Art Through Time: A Global View
Converging Cultures Art: The Sultan Mehmet II
In 1453, Constantinople (later renamed Istanbul) fell to the Ottoman Turks.
This conquest of the capital of the Byzantine Empire marked a turning point for the Ottomans. For the remainder of the fifteenth century, the Turks posed a major threat to European powers, particularly in Italy. Poised at the threshold between East and West, Venice not only benefited from trade with Islam, but also found itself facing incursions by ambitious Ottoman leaders. For sixteen years, Venice was able to hold its own in a war with the Turks, but ultimately was forced to conclude peace in 1479.
The Venetians had not only gained wealth and power through their successful maritime trade, but had also acquired keen diplomatic skills. It was customary for the Venetian government to send ambassadors and other trade officials to work with foreign leaders and to exchange gifts in order to facilitate negotiations. Recognizing the potential of the artist to fulfill a similar role, the Venetian senate sent renowned painter Gentile Bellini to Constantinople as part of the 1479 peace settlement. As a cultural ambassador of sorts, Bellini worked primarily for Mehmet II (r. 1444–46; 1451–81), painting the sultan’s portrait and producing bronze medals bearing his likeness.
This portrait, attributed to Bellini, identifies Mehmet as Victor Orbis, or Conqueror of the World. The sultan’s depiction, which was heavily repainted in the nineteenth century, fuses elements of European and Islamic culture. Bellini depicts the sultan under an arch and in near profile—both associated with power in the West since the time of the Roman Empire. Yet Mehmet is also represented in the trappings of Islamic power. In addition to a deep red caftan and luxurious brown fur mantle, the sultan wears a wrapped turban over a red taj, a headdress indicative of his rank as well as his identity as a Muslim.
Expert Perspective: Alan Chong - Curator of the Collection, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
“In 1452 Mehmet II, who is the sultan—the Ottoman sultan—conquers Istanbul, and this is, of course, extremely alarming to Venice. They see the possibility that the Islamic world would flood Europe, and Venice is the frontier state; it would be the first to fall. And this launches a huge war. And it’s a war that actually is settled only after years of conflict. And what’s remarkable about the peace treaty is that Mehmet II asks for Venetian artists to come to his court to work. He asks for a portrait painter. He’s curious about Italian art, about the accomplishments of the Renaissance, in short, and he wants to see it for himself. But he also wants to have art produced for him, for his court. The Venetians make sure that they select their most famous painter, a man named Gentile Bellini. They select a sculptor to go with him; they send at least five or six assistants to go with him and lots of materials, and they set sail for Istanbul. And this is a means of ensuring that the countries get along, at least for the foreseeable future. And it’s a period of enormous productivity. It’s just a couple of years, where this cultural exchange takes place, and we’re lucky enough that we have a few fascinating works of art that were produced at this time.”
Brown, Patricia Fortini. Art and Life in Renaissance Venice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2005 reissue.
Campbell, Caroline, Alan Chong, Deborah Howard, and J. Michael Rogers. Bellini and the East. London: National Gallery, London in association with Yale University Press, 2005.
Carboni, Stefano. Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
“Gentile Bellini and the East (December 14, 2005–March 26, 2006).” Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Web site. http://www.gardnermuseum.org/collection/exhibitions/past_exhibitions/gentile_bellini_and_the_east?filter=exhibitions:3318.
Mack, Rosamond E. Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art, 1300–1600. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001.