In 1480, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, who had conquered Constantinople fewer than three decades earlier, sat for a portrait by the Venetian painter Gentile Bellini. Bellini had been sent to Istanbul to fulfill a request for a “un bon depentor que sapia retrazer”—“a good painter who knows how to paint portraits”. The Sultan apparently wanted his portrait done. Unlike some other requests for Italian Renaissance expertise, such as the invitation to Michelangelo to build a bridge over the Golden Horn, this one actually bore fruit.
The resulting painting, now hanging in the Victoria & Albert after a period of having been banished to the lower levels of the National Gallery due to its poor condition and somewhat questionable provenance, is—despite not being Bellini’s best, and despite Gentile not being the best of the Bellini clan—in words of the subtitle of this engaging new book by art historian Elizabeth Rodini, “iconic”, an image of “ongoing fame, across the centuries and particularly in modern day Turkey.”
Rodini refers to herself as a “storyteller”, and so she is: for as intriguing as the painting is as a work of art, the object itself has led a life shrouded in mystery, controversy and ambiguity.
Despite its flaws, the painting fascinates.
Rodini starts her tale in late 2003 in “Room A of The Lower Floor Collection” in “the basement of the National Gallery”, which is, she says, “a second-rate space for what were considered second-rate paintings.”
Indeed, Room A displayed paintings that the museum professionals would call “problem works”: works with significant questions of attribution or even authenticity, works that had at some earlier date had been cleaned or restored nearly to the point of defacement and those that simply did not live up to the considerable standards of the Gallery’s world-class collection.
After discussing the painting’s flaws, she relates that
most opinion seems settled on its authenticity, although many experts concur that less than 10 percent of what we see can actually be given to Gentile.
And yet, the painting fascinates. Rodini notes that
Mehmed’s gaunt cheeks and sallow complexion speak to the illness that will take his life within a year…
The 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari said so accurate and lifelike was the painting, that Bellini was sent packing as a result.
She refers to painting itself as a “contact zone” between cultures. It surely also exemplifies the transition to the modern world: Asia had been besting the West in science, engineering and the arts for centuries, and yet as the Ottomans were approaching the zenith of their political power, they were beginning to acknowledge European expertise. Rodini has Mehmed, the man who snuffed out the 1500-year-old Roman Empire, deliberately setting Bellini a test: “show me your famous Italian art… I’d like to see what it can do”, very much the sort of test that Orhan Pamuk (who has a cameo in the book) has play out in his novel My Name is Red.
Sir Austen Henry Layard bought the painting for £12.
The painting seems to have made it back to Venice relatively soon—Bayezid II apparently disposed of his father’s art collection. Rodini speculates that Andrea Gritti, then a merchant in Istanbul and future Doge, brought it back. But despite hints that it was in the possession of the Zen family, the painting essentially disappears until 1865 when as Sir Austen Henry Layard is stepping into his gondola one “dank evening”, he is approached by a shadowy figure who offers a painting under his arm for twelve pounds.
This episode in the painting’s life offers an excuse for a digression into Layard’s work in Assyrian archaeology, a discourse on orientalism, a description of the Ca’ Capello, Layard’s residence on the Grand Canal, his art collection, the rise of modern methods of artistic attribution and some less enlightened views on restoration.
No less interesting and perhaps more relevant to contemporary issues is the account of the attempts to get the painting out of Italy after the death of first Layard and then his wife; the will had specified that the painting go to the National Gallery. Italy, however, had other ideas and declared the painting part of its patrimony. Sir Rennel Rodd, Britain’s Ambassador to Rome, warned that the Italians consider the painting “somewhat as the Athenians regarded the Elgin Marbles.” But Europe was lurching toward World War One and somehow the painting made it out “under a cloak of diplomatic immunity”.
In a humorous coda to this episode, Layard’s nephew claimed that “all portraits” had been left to him, not the National Gallery. The Museum, or rather its solicitor, was reduced to arguing that this was not a “portrait” but a “painting”. They had to settle for rather a large sum.
After all the effort, subterfuge and legal sophistry, the painting ended up, admittedly decades later, in the basement.
In Turkey, its importance was undeniable.
Rodini wraps up with a discussion of the image’s current iconic status in Turkey, starting with the painting’s return to Istanbul in 1999. Although the painting had “second-class status in London”:
In Turkey, by contrast, its importance was undeniable… Gentile’s visit to Itanbul and this portrait were “seminal”.
The Bellini portrait is the iconic image of the iconic Sultan. It appears in textbooks, on posters, book covers and bric-a-brac. This, if one thinks about it, is curious: it is not a Turkish painting. It is as if the American national image of George Washington were by the American Gilbert Stuart, but by, say, a Qing Dynasty painter and kept in the Hermitage, or perhaps as if China had adopted the Andy Warhol portrait of Mao as the accepted rendition.
Although she will occasionally drift into speculation, imagining, for example, scenes between Bellini and the Sultan, Rodini manages to be both erudite and personable. She has an eye for the compelling anecdote. The book is never dull or overly detailed. She succeeds in telling a story of five and a half centuries of cultural interchange via the vehicle of a single object while at the same time breathing life into the object as well. And what an object it is.