Friday, October 5, 2012

The Renaissance Portraits from the Courts of Italy to the Ottoman Empire

Gentile Bellini, The Sultan Mehmet II, 1480
(National Gallery, London)

"Bellini portrayed Sultan Mehmed from life so well, that it was considered a miracle."
                                                                                                      - Giorgio Vasari

Of all the genres in the history of art, portraiture has a very special place due to its intimate nature of enabling vis-a-vis encounters with illustrious figures from the past.  The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier this year was a great example of the art of depicting likenesses transcending centuries and making the absent present more than five hundred years after the portraits had been made. One of the highlights of the exhibit was the gallery devoted to portrait medals featuring primarily the works by Antonio Pisanello who is ascribed as the inventor of the portrait medal in Quattrocento. The portrait medal that was utilized by rulers of the Italian Renaissance to cultivate their image pertaining to their right to rule, lineage and intellectual capacity is a fascinating symbol of the philosophy of the the time.  It also is a great testament to the mobility of artists, ideas and influences as well as works of art - all of which can be garnered from examining Pisanello's body of work and it's effects as it pertains to the portrait medal. This mobility and influence seems to have extended out to the most eastern reaches of Europe, to a land that was ruled by Turks, the Ottoman Empire.

Antonio Pisanello,
Studies of Emperor John VIII Palaeologus and Members of the Greek Delegation to the Council of Ferrara and Florence, 1438-39
(Musee du Louvre, Paris)

In the absence of sources as to the artist or real intent of a work of art, most of the conclusions made have to be based on conjecture but following the visual clues that have survived enables even a novice a fascinating view into an enchanting period in history. I assume the best way to embark upon such a journey should be chronologically.  The medallion, John VIII Palaeologus by Pisanello is accepted as the first Renaissance portrait medal which was supposed to have been cast on the occasion of the Byzantine emperor's visit to Ferrara for the council to reunite the Eastern and Western Churches. The Eastern delegation is said to have really fascinated the Italians with their colorful costumes and interesting ways (the Emperor was out hunting instead of sitting in on the meetings) inspiring Pisanello to make the detailed drawings seen above.

Antonio Pisanello, John III Palaeologus
ca. 1438-39
(Munzkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) 

In the catalog, The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, for the exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the essay Portraiture at the Courts of Italy by Beverly Louise Brown relays interesting information about Pisanello's career that takes him from Leonello d'Este's court in Ferrara where he produces some of the most famous portrait medals of the Marquess and his family to the court of Alfonso of Aragon, the King of Aragon, Sicily and Naples where he works in a capacity that is similar to the court artists of later centuries. The details of medals Pisanello cast for Alfonso are very interesting, the iconography deliberately ambiguous, pronouncing the intellectual capacity of it's protagonist.  The drawing below is a preliminary study for one of Alfonso's portrait medals.

Antonio Pisanello, Alfonso of Aragon, King of Aragon, Sicily and Naples, 1448
(Musee du Louvre)
Gentile Bellini's portrait, The Sultan Mehmet II, has become familiar even for the western viewer not only due to its famous artist but also for being a portrait likeness of an ruler who was a source of infinite fascination. But the drawing I came across in one of my classes just took my breath away.

Master of the Vienna Passion, El Gran Turco, about 1470
(Topkapi Palace Museum)
The name El Gran Turco, the epitaph given to the Sultan, helps to identify this engraving as Mehmet II, since it is not a real likeness, upon closer inspection, scholars agree that the Sultan's features are probably recalling Pisanello's medal, John VIII Palaeologus.  Besides the Sultan's features, his helmet is also noteworthy. In the exhibition catalog for Bellini and the East, for a show that took place in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and the National Gallery in London in 2006, there is a note about this unique headgear, mentioning the vogue for helmets decorated with dragons in Florentine art in the 1470's and 1480's. Alexander the Great,  a marble relief from Andrea del Verrochio's workshop is given as an example. El Gran Turco with a second version that was colored in is thought to be presented to Mehmet II by an Italian merchant and the two engravings were pasted in an album in Topkapi Palace.

Andrea del Verrochio's workshop, Alexander the Great, 1483-88
(National Gallery of Art, Washington)
Julian Raby, in "Opening Gambits" from The Sultan's Portrait: Picturing the House of Osman, gives details to Mehmet II's fascination with portraiture through his letters to the several rulers in Italy. Sigismondo Malatesta, lord of Rimini, is supposed to have sent the artist of his portrait medals, Matteo de' Pasti (who had also cast Isotta degli Atti's medal I had written about on a previous post) elucidating upon his mastery as an artist. Unfortunately, Matteo never made it to Istanbul but Costanzo da Ferrara,who was a follower of Pisanello was sent by the King of Naples and is thought to have stayed in Istanbul for several years in the 1470's. There are several casts of Mehmet II, Costanzo's only known medal exists, the Ashmolean copy is thought to be cast posthumously, after the artist got back to Italy.

Costanzo da Ferrara, Medal of Mehmet II, 1481
(The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)
The low-relief details notwithstanding, the equestrian depiction on the reverse of Ferrara's medal is compared to the reverse of Pisanello's medal John VIII Palaeologus where the emperor is also shown on horseback. This image of the Sultan on horseback was to become an icon of the Turk (or Eastern figure) on horseback in many contemporary European paintings.

Bertoldo di Giovanni, Medal of Mehmed II, 1480's
(British Museum)
One of the most interesting medals cast about Mehmet II has to be the one Bertoldo di Giovanni cast in Florence in the 1480's.  The bust-length depiction on of Mehmet II on the front of the medal is inscribed as Emperor of Asia and Trebizond and Great Greece while the iconography of the reverse is truly remarkable. A turbaned figure is standing on a triumphal cart pulling a rope that captures three crowned figures that are identified by the inscription around them as "Greece, Trebizond, Asia." The rearing horses pulling the cart are lead by Mars, the Roman God of war wearing a helmet and holding a trophy over his shoulder.  Roman coins, that were collected by Lorenzo de' Medici and his contemporaries were probably the source of this iconography which was favored in Renaissance portraiture.

Piero della Francesca, Portrait of Battista Sforza and Federico da Montefeltro, 1466
(Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

Besides the typical all' antica style recalling Roman coins, the three figures on the cart wearing crowns must have been related to Gentile Bellini's portrait medal of the Sultan with three crowns on the reverse representing Greece, Trebizond and Asia.  The same crowns that can be found in the painted portrait above are supposed to refer to the six Ottoman emperors before and the single crown in the embroidery in front of the Sultan is representing Mehmet II.  According to Elizabeth Rodini in her article "The sultan's true face? Gentile Bellini, Mehmet II, and the values of verisimilitude" from The Turk and Islam in the Western Eye, 1450-1750, Visual Imagery before Orientalism,  Bellini boldly  included his own titles given to him by Emperor Frederick III, (comes palatinus: count palatine), and the one bestowed by the Ottoman Sultan, (eques auratus:  golden knight) on the reverse of the medal.  
Gentile Bellini, Mehmet II, 1480,
(The National Gallery, Washington)

Before I conclude, I want to go back in time (1460's or 1470's?), the earliest known portrait medal of Mehmet II. There is an unsigned, bronze medal Portrait of Mehmed II as a Young Man in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum that is a composite of ideas from Quattrocento.  Not only does the portrait in the front of the medal bear no resemblance to the known appearance of the Sultan but the unidentifiable, raised cap and turban are definitely not of Ottoman origin. There is also one very interesting detail that is noted about the epaulet which is actually supposed to resemble the ones on the Venetian doges robes of the time.

Italian (Follower of Pisanello), Medal of Mehmed II as a Young Man, 1460's or 1470's?
(The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

The reverse of the medal which is supposed to be made by a follower of Pisanello, depicts a reclining male nude on a rocky plane, holding a victory torch, an iconography used by Pisanello for a medal of Leonello d'Este, in 1441 which is thought to be a reinterpretation of a Roman statue and is supposed to be associated with Alexander the Great. 

Antonio Pisanello, Leonello d'Este, Duke of Ferrara

In the fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance, the portrait medal was supposed to have imperial connotations, relaying a message about the virtues and attributes of the ruler portrayed enabling a comparison of the subject with the emperors of antiquity.  Most of the rulers of the Italian courts used it to reassert their right to rule as well as displaying their intellectual aspects. Mehmet II's interest in European culture and his immense library containing many ancient texts as well as several bibles is very well known. Elizabeth Rodini's article has great information about the Sultan's private collection of images as well as his interactions with Bellini.  Although Ottomans were great at keeping records and we have detailed information about the kind and amount of food that was consumed to how much it cost, unfortunately, we don't have any concise proof to the Sultan's private world. It is thought that he had Bellini paint frescoes in one of his pavilions but nothing relating to it has been unearthed (literally or figuratively) so far. With so many unknowns, isn't it nice to be able to at least know what the Sultan that changed the course of history looked like, how he chose to be portrayed?  On a final note, I have to include an Ottoman artist Siblizade Ahmed's western influenced representation of Mehmet II.

Siblizade Ahmed, Fatih Sultan Mehmet (Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer)
15th century
(Topkapi Palace Museum)


Bellini and the East, London: National Gallery, 2005

Julian Raby, "Opening Gambits," The Sultans Portrait:  Picturing the House of Osman, Istanbul:  Isbank, 2000, p. 64-72

Elizabeth Rodini, "The sultan's true face? Gentile Bellini, Mehmet II, and the values of verisimilitude", The Turk and Islam in the Western Eye, 1450-1750, Visual Imagery before Orientalism, Farnham, Surrey, UK, England:  Ashgate, 2011


  1. Thank you so much for this Sedef. I have always wondered about a post exploring the Early Modern fascination with the East, be it Byzantine or the Ottoman Court.

    We are living in a special time when quality content like this is related online, in clear language and for all to enjoy. Kudos.

    Many kind regards

  2. Thank you for this post. It brings to mind the great mission that Nicholas of Cusa attempted with the Council of Florence as exemplified with his De Pacei Fidei. A return to this outlook is more urgently than ever necessary today:

  3. Hello,

    Thank you for your encouraging responses.

    Hasan - You have contributed and promoted greatly the "quality content that is related online, in clear language and for all to enjoy." I would like to thank you for all your support.

    Thingumbobesquire - Welcome to Sedef's Corner. We are more alike than different no matter what our particular religion or ancestry and art has always been and can continue to be the uniting force, enabling us to visualize this acutely. I am just trying to point out the obvious. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

  4. I had to take a moment to process before commenting, Sedef -- what a fascinating post! I've become more interested in medals recently, and the ones that you show only whet my appetite more. I agree about "El Gran Turco" -- breathtaking! Thank you SO much!

  5. Karen, I am finding portrait medals to be a great way to gain insight as to the concerns of Renaissance rulers. Aren't they just delightful? Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment...


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