bellini produced in Istanbul, disposed of in such a hasty fashion went on to become sources of inspiration for European artists for many centuries to come.

[1] Julian Raby, Venice, Durer and the Oriental Mode, Islamic Art Publications, 1982
[2] Philippe de Montebello, Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities, "And What Do You Propose Should be Done with Those Objects?"Princeton UP, Princeton, 2009


Caroline Campbell, Alan Chong, Deborah Howar, J. M rogers, and Sylvia Auld, Bellini and the East, London: National Gallery, 2006

Stefano Carboni, Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797, New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2007

Julian Raby, Venice, Durer and the Oriental Mode, Islamic Art Publications, 1982

James B. Cuno, Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities, Princeton UP, Princeton, 2009

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Ottoman Princess Mihrimah Sultan

Cameria, Daughter of the Emperor Soliman,
After Cristofano dell' Altissimo, 16th century(?)
(Pera Museum)
The Ottomans have always been a source of fascination, even for citizens of the Turkish Republic, whose knowledge of its more than 600 years of history is still a work in progress. While everyone who has attended school in Turkey would have a rudimentary knowledge of the names and some standard accomplishments of the Ottoman Sultans, the imperial women and their accomplishments are either ignored or mentioned within a negative context. A whole nation, for generations, still does not seem to have been able to get over the fact that Suleyman the Magnificent, legally married Hurrem, forsaking all others, when he was the most powerful man on earth (God's shadow on earth) The concubines in the Harem would rise up to become Haseki Sultan's when they bore a son but were never granted the privilege of becoming the Sultan's wife. While the daughters of the Sultans had a special place within the palace hierarchy and extreme power over their husbands, they are still remembered only in relation to their fathers or husbands - the details of their lives all too often escaping our notice completely. There were few exceptions, one in particular I just had to mention here today...

Mihrimah Sultan, the only daughter of Suleyman the Magnificent and his beloved wife, Hurrem Sultan, was one of the most influential and powerful women in 16th century Ottoman Empire. Almost a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth the Ist of England, born in 1522, Mihrimah died on January 25, 1578, leaving behind a substantial legacy of pious foundations and architectural commissions. She is best known for her two mosque complexes in Uskudar and Edirnekapi districts of Istanbul, both the work of the great architect Sinan. Her letters to her father as well as the one she wrote to King Sigismund II of Poland upon his accession to the throne congratulating him is thought to attest to her superior education and involvement in diplomacy. [1]

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Chora: the Church of the Holy Savior Outside the City Walls

The Anastasis, Church of the St. Savior in Chora, Parekklesion1316-21
Chora Museum
The image of the Hagia Sophia always looms commanding and magnificent when one thinks of Istanbul but there is one other Byzantine church that also deserves just as much attention as her bigger, more famous sister, the Church of the St. Savoir in Chora. The magic about the Chora starts with its name, giving us a glimpse into a time and a city that was so far removed from what we know as Istanbul today. The name Chora comes from the Greek word Hora which has been translated as "land", "country" or "in the country," and in this case "outside the wall." Although it is located inside the Land Walls built by Theodosius II in the 5th century, near Adrionople gate, the first church built on this spot was outside of the city walls Constantine established in 324, hence the name. This was due to the ascetic lives lead by monks - at first monasteries would be built away from the city, outside of the city walls, a characteristic that would change in time as private, aristocratic houses in Constantinople would start to be turned into monasteries.
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