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


  1. I remember when Hasan went to Madrid two years ago for the Late Raphael show and symposium. We joked that he could go up to people at the Prado and introduce himself, saying "Hola! My ancestors fought on the other side at the Battle of Lepanto!" (which is quite likely in the case of Cypriots). He mostly signed his e-mails from Madrid, "El Turco"--and he had a really great time there!

  2. Thanks for this information Ed, I just changed the title of my post in honor of Hasan.

  3. Great post, Sedef! I'm glad that you highlighted some beautiful and sympathetic depictions of Turks by Bellini. I know there are other depictions of Turkish culture by Westerners from the early Renaissance which are not as sympathetic and do not demonstrate an understanding of the culture (a point that I like to analyze and critique with my students who study Orientalism in Western art).

    These drawings that you have are especially beautiful to me. No doubt that these images were a result of Bellini's direct interaction with Mehmet II's court and environment. If more Renaissance artists had the chance to travel to the Ottoman Empire, perhaps some of the inaccuracies and stereotypes found in Western art could have been changed.

    1. Monica, what is really interesting is the change in the depiction depending on the political climate. The unfavorable representations were a response to the rising threat of the Ottoman Empire, a non-Christian empire from the East.My selection here is very focused and brief, there were so many images in the works of Venetian artists especially since they were in direct contact with Turks. Not only did they have the literature and drawings by Bellini or other travelers but also the merchants on the streets of Venice. It is a huge topic with many interesting levels.

  4. Not quattrocento and not drawings--but here it is anyway! What always strikes me most forcefully in Turkey (particularly Istanbul) is the sheer number of huge mosques that are remarkably similar to "ideal" centrally planned Italian renaissance churches (the ones that almost never got built!) And these mosques were going up at incredible speed--whereas the big churches usually took forever in Italy and had long and complicated stories. How often have we had to sit through (or even worse give) lectures and courses on the building history of Saint Peters in the Vatican? It would have popped up in no time--dome and all--if they had Mimar Sinan there with the construction resources of the Sultan!

    1. Ed, the omnipotent Sultan having all the resources in the land and the genius of Sinan made for a perfect combination in the sixteenth century. Did you know that all the imperial mosques being built around Istanbul till the commission of the New Mosque in 1597 by Safiye Sultan, queen mother to Mehmed III, were built by war booty? New Mosque was the first imperial mosque that was supposed to be built using the resources of the treasury... but that has a long history as well which requires a whole post just to itself. The Blue Mosque was in fact the first imperial mosque built on funds from the treasury. After that we have plenty of mosques, imperial or otherwise which could never compare in grandeur to their antecedents.


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