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Italian Renaissance Depictions of the Ottoman Sultan: Nuances in the Function of Early Modern Italian Portraiture

Rossi, Nassim Ellie

This project was inspired in a fundamental way by an interest in the function of Italian Renaissance portraiture. The essential question is concerned with the expanded functional range of portraiture within the context of early modern cross-cultural engagement between traditional foes. The dissertation casts a spotlight on the relationship between Italy and Ottoman Turkey, the most powerful and prominent of its contemporary Near Eastern counterparts. The first chapter explores the influence of the diplomatic culture particular to Venice on the artistic output -- including drawings, a painted portrait and a portrait medal -- resulting from the late fifteenth-century journey of the city's famous son Gentile Bellini to the Istanbul court of the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II (Mehmed the Conqueror). The representations of the Turkish ruler are discussed as objectively motivated, fact-focused diplomatic "documents" in the spirit of the singularly Venetian tradition of the relazione produced by diplomats of the city upon the completion of diplomatic missions. The second chapter explores the renowned portrait collection of the early sixteenth-century Comasque scholar Paolo Giovio. As part of his assiduously cultivated collection of images of "famous" men and women, Giovio unconventionally possessed portraits of both deceased and contemporary Near Eastern figures. Among these were eleven images of Ottoman sultans. Although the influence of traditional motivations for collecting portraits is in evidence, the collection as a whole can also be fruitfully explored as a reflection of the scholar's lifelong interest in history and its chronicling. The unconventional inclusion of Near Eastern and other foreign figures suggests his preoccupation with global interconnection. His carefully crafted textual treatment of the figures -- he eventually composed brief eulogies to hang beneath each of the portraits -- suggests the precariousness of attempting to handle neutrally the Near Eastern "other." The images in conjunction with the text operate as an innovatively bold and frank commentary on contemporary history. A century separates Gentile's execution of Mehmed II's portrait and a series of portraits of the house of Osman produced by the workshop of another Venetian master, Paolo Veronese, through the indirect commission of the sultan Murad III (1574-1595) and his grand vizier Sokollu Mehmed Pasha. The inspiration for the third chapter, these fourteen portraits, produced, significantly, in the wake of the momentous Battle of Lepanto, are singular within the tradition of sultan portraiture for the degree to which the figures have been animated and humanized. Even allowing for the shift in stylistic trends from the end of the fifteenth to the end of the sixteenth century, I suggest that the psychological impact of the Battle of Lepanto and a specifically Venetian brand of civic self-consciousness played a heightened role in the formal solution adopted for the commission. "Veronese's" approach to the depiction of the Ottoman sultans shifted attention away from symbolic markers of difference, such as clothing, and focused attention instead on the corporeal reality and the psychological presence of the sultans, aspects highlighting the European potential of the figures and attesting to the reality of subtle rather than rigid boundaries in the definition of Europeans as categorically different from the Ottoman Turks -- a subtle act of assimilation in a crucial moment in the history between Europe and Ottoman Turkey that ultimately exhibits once again the functional flexibility of portraiture. Considered in relation to each other, the three case studies demonstrate the subtle functional flexibility of portraiture within a context bridging diverse cultures. These various acts of representation demonstrate the culture of early modern European cooperativity through their common effort to understand a foreign culture by means of visual accommodation.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Rosand, David
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 14, 2013