From Print to Trace: An Ottoman Imperial Portrait Book and Its Western European Models

By Fetvaci, Emine | The Art Bulletin, June 2013 | Go to article overview

From Print to Trace: An Ottoman Imperial Portrait Book and Its Western European Models


Fetvaci, Emine, The Art Bulletin


The oil portrait of the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II (r. 144446, 1451-81) painted by the Venetian Gentile Bellini while he was at the sultan's court in the late 1470s (Fig. 1) and the jewel-etudded gold ceremonial helmet made for Sultan Süleyman (r. 1520-66) by Venetian jewelers are well-known examples of Ottoman patronage of European artists. Whereas Mehmed II's portrait influenced contemporary Ottoman depictions of the sultan (Fig. 2), the helmet did not have a similar impact.1 On the contrary, during the second half of Süleyman's long reign, as the borders of the empire solidified, Ottoman art and architecture no longer appeared receptive to foreign models. Court ateliers began to develop a distinctly identifiable Ottoman idiom in ceramics, textiles, architecture, and, eventually in the last quarter of the century, in manuscript painting.2 Numerous accounts of the reigns of Ottoman sultans were composed in this period, accompanied by narrative images that eulogized the ruler as well as his court.3 The late sixteenth-century illustrated histories not only embodied the emergent Ottoman self-image but contributed to its crystallization through both their form and content. Patrons and authors alike began to encourage the use of their own language, Ottoman Turkish, alongside the customary Persian, to compose histories and formulated a specific visual idiom to illustrate official court chronicles.4

One important project conceived and fashioned in this period of self-definition, however, suggests that foreign sources still inspired Ottoman artists and patrons even as they developed a self-consciously local visual idiom. Created in 1579, one hundred years after Bellini's portrait of Mehmed II, the Kvyäfetü'l-insäniye fi semä'il-u'l-'Osmäniye Human Physiognomy and the Disposition of the Ottomans, abbreviated hereafter as the $emä'ilnäme, or Book of Dispositions, Figs. 3, 11, 13, 14, 16) consists of imperial portraits, but in a vastly different visual idiom from Italian paintings or prints that may have inspired it: it is illustrated in the nascent Ottoman historical style by Nakkas. Osman (act. 1565-85). The book, written by the official court historian Seyyid Lokman (in office 156997), begins with a short treatise on physiognomy and continues with individual portraits of the twelve sultans in chronological order from the founder of the dynasty to the reigning Murad III (r. 1574-95, Fig. 14).5 The accompanying text describes their reigns, appearance and costume, and character.6 The laudable characteristics of Ottoman rulers are presented as if they derive from their physiognomies, which in turn are a result of their lineage.

Imperial portraits were certainly made at the Ottoman court before this project: the informal portraits of Selim II by the former naval officer Haydar Reis (known as Nigari [d. 1572]) and the late fifteenth-century portrait of Mehmed II, inspired by the Bellini portrait and attributed to the Ottoman artist Siblizade (Figs. 4, 2), clearly served as models for the portraits in the $emâïlnâme. Depictions of the rulers were also found in narrative images (Fig. 15) that accompanied verbal accounts of events from ¿heir reign. As Gülru Necipoglu points out, the combination of verbal and visual (nonnarrative) portraiture, however, is a first for the Ottoman context.7

Necipoglu and Julian Raby have already noted in their exemplary studies about the $ema'ilnàme that Italian and French sources probably served as conceptual inspirations for the juxtaposition of word and image. They highlight Paolo Giovio's Elogia virorum bellica virtute illustrium, published in 1575 with printed portraits of the 128 illustrious men whose vitaext narrates, as the source of the portrait-w'fajuxtaposition of the §emä'ünäme (Figs. 2, 10) .8 Yet the question of why the Ottoman creators of the manuscript deemed European models useful, interesting, or attractive still remains to be answered. The relation between the Elogia and the §emä'ilnäme goes further than the image-text parallel to encompass shared concepts of historiography, physiognomy, and portraiture.

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