Bellini and the East
the National Gallery, Londra
12 Nisan'da Açılıyor. Aşağıdaki Yazı 8 Nisan tarihli The Guardian'da çıktı.
Capturing the conqueror
Saturday April 8, 2006
There are three artists we know as Bellini. The first, Jacopo Bellini, is remembered today not so much as a painter but as the man who brought the two more famous Bellinis into the world. His elder son, Gentile Bellini, was, during his lifetime (1429-1507), the most famous artist in Venice. Today he is remembered chiefly for his "voyage east" and the artworks it inspired, most particularly his portrait of Mehmed the Conqueror, while his brother Giovanni is celebrated by today's art historians as one of the great painters of his time. It is commonly acknowledged that his colouring had an enormous impact on the art of the Venetian Renaissance and therefore changed the course of western art. When Sir Ernst Gombrich speaks of that tradition in his lecture "Art and Scholarship", remarking that "without Bellini and Giorgione, there would have been no Titian", it is Giovanni, the younger brother, to whom he refers. But it is to his elder brother Gentile that the National Gallery's new exhibition, Bellini and the East, pays tribute.
After taking Istanbul in 1453, at the age of 21, Mehmed II's first aim was to centralise the Ottoman state, but he continued his incursions into Europe, thus establishing himself in the world as a ruler of consequence. These wars, victories and peace treaties - whose names every lycée student in Turkey must memorise and recite one by one with nationalist fervour - led to large portions of Bosnia, Albania and Greece coming under Ottoman rule.
His power having been greatly enhanced by these conquests, Mehmed II was finally able to effect a peace treaty between the Ottomans and the Venetians in 1479, after almost 20 years of war, pillaging and piracy in the Aegean islands and the fortressed ports of the Mediterranean. When envoys began travelling between Venice and Istanbul to bring about this treaty, Mehmed II expressed a wish for Venice to send him a "good artist", and the Venetian senate (who were very pleased with this peace treaty, though it meant giving up many of their forts and a great deal of land) decided to send Gentile Bellini, who was then busy adorning the walls of Great Council Hall of the Doge's Palace with his gigantic paintings.
So it is Gentile Bellini's "voyage east" and the 18 months he spent in Istanbul as "cultural ambassador" that is the subject of the small but rich exhibition at the National Gallery. Though it includes many other paintings and drawings by Bellini and his workshop, as well as medals and various other objects that show the eastern and western influences of the day, the centrepiece of the exhibition is, of course, Gentile Bellini's oil portrait of Mehmed the Conqueror. The portrait has spawned so many copies, variations and adaptations, and the reproductions made from these assorted images have gone on to adorn so many textbooks, book covers, newspapers, posters, bank notes, stamps, educational posters and comic books, that there cannot be a literate Turk who has not seen it hundreds if not thousands of times.
No other sultan from the golden age of the Ottoman empire, not even Suleyman the Magnificent, has a portrait like this one. With its realism, its simple composition, and the perfectly shaded arch giving him the aura of a victorious sultan, it is not only the portrait of Mehmed II, but the icon of an Ottoman sultan, just as the famous poster of Che Guevara is the icon of a revolutionary. At the same time, the highly worked details - the marked protrusion of the upper lip, the drooping eyelids, the fine feminine eyebrows and, most important, the thin, long, hooked nose - make this a portrait of a singular individual who is none the less not very different from the citizens one sees in the crowded streets of Istanbul today. The most famous distinguishing feature is that Ottoman nose, the trademark of a dynasty in a culture without a blood aristocracy.
In 2003, to celebrate the 550th anniversary of the Ottoman Conquest, the Yapi Kredi Bank had the painting brought from London to Istanbul, and exhibited it in Beyo-lu, one of the busiest districts of the city; schoolchildren came in by the busload, and hundreds of thousands queued up to stare at the portrait with a fascination only a legend can bring.
The Islamic prohibition against painting, the particular fears about portraits and ignorance about what was happening in portraiture in Renaissance Europe, meant that Ottoman artists did not and could not make portraits of sultans that were this true to life. But this caution towards a human subject's distinguishing features was not confined to the world of art. Even the Ottoman historians, who wrote a great deal about the military and political events of their age, were disinclined to think or indeed write about their sultans' defining features, their characters, or their spiritual complexities - though there was no religious prohibition against doing so.
After the founding of the modern Republic of Turkey in 1923, when the westernising drive was just getting under way, the nationalist poet Yahya Kemal - who lived in Paris for many years and was as well acquainted with French art and literature as he was oppressed by doubts about his own literary and cultural heritage - once remarked ruefully: "If only we had painting and prose, we'd be another nation!" In so saying, he may have been hoping to reclaim the beauties of a lost age as documented in painting and literature. Even when this was not, strictly speaking, the case - as when he stood before Bellini's "realistic" portrait of Mehmed the Conqueror - what troubled him was that the hand that drew the portrait lacked a nationalist motive. One can sense a profound displeasure in these words, a Muslim writer's dissatisfaction with his own culture's shortcomings. He is also succumbing to the common fantasy that it might be possible to adapt to the artistic products of an utterly different culture and civilisation with ease, and without changing one's soul.
There are many examples of this childish fantasy on display in Bellini and the East and its accompanying catalogue. One is the watercolour from a Topkapi Palace album that is attributed to an Ottoman artist named Sinan Beg, and is almost certainly inspired by Bellini's portrait. The catalogue gives it the title Mehmed II Smelling a Rose; because it is neither a Venetian Renaissance portrait nor the classic Persian-Ottoman miniature, it leaves the viewer feeling unsettled.
In an article about Seker Ahmet Pasha, another Turkish artist who drew from both eastern and western artistic traditions - the Ottoman-Persian miniature and European landscape painting, especially that of Courbet - John Berger spoke of this same unease. And though he felt it stemmed from the difficulties of harmonising different techniques, such as the use of perspective and the vanishing point, he also sensed that the underlying problem was the difficulty of harmonising world views. In this Bellini-inspired Ottoman portrait, the one thing that makes up for the clumsiness of the execution - and it seems to make the sultan uneasy as well - is the rose that Mehmed II is smelling. What makes us aware of this rose and even its scent is not so much its colour as Mehmed II's prominent Ottoman nose. Upon learning that Sinan Beg, who painted this watercolour, was in fact a Frankish artist living among Ottomans, and most probably an Italian, we are reminded yet again that cultural influences work in two directions and are both complex and difficult to fathom.
Another painting rightly attributed to Bellini takes us away from scholarly disputes and concerns about political correctness to suggest a more humane east-west story, and with extraordinary elegance. This marvellously simple watercolour, no larger than a miniature, shows a young artist or scribe sitting cross-legged. Because the paper that the ear-ringed youth is touching with his pen is blank, we cannot be sure if he is an artist or a scribe. But from the expression on his face, from his look of concentration and the shape of his lips, even from the confidence with which his left hand shields the paper in his lap, I can see that he is utterly devoted to his work. His dedication to a blank sheet of paper, and his heartfelt surrender of self, make me respect the young artist. I feel him to be someone who holds the beauty and perfection of his work (be it a drawing or a text) above all else; he is an artist who has achieved the happiness that can only come from giving oneself over to one's work.
My appreciation of the beauty of the beardless page's pale face combines with my appreciation of the compassion that the artist felt for him while drawing his portrait. It was first noted by the semi-official historian Kritovoulos of Imbros, and later repeated by many western, Christian chroniclers, that Mehmed the Conqueror valued beautiful and handsome youths, took political risks for them, and asked for their portraits to be painted; from this time onwards, good looks were an important factor in the selection of pages in the Ottoman palace. The beauty of the young artist, and the way he gives himself over to the beauty of that which he is drawing, combined with the simplicity of the ground and the wall behind him - these give the painting the air of mystery that I sense every time I see it.
Of course, the mystery has much to do with the fact that the paper the youth is looking into with such concentration is utterly blank. If this beautiful artist can think with such concentration of the thing he has yet to paint, it must mean that he can already see this image shimmering in his mind. We know from the way he has pressed his pen against the blank paper, from the way he is sitting, from his very expression, that this artist knows what he is about to paint. But there is nothing in his surroundings - no object, text, sketch, mould, human figure or view - to suggest what the painting in the artist's mind might be. We feel as if this frozen moment from 525 years ago will soon cease to exist, and as the artist scribe begins to move the pen in his hand, his beautiful face will light up in even greater happiness, as if he is watching someone else's pencil race across the page.
A century ago, in 1905, this painting was still in Istanbul; today it belongs to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Years ago, after wandering among this museum's great and opulent Titians and John Singer Sargents, I found my young painter on a display table in a corner, on one of the top floors. To see him, I had to lift the thick cloth resting on the glass to protect the painting from light damage and bow my head. As I gazed down at the painting, the distance between me and it seemed to be the same as the distance between the painter and his blank sheet of paper. I was looking at Bellini's small painting in just the same way that a sultan might, in a private moment, look at a miniature illuminating the thick and heavy book in his hand. I, too, was gazing downwards like the painter in the painting.
What distinguishes Islamic painting from western painting after the Renaissance, as much as religious prohibitions and perhaps even more than that, is this secretive downward gaze that Bellini captures so profoundly in this portrait. Islamic painting was a restricted art, permissable only to decorate the insides of books, and so confined to small spaces; never was it suggested that these paintings might hang on walls, and they never did! As the scribe sits cross-legged and lost in thought, gazing down at the blank sheet that will become his painting, he strikes the same pose that the rich and powerful person - most likely a sultan or a prince - will be obliged to take to look at this same painting.
Let us contrast this pose - this downward gaze of the cross-legged painter as he bends over a blank sheet of paper - with the stance a western artist might take to view his own painting: Velázquez, for example, viewing Las Meninas. We see first the things that define both paintings as objects - the edges of the paper or canvas, the painter's pen or brush, and the creative concentration on the artist's face. Bellini's eastern artist's gaze is not towards his world or his surroundings; it is fixed on the blank paper on his lap, and we can tell from his expression that he is thinking of the world inside his head. The artistry of the Ottoman-Persian miniaturist is to know and to recall all the great art that has preceded him, and to remake it in a burst of poetic inspiration. But Velázquez is lifting his head to see the vanishing point, to the world reflected in the mirror, to the world itself and the complexity of that which he is painting. We cannot see his painting either (though we guess that the scene before us is the one he is painting), but we can see from Velázquez's tired and self-interrogating look that his head is full of the weighty questions rising from the painting's unbounded composition. Bellini's young painter, however, looks at his blank sheet with the happiness of a youth recalling, with almost metaphysical inspiration, a poem he has learned by heart.
In my corner of the world, the seated scribe attributed to Bellini is well-known, even if it is not as famous as his portrait of Mehmed the Conqueror. The cross-legged figure is commonly thought to be Cem Sultan, who was treated so cruelly by his older brother and whose sorry fate was described in numerous exotic and melodramatic novels. In the textbooks of my childhood - written by the passionately nationalist westernisers of the early Republic - Cem Sultan was portrayed as being open to art and to the west, a broad-minded prince bursting with youth, while his older brother, Bayezid II, who would go on to poison Cem, was a fanatic who turned his back on the western world.
After the death of Mehmed the Conqueror, Bellini's portrait of the artist was sent first to the Aqqoyunlu Palace in Tebriz, then to the Safavid Palace in what is today Iran. Before it was returned to the Ottoman palace, either as war booty or a gift, this extraordinary painting was much copied, this time by Persian artists. One of these copies, now in the Freer Museum in Washington DC, is, at least according to those romantic souls who dream of eastern and western masters working on the same pictures, sometimes attributed to Bihzad.
To look at this adaptation from close up is to notice that where Bellini so elegantly chose to place a blank sheet of paper, the Safavid painter has placed a portrait. In so doing he reminds us how little Muslim artists knew about the western art of portraiture, and most particularly the concept of the self-portrait, and how they were beset by anxieties about their technical inadequacies in these areas. The Harvard professor David Roxburgh discovered that, 80 years after its execution, Bellini's small portrait was placed in a Safavid album alongside other portraits, including some from the Ming dynasty. A sentence from its foreword shows that even the greatest Safavid artists found themselves lacking in this regard: "The custom of portraiture flourished so in the lands of Cathay (China) and the Franks (Europe)."
But this is not to say that Persian artists were blind to the irresistible power of portraits. In the tale of Husrev and Sirin, the classic Islamic story that inspired more miniatures than any other, the beautiful Sirin first falls in love with the handsome Husrev just by seeing his portrait. The irony is that the Persian artists charged with illustrating this scene were technically naive by Venetian Renaissance standards of portraiture. In illuminated Persian manuscripts, this scene requires a painting within the painting, just as Bellini's and Bihzad's retouched portraits do - though almost always, they depict not a portrait, but the idea of a portrait.
After the Renaissance, the west first felt its superiority over the east not on the battlefield, but in art. A hundred years after Bellini's "voyage east", Vasari described how even Ottoman sultans obliged by their religion to take a dim view of painting were in awe of the skill Bellini showed in his Istanbul portraits and still inclined to praise them extravagantly. When writing of Filippo Lippi, Vasari relates how, after the painter was captured by eastern pirates, his new master asked him to do his portrait; so taken was he by its shocking realism that he set Lippi free. In our own day, western analysts, perhaps because they are uneasy about the consequences of the west's excessive military prowess, prefer not to talk of the indisputable power of the art of the Renaissance. Instead, they point to Bellini's sensitive portraits to remind us that easterners, too, have their humanity.
After the death of Mehmed the Conqueror, his son Bayezid II, who did not share his father's way of life or his passion for portraiture, had Bellini's portrait sold in the bazaar. In the Turkey of my childhood, our lycée textbooks lamented this rejection of Renaissance art as a mistake, describing it as a missed opportunity, and suggesting that, had we gone on from where we'd started 500 years ago, we might have produced a different kind of art and become "a different nation". Perhaps. Whenever I look at Bellini's cross-legged painter, I think this "other path" might have served miniaturists best. Because they could have painted so much better once seated at tables - and also could have saved themselves from aching joints and legs.
Translated by Maureen Freely.