Gentile Bellini was a crucial asset in the restoration of peace between Venice and Istanbul. It is important to note that Istanbul had been under Venetian rule for a long time and was a crucial source of goods and services. It was until 1453 when the Byzantine Empire was overthrown by the Ottoman Turks resulting in almost two decades of prolonged war. The war came about as Venice tried to regain control to retain their lucrative commercial activities. Their efforts were however unsuccessful, and in the end, they had to agree to the Sultan's offer for peace. Sultan Mehmed II made a unique request from the Venetians. He wanted them to send their best painter to Istanbul to help in the decoration of his palace. This is where Bellini was picked and offered to the Sultan as leverage to the peace treaty (Campbell & Chong, 2005). He went on to become a mediator between the two cities located in two different geographic hemispheres and practicing two different religions.
Bellinis talent was not subject to doubt because the Sultan did not specify the name of the painter he wanted. Instead, his ambassador was sent to deliver a message that a good painter was needed by Mehmed II. The officials at the Doge's palace selected Bellini who was already involved in several public works. His decoration of the palace in Venice had to be put on hold until his return from the East. Bellini's journey to Istanbul was in 1479, and he stayed there for two years for which he completed several works of art. Concurrently, Bellini was in the Turk city as a cultural ambassador. As a test, Bellini was asked to make his self-portrait which he did a masterpiece. At this point, it was evident that the sultan was interested in having his portrait made only by the best artist he could get (Raby, 1982).
Gentile Bellini's was finally commissioned to work on the portrait of Mehmed II (dated November 25, 1480, in London, National Gallery). The painting is abundant in the Turkish culture and the Islamic religion. The sultan's facial features are illustrated, and the inclusion of the headband is an observation of culture. Three crowns are placed on the left and right upper corners probably as a symbol of the royal stature of the sultan. The sultan is wearing a colorful robe and the decoration placed just under the portrait resembles rugs and mats common in the Islam world (Martin, 1906). It is stated that the Sultan's desire for a portrait was to announce to the entire world that he was the most handsome man. Bellini did not disappoint in creating the reputation (Rodini, 2017).
The other notable portrait is Bellini while at Istanbul is that of a Seated Scribe (Dated 1479-1480, in Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum). Here, Bellini creates a visualization of the Islamic thirst for literature. The young scholar in the portrait is dressed in robes and appears to have all his attention on the scribe placed on his lap. Again, this portrait has the persona wearing a turban. Bellini helped to shape the perception of the West on Sultan Mehmed II by painting Mehmed II Smelling a Rose (Dated 1480, in Istanbul, Topkapi Museum). This work has been redone by many artists after Gentile Bellini. In the 15th Century, the sultan had gained a reputation for being one of the greatest rulers of the world. The fact that he had been able to take Istanbul from the rule of Venice made him feared. The painting serves to pacify this perception and portrays the Sultan as having a desire for peace and love (Rodini, 2017). The rose flower is often used to symbolize these two values.
While at the Sultan's palace in his two-year sojourn, Gentile not only decorated the castle but also enjoyed spending time with the palace staff. As a pioneer visiting the Ottoman Courts, his way of seeing the Turks changed as he showcased them as good people. He made paintings of Turkish bodyguards and soldiers as well as other dignitaries of the court. His paintings of the sultan and the royal family showed power based on the gait, posture, headwear turbans, and the colors of the robes.
After two years in Istanbul, Bellini returned to Venice where he finished some of the work he had started and even embarked on new projects. Contrary to what many people thought, his artwork was not entirely influenced by the Turkish culture upon his return. Instead, he was able to put a blend between Byzantine, Turkish, and Venetian ways of life. A notable painting after 1980 is the Procession of the Relic of the True Cross in St Mark's Square (Dated 1496, in Venice, Gallerie dell'Accademia). This art was made to show more about the Venetian lifestyle than the actual theme of the miracle of recovery of a dying man at St. Marks Basilica. The Miracle at San Lorenzo Bridge (1500 in Venice, Gallerie dell'Accademia) is another excellent work that shows Gentile's trait of being a great-view painter. He puts focus in bringing out narrative detail and a perspective aided by calm contours.
Gentile Bellini depicted the culture of the Turks in the painting, St Mark Preaching in Alexandria (Dated 1504-1507, Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera.). This was a joint work with his brother, Giovanni. The congregation wearing turban must have been a reminder of the period Gentile spent in Istanbul. The portrait of Madonna and Child Enthroned in the late 15th Century also has a rug with designs of Turkish origins at the feet of the Virgin Mary which seems to be influenced by his time in the East.
It is evident that Gentile Bellinis travel to Istanbul changed perceptions in both cities. The differences based on religion and culture had brought about hostility to both sides. Bellini's time at the Ottoman Court proved to the sultan and other dignitaries that the Venetian artists were as good as their reputation. At the same time, there was no clash of religions at that time. Instead, he showed that the Christians were willing to respect the Islam culture. When he went back to the Venice, Bellini helped in making the Venetians understand the culture of the Ottomans by including some aspects such as turbans in his painting. The result was to quash superstition, xenophobia, and to end religious intolerance through his art (Renda, 2005).
Campbell, Caroline, and Chong, Alan. Bellini and the East. Yale University Press, 2005.
Martin, J. R. "A portrait by Gentile Bellini found in Constantinople." The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs9.39 (1906): 148-144.
Raby, Julian. "A Sultan of Paradox: Mehmed the Conqueror as a Patron of the Arts." Oxford Art Journal 5.1 (1982): 3-8.
Renda, Gunsel. "The Ottoman Empire and Europe: Cultural Encounters." Cultural Contacts in Building a Universal Civilisation (2005): 277-303.
Rodini, Elizabeth. "The sultans true face? Gentile Bellini, Mehmet II, and the values of verisimilitude." The Turk and Islam in the Western Eye, 14501750: Visual Imagery before Orientalism (2017): 21-40.
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