Renaissance painting of Ottoman sultan divides Turkish government, opposition

Mehmed the Conqueror is a popular figure among Turks, but the same cannot be said of his 15th century painting.

al-monitor A portrait of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II that is currently displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the UK. This painting is attributed to Italian Renaissance painter Gentile Bellini. Photo by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.
Nazlan Ertan

Nazlan Ertan

@NazlanErtan_ALM

Topics covered

art, painting, turkish history, turkish culture, istanbul, ottoman history

Jun 30, 2020

The acquisition of a Renaissance painting of Mehmed the Conqueror by the municipality of Istanbul, the very city he conquered in 1453, has brought a wave of applause for Ekrem Imamoglu, the city’s media-savvy mayor from the opposition Republican Peoples’ Party. But it has brought an even bigger wave of controversy on whether it was the municipality or the Ministry of Culture and Tourism that should have bought this painting, and whether the painting was overpriced or even authentic.

Imamoglu himself broke the news of the purchase with a June 25 tweet: “A 15th-century portrait of Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror was bought by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality at a live auction in London today. We are thrilled and cannot wait to welcome this celebrated work of art in Istanbul soon.”

The painting, acquired at an auction, shows Mehmed II in profile, facing a pale-faced man in Ottoman costume. The Christie’s catalog says that it was made circa 1429-1507 at the workshop of Gentile Bellini, who spent 1480 in Istanbul, doing several paintings of the sultan. The date Nov. 25, 1480, is written in Latin in the lower right corner of the painting. 

The announcement followed a fortnight of who’ll-buy-it ever since Christie’s announced that one of the three known paintings of Mehmed the Conqueror — known as Fatih among Turks — would go up for auction. Some Turkish opinion-leaders predicted that the ruling the Ministry of Culture and Tourism would seek to buy the painting, at a time that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his cronies pay ever louder lip service to Mehmed II’s conquest of Istanbul and his decision to turn the city’s monumental Hagia Sophia church into a mosque. Istanbul’s conquest has been an integral part of Erdogan’s rhetoric that aims to evoke ancestral pride in having reigned over Christians and the city’s conquest is celebrated with extravagant festivities every year on May 29.

Culture and cultural heritage have long been bones of contention between the Ministry and the Metropolitan Municipality of Istanbul, the country’s cultural capital. The country’s top cultural attractions — old and new — are based in the 16-million metropolis, which hosted an annual 15 million tourists in the pre-COVID-19 days. Given the lucrative pie, it is no surprise that Istanbul’s local administration often finds itself at loggerheads with the ministry. Earlier this year, Culture and Tourism Minister Mehmet Nuri Ersoy announced a plan to transform the Galata Tower and its surroundings into an integrated space for cultural events, revoking the municipality's operating rights, much to the chagrin of Imamoglu.

“Imamoglu scored a goal as the Ministry of Culture slept,” reported Yenicag, a nationalist newspaper. The article read that many Turks, including followers of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), had supported the move. But it quoted some tweets that said while the AKP was simply paying lip service to “its Ottoman ancestors,” Imamoglu was taking action to bring their lost heritage back to Turkey.

In response, the Directorate of National Palaces, which runs Ottoman mansions under the presidency, announced that its Painting Museum would open a new wing that would display for the first time two paintings of Mehmed II by Italian painter Paolo Veronese and Ottoman painter Halil Pasha.

Mehmed II (1432-1481) is the first Ottoman sultan to bring painted portraits to the Ottoman Empire. None of the sultans before — and few after — ever commissioned portraits of themselves, as conservative Islam frowned upon this type of representation. In 1479, shortly after concluding a peace accord with Venice, Mehmed II requested “a good painter” and was presented to Gentile Bellini by the Bailo of Venice. “For the next year and quarter [Bellini] painted portraits of Mehmed II and his court and erotic frescoes for the ‘inner chambers’ of the palace the sultan was building on the easternmost point of Constantinople,” wrote Philip Mansel in “Constantinople: City of World’s Desire.”

The most famous of these paintings, “Sultan Mehmet II” is in the National Gallery in London. The painting, dated 1480, shows the sultan’s face and body in profile and includes two sets of three golden crowns, probably intended to represent Greece, Trebizond and Asia, where he ruled.

The one bought by Istanbul Municipality is about half its size at 33.4 x 45.4 cm (13 1/8 x 17 7/8 inches). An oil painting in somber colors, its full title is “Portrait of Sultan Mehmed II with dignitary” and shows Fatih with a young man whose identity has been an artistic riddle. “This person is said to be one of his three sons, but the little age gap between the two does not quite confirm this theory. Another view is that this person could be European because of his shaven face and white complexion," Sara Plumbly, head of the Islamic and Indian Art Department at Christie's, said before the sale.

The identity of the person is hotly debated among Turkey’s historians. Ilber Ortayli, former director of the Topkapi Palace, said that the person was likely to be Cem Sultan, Fatih’s favorite son who shared his father’s open-minded policies. This may partly explain why Bayezid II, his conservative son who ended up taking the throne, had this and the other paintings removed from the palace and sold to a Venetian tradesman. Murat Bardakci, another popular historian, said the figure cannot be one of Fatih’s sons, as Ottomans never depicted a ruler and his heir together. In a column in daily Haberturk, Bardakci expressed doubt that the painting was unlikely to be done by Gentile Bellini himself, claiming that it must have been one of his disciples.

Mahir Polat, the director of culture for Istanbul Municipality, says the painting is most likely to be by Gentile Bellini himself while he was in Istanbul, not later. “It is with great pride that we brought back this painting to Istanbul — we had our eye on this painting for a while and strongly believe that its rightful place is in Istanbul,” he told Al-Monitor. 

Polat also brushed aside claims that the municipality overpaid for the painting, which was sold at GDP 935,000 ($1.15 million). “Its value to Istanbul is beyond the sum paid — it is a symbol of the city’s heritage,” he said. In online debates, critics accuse the municipality of extravagance at a time funds are needed for COVID-19 measures and social assistance and supporters point out that at least Imamoglu spent the money on real art, rather than tasteless dinosaur statues like former AKP Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings