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With the establishment of Islam in the seventh century a lively interaction arose between Christian Europe and the Islamic Orient. Merchants, pilgrims, travellers, diplomats, soldiers and escaped captives carried fantastical descriptions of 'the other', often inspired more by fiction than fact. Throughout the Middle Ages, the two cultures co-existed with differing degrees of harmony but the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 strained relations, especially when the Ottomans began expanding into Central Europe and the Mediterranean. Nonetheless the conquerors adopted much of the cultural heritage of their vanquished subjects while their presence in continental Europe sparked a fascination with the highly developed culture of the east.
The victorious Sultan Mehmed II (r 1451–81) was quick to embrace European developments in the arts and sciences, filling his library with the works of Homer, Greek philosophers, and Christian bibles while swelling his court with Italian artists and metal workers. He also adopted the practice, popular among European rulers, of immortalizing himself in portraits and coins. The most famous of these is the 1480 portrait by Gentile Bellini depicting the sultan in three-quarter profile against a Renaissance style arch. Soon other sultans were following suit, though many of their portraits, such as Veronese's dramatic 1575 painting of Osman I, were based on descriptions rather than live sittings; it is said that Veronese, who never actually visited the Ottoman Empire, would frequent the Piazza San Marco in his native Venice to paint the foreigners gathered there.
With the influx of European artists to the Ottoman courts, local artists began imitating the Western effects of modelling and shading. Meanwhile European artists working in the Ottoman court created sketches of local life, and soon Turkish costumes, fabrics and carpets began to appear in European works such as Bellini's 1504 St Mark Preaching in Alexandria with its intermingling of austere monks and flamboyant turbanned merchants, camels and giraffes.
As well as paintings by some of the greatest artists of the Renaissance – Titian, Tintoretto, Memling, Durer and Veronese – the catalogue presents a range of domestic objects. While the multitude of textiles, carpets and spices which flooded the European market attests to the Western fascination with Oriental culture, the presence of Polish linen, Transylvanian knives, German silver, Silesian cloth and Russian furs in the Ottoman court demonstrates that this exchange went both ways. Despite much belligerent Christian fanfare – inspired in part by the Tatars’ habit of kidnapping Polish and Ukrainian captives to sell in the slave markets of Cairo and Istanbul – goods, people and information circulated widely across the cultural divide. While many depicted the Turks as cruel barbarians, others praised their meritocratic government, military discipline, intelligence and sense of justice. While some railed against their expansionist policies, others celebrated their poetry, arts and culture.
This book the catalogue for a fascinating exhibition of objects and art works which ran in Brussels' Centre for Fine Arts in Spring 2015, and will be in Krakow's National Museum from 26 June–27 September 2015. The catalogue, like the exhibition, explores the influence of Ottoman culture on Europe's artists and craftsmen. Today, when Turkish/European relations are strained by rising nationalism and religious fundamentalism, this exhibition presents at timely reminder of the need to understand, and celebrate, our foreign neighbours.
The Sultan's World: The Ottoman Orient In Renaissance Art edited by Robert Born, Michal Dziewultski and Guido Messling is published by Hatje Cantz, Germany, 2015. 296 pp., 205 illus, £45.00, $75.00. ISBN 978-83-7581-180-3