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Thursday, May 26th, 2005, 05:47 PM
Art and diplomacy in Ottoman Constantinople

(Philip Mansel)

In The Muslim Discovery of Europe (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982) Bernard Lewis states that, for Ottomans, 'the idea of an alliance with Christian powers, even against other Christian powers, was strange and, to some, abhorrent'. In reality, alliances with Christian powers were a natural and inevitable aspect of Ottoman policy from its earliest days.

Ottoman soldiers first crossed into Europe, after 1350, as allies of either the Byzantine emperor, John Cantacuzenos or the city of Genoa. Thereafter the Ottoman empire rarely lacked Christian allies. Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople in 1453, was an ally and trading partner of Florence. Far from alliances seeming 'strange' or 'abhorrent' to the Sultan, on occasion he discussed policy with, and was entertained by, Florentines in the cosmopolitan district of Pera, across the Golden Horn from Constantinople itself. He had long been at war with Venice. However, after peace in 1479, Ottoman-Venetian relations became sufficiently relaxed for the Sultan to ask
the Doge to find him a competent painter: hence Gentile Bellini's portrait of the Sultan, painted in Constantinople in 1480, today in the National Gallery in London.

The relations of the Ottoman Sultan with other Muslim rulers such as the Shah of Persia and the Mogul emperor were frequently hostile and, although embassies were exchanged, never attained the level of permanent diplomatic representation. The Shah was hated as a Shia 'heretic', and feared as a rival for territory in the Caucasus and what is now Iraq. The Mogul emperor, conscious of his descent from the great Timur, conqueror of the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II in 1402, challenged the Ottoman Sultan's claim to be sole Caliph and 'asylum of the universe'.

Another barrier was the length of the journey -- six to nine months -- between Delhi and Constantinople. In contrast, the journey between Venice and Constantinople took three to six weeks. By the mid- sixteenth century, soon after their appearance in Western capitals, permanent embassies had been established in Constantinople by the kings of France and Poland, the Holy Roman Emperor and the states of Genoa and Venice.

The Ottoman Empire was not only a great military power, whose territory stretched from Algeria to Armenia, and from the Danube to the Gulf: it also ruled an area of immense economic and religious significance to Christian powers. Constantinople became one of the diplomatic capitals of Europe -- in the words of a later French diplomat, the Vicomte de Marcellus, 'a centre of minuscule and complicated negotiations such as do not exist in other political
headquarters'. Constantinople embassies were considered so important that they were a nursery of future foreign ministers (such as Hoepken of Sweden, Vergennes of France, Thugut of Austria).

A Constantinople embassy, however, could be perilous. If the Sultan was displeased by a foreign government's declaration of war, or evidence that it was surreptitiously helping an Ottoman enemy, its ambassador might be humiliated, or imprisoned in the fortress of the Seven Towers by the Sea of Marmara. Imprisonment was the fate of Imperial ambassadors in 1541, 1596 and 1716; of French in 1616, 1658, 1659, 1660 and 1798, Venetian in 1649 and 1714 and Russian in 1768 and 1787. The ambassador could not be certain that he would emerge alive -- although all did.

However most ambassadors remained unharmed in the capital, during embassies which could last very long indeed: Count Jacob Colyer stayed in Constantinople as representative of the United Provinces from 1683 to 1725. A 'perfect master' of Turkish and Greek, according to Prince Dimitri Cantemir, an Ottoman official who subsequently deserted to Russia, Colyer entertained Ottoman officials 'freely' at his house and, by plying them with wine, learnt 'all their secrets'.

With no European power, however, did the Ottoman Empire have closer relations than with France. They shared the common bond of hostility to the House of Austria. When the French king Francis I was captured by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the battle of Pavia in 1525, he sent a letter pleading for help to Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-66).

The first permanent French ambassador, Jean de La Forest, arrived in Constantinople in 1536. Thereafter the French ambassador had precedence over others; his master, at first called 'king of the province of France' in Ottoman documents, was soon addressed as Padishah, 'great emperor' like the Sultan. At the height of Franco-Austrian hostility, in 1538 the French ambassador arranged for French ships to refit in the port of Constantinople and in 1543-44 for the Ottoman fleet to winter in Toulon. He personally instructed Ottoman artillery during the war against Persia in 1548-50, and organised joint Franco-Ottoman naval operations against Spain in the
Mediterranean in 1551-55.

The 'union of the lily and the crescent', as one French noble called it, became one of the fixed points in European politics -- although the king. of France, conscious of his titles of 'Most Christian King' and 'eldest son of the church', fearful of the criticism of Catholic Europe, evaded the written alliance repeatedly requested by the Sublime Porte (the Ottoman government). By the early seventeenth century, French 'Levant trade' (i.e. trade with the Ottoman Empire), principally cloth exports, was believed to comprise half all French maritime commerce. Far from being indifferent to commerce, the noble
ambassadors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were, if anything, more concerned than their successors. The Comte de Saint-Priest, ambassador from 1768-84, and a future minister of Louis XVI and Louis XVIII, wrote: 'at no time does the matter of French commerce allow the King's ambassador to relax the constant vigilance which he must pay to it'.

The Franco-Ottoman relationship offended both Muslim and Christian zealots. Partly to defuse criticism, as early as the sixteenth century, the legend arose in Constantinople that the two dynasties were related: the mother of Mehmed II was alleged to be a daughter of a king of France. In 1724, since France had recently media ted a peace treaty between the Ottoman Empire and Russia, Franco-Ottoman relations were especially satisfactory. The Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha suggested a triple Franco-Ottoman-Russia alliance to the French ambassador, the Vicomte d'Andrezel and said:

"... thee the Empire of France had for an infinite time been linked by a close
relationship with the Gate of Felicity [the Ottoman government] which was linked to Eternity ... the affairs of France and our affairs are common and if there is any difference between us it is only in religion. One of our first Sultans married a princess of the royal blood of France."

He then gave 'a thousand blessings' to Louis XV, 'wishing him a reign as long and fortunate as that of Louis XIV'.

For their part, French ministers and diplomats pretended that the main cause of their friendship with the Ottoman Empire was the desire to protect and propagate Catholicism within its frontiers. The increase of French commerce was the second. The principal motive, however, was, as d'Andrezel was instructed in 1724, to ensure that 'the power of the Turks always remains an object of fear for the House of Austria'.

France was not the Ottoman Empire's only Christian ally. Since before 1453 Poland had enjoyed closer diplomatic ties with the Empire than with France or England. In 1533 the two monarchies signed a treaty of 'perpetual friendship and alliance'. On the death of King Sigismund I in 1548, Suleyman said: 'we were like two brothers with the old king and if it please God the Merciful we will be like father and son with this king'.

In the seventeenth century, despite several wars, including King John Sobieski's intervention to raise the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683, the Ottoman Empire became a model for Polish nobles. Ottoman costume became part of Polish national dress. In the eighteenth century, the Polish saying 'Poland will not be free again until the Sultan's horses are watered in the Vistula' revealed an awareness that Ottoman power protected Poland from Russia. In 1768 the principal reason for the Ottoman declaration of war on Russia -- a crucial stage in the exposure of Ottoman weakness to its neighbours -- was desire to end Russian interference in Poland.

The meetings of ambassadors and Grand Viziers, in the Porte or a private kiosk, appeared to be a collision between two worlds: they wore different costumes, spoke different languages and followed different religions. In reality, through their respective interpreters they spoke a common language of power, profit and monarchy. In 1560 the vizier Ali told the Imperial ambassador Busbecq that the souls of princes were like mirrors which reflected the advice of their councillors. In 1689, when the French ambassador asked the Ottoman Empire not to recognise William III as king of
England, the Grand Vizier Fazil Mustafa Pasha replied that it was absurd for Ottomans, who had so often deposed their own monarchs, to dispute other nations' rights to do so.

Many ambassadors established close relations with Ottoman groups and individuals. In theory, as the Sultan's guests, ambassadors received a daily living allowance from the Ottoman government, and places of honour at ceremonies such as the circumcision of imperial princes. On arrival, or on signature of a treaty, they were serenaded (usually to their dismay) by the Sultan's band. After 1580 embassies were located in Pera, and for its Christian inhabitants fulfilled some of the patronage, cultural and ceremonial functions of a Western court. Francois de Gontaut-Biron, French ambassador from 1605 to 1610, described the Aga of the Janissaries as fort mon amy' and
corresponded with him when he was on campaign. Some later French ambassadors wore Ottoman dress, speculated in the grain trade or called their son Constantine after the city where they lived.

By the eighteenth century, alarmed by the increase in Russian power and Balkan instability, many powers saw the Ottoman Empire as a European necessity. The Empress Maria Theresa opposed further Austrian expansion in Ottoman territory. With a foresight which requires no comment today, she wrote in 1777 to her trusted ambassador in France, the Comte de Mercy-Argenteau:

"What can we gain from such conquests even to the gates of Constantinople? Provinces unhealthy, depopulated or inhabited by treacherous and ill-intentioned Greeks [orthodox Christians] -- they would not strengthen the Monarchy but weaken it ... I will never prepare myself for the partition of the Ottoman Empire and I hope that our descendants will never see it expelled from Europe."

Such sentiments were widely shared in the chancelleries of Europe (although not by her son Joseph II). With the resilience of the Ottoman army and the loyalty of the Muslim population, they help explain the survival of the Empire in the nineteenth century. In 1829 when Britain and France, not for the last time, were about to send fleets to protect the Ottoman Empire from the Russian army, the Duke of Wellington stated what most European statesmen had come to believe: 'The Ottoman Empire exists not for the benefit of the Turks but for the benefit of Christian Europe'.

The Constantinople embassies not only embodied the conjunction of political, commercial and strategic interests between the Ottoman Empire and other European states. Through the drawings and pictures of the city commissioned by ambassadors, often from artists living in their embassy, they also provided opportunities for artistic commemoration of that conjunction.

Before 1600 ambassadors commissioned from Western artists, usually members of their household, albums of drawings and sketches of the city's political hierarchy, ceremonies, daily life and monuments: the Sultan, or themselves, in procession; Janissaries, wrestlers, archers, Greek priests, Muslim dervishes; panoramas of the city. Nineteen such albums have been identified by the Turkish historian, Metin and, in libraries in Vienna, Dresden, Bremen, Oxford and elsewhere.

After his return from a successful negotiation in 1628, the Imperial ambassador Hans Ludwig von Kuefstein commissioned the first great cycle of 'embassy pictures', including a view of the recently completed Sultan Ahmed mosque, from three Austrian craftsmen in his household. Court ceremonies were critical tests of power and influence, and the favourite subject of 'embassy pictures' was the ambassador's reception in the imperial palace in Constantinople -- although some pictures depict particular events such as the Madonna hovering in clouds above the palace (an ex voto for Kuefstein's safe return); the imprisonment of the Venetian Bailo in the prison of the Seven Towers in 1649; or the renewal of trade capitulations by the
French ambassador in 1673.

The pictures naturally stress the honours paid to the ambassador. The ambassador is shown dining alone with the semi-royal 'absolute deputy' of the Sultan, the Grand Vizier, at his table in the Divan hall; or, accompanied by a few senior officials and wearing Ottoman robes of honour, enjoying the supreme honour, presentation to the Sultan in his throne room. The pictures do not record such humiliations as the ambassador's wait outside the palace while the Grand Vizier and other viziers passed before him, or his act of prostration, held down by Ottoman officials, three times before the Sultan (sources differ as to whether the ambassador's head hit the ground)'. The Ottoman intention was, as the eighteenth-century historian, Subhi, wrote, to impose on the astonished diplomat a sense of 'the superiority of the ceremonial, customs and etiquette of the Ottoman court'.

In accordance with France's role as the Ottoman Empire's most constant ally, French ambassadors most frequently commissioned pictures of the city. More than is generally recognised, Constantinople was a magnet to European artists. In the 1670s the Marquis de Nointel maintained a picture factory' at the French embassy. One artist, Rhombaud Faidherbe, was posted in the street to watch the Sultan and Grand Vizier, so that he could paint them from

The principal embassy artist was Jean-Baptiste Vanmour. Born in Valenciennes, he arrived in Constantinople in the suite of the French ambassador, the Marquis de Ferriol, at the age of twenty-eight in 1699 and remained there until he died in 1737. Clearly in love with the city, he wrote of his desire to 'instruct myself in depth on all the particularities concerning the manner and customs of the Turks'. He was permitted to accompany ambassadors to their official reception in the Topkapi palace, and his large narrative pictures of the Sultan and the Grand Vizier and their suites, signed and dated 1711, of the reception of the French ambassador in 1724 and of the Dutch in 1727, were much admired for their vivacity and naively. Contrasts of face and costume are piquant. Placid Dutchmen walk past frowning Janissaries: the French ambassador's minuscule, but fully-wigged sons are addressed by a turbaned Grand Vizier. Proximity to the Sultan was
such an honour that Vanmour's pictures inspired similar representations, by less skilled hands, of the reception of other (British, Polish, Swedish, Venetian) ambassadors. Many of Vanmour's pictures were commissioned by the Dutch ambassador, Cornelius Calkoen, and, having remained together as a collection by the terms of his will, now hang in the Rijks-museum, Amsterdam.

The number of embassy pictures was due not only to ambassadors' desire to commemorate their careers but also to Europeans' curiosity about an exotic multi-national city, which was, before 1700, the largest city in Europe. In 1707 the Marquis de Ferriol commissioned Vanmour to paint a hundred pictures of different officials and races of the city in their respective costumes: the chief eunuch; a court messenger; the Oecumenical Patriarch; a Turk cutting himself to show his love for his mistress; a Jewish woman taking goods to Turkish harems; Albanians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Wallachians, Persians and Arabs. In 1714, after his return to France, Ferriol helped arrange
the publication of a collection of a hundred prints of these pictures entitled: Recueil de Cent Estampes representant differentes nations du Levant tirees sur les tableaux peints d'apres nature en 1707 et 1708 par les Ordres de M de Ferriol ambassadeur du Roi a la Porte. The artist's name is omitted, so that the ambassador receives sole credit for the publication.

So great was the appetite for knowledge about the Ottoman Empire that the Recueil was quickly reprinted in French, and translated into German, Italian, English and Spanish. It became the principal visual source for such artists of turqueries as Watteau, Van Loo, Guardi. In official recognition of his talents Vanmour was granted the unique, but, despite his protests, unpaid post of Peintre ordinaire du Roi en Levant in 1725. After he died on January 22nd, 1737, the household of the French ambassador and 'the whole French nation' (the French merchants and scholars resident in the city) attended his funeral in the church of Saint Benoit in Galata.

Two other French ambassadors, the Comte de Vergennes (1756-68) and the Comte de Choiseul-Gouffier (1784-92), like Ferriol, both worked to strengthen the Franco-Ottoman relationship, and commissioned pictures of the city. Their artists were Antoine de Favray and Louis-Francois Cassas, who lived and worked at the French embassy in 1762-71 and 1784-86 respectively. Like many of their predecessors, Vergennes and his vrife (a Savoyarde called Anne Viviers, previously married to a Pera merchant, who had lived publicly with the ambassador and born him two sons before their marriage) were painted in Ottoman costume just before their return to Europe. Choiseul-
Gouffier, a Maecenas who employed a team of artists and savants in the Palais de France, also printed at his own expense Voyage Pittoresque de la Grece (2 vols, 1782-1809) which included illustrations of Constantinople by the artists Lespinasse, Cochin and Le Barbier l'aine.

The most impressive cycle of embassy pictures, however, owes its existence not to the French, but to the establishment of a Swedish embassy to the Porte. Sweden and the Ottoman Empire, alarmed by the rise of Russia, signed a treaty in 1740. In the seventeenth century, in the throne room of the Imperial palace of Topkapi, the Sultan had stared ahead, not deigning to reply more than 'peki', ('well'), to another new ambassador's speech. In 1744 the Sultan assured the new Swedish ambassador that 'the King and Kingdom of Sweden' -- a phrase revealing his knowledge of the king's limited power--were held not in his heart like other Christian princes, 'but much more intimately'.

Two bachelor brothers, Gustaf and Ulrik Celsing, sons of an agent of Charles XII in Constantinople in 1709-11, served in the Swedish embassy as secretaries, residents and ambassadors between 1745 and 1773 and 1756 and 1780 respectively. They both knew Ottoman Turkish and helped inspire a work which is the foundation for subsequent scholarship on the Empire: Tableau General de ['Empire Ottoman (3 vols. 1787-1820), by the First Dragoman at the Swedish embassy, Ignatius Mouradgea d'Ohsson, an Armenian Catholic who was able to research in Ottoman archives. The Celsings also sent back to Sweden, by land and sea, 102 pictures of Constantinople.

Among them are representations of their reception by the Sultan, portraits of different craftsmen and officers of the city, and a family tree where Ottoman Sultans are represented literally growing out of the branches of a tree. The most remarkable pictures, however, are the twenty-five panoramas of the city, the Bosphorus and the kiosks and pavilions of Sa'adabad, one of the Sultan's palaces up the Golden Horn, elements in which were inspired by Louis XIV's pavilions at Marly. Since the pictures are unsigned, the artist has yet to be identified.

The power of the Ottoman Sultan, the allure of his capital and ambassadors' desire for commemoration, were not the only reasons why so many ambassadors commissioned pictures. Other capitals such as Madrid, Vienna and Rome were exotic and imposing. Between 1703 and 1741 -- at the same time as Vanmour was working in Constantinople -- Carlevarijs, Joli, Richter and Canaletto painted spectacular ceremonial pictures of ambassadors arriving by gilded barge at the Doge's Palace in Venice.

Only Constantinople, however, inspired so many 'embassy pictures' over so long a period. Either consciously or unconsciously, they filled the gap left by the lack of pictures (as opposed to calligraphy, illuminated manuscripts or icons) commissioned by Constantinople Muslims or Christians. By the seventeenth century Ottoman custom inhibited either the Sultans or the viziers from commissioning or purchasing pictures. The frequency with which the Christian Phanariots (Greek officials) who served the Porte and the Oecumenical Patriarchate were deprived of their wealth or their lives did not encourage them to form picture collections. In Constantinople only ambassadors did so. Thus the clearest visual record of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Constantinople can be found not in the city itself but the pictures hanging in 'Turkish rooms' in Swedish manor houses, Austrian castles and French chateaux, belonging to ambassadors' descendants.

The last great embassy artist came from Baden. Antoine-Ignace Melling, who arrived in Constantinople in the mid 1780s in the suite of the Russian ambassador, Count Bulgakov, subsequently worked for the British and Dutch ambassadors. Thereafter, recommended by the Saxon minister, Baron Hubsch, Melling was, in his own words, 'attached for several years to Hadidje Sultan [the favourite sister of the reforming Sultan Selim III! as artist and architect'. Indeed he was so closely 'attached' that he was given an apartment in her palace. He redesigned its interior and built neoclassical kiosks
on the Bosphorus for the princess and her brother the Sultan. Adding the arrogance of a decorator to the condescension of a European, he wrote: 'an elegant simplicity was substituted for a luxury of gilding and colours which left no rest for the eye'. The French invasion of Egypt in 1798, possibly exacerbated by a personal quarrel, obliged him to quit the princess' service. He finally left Constantinople in 1802 -- with a Levantine wife (Francoise-Louise Colombo), a child and drawings of the city originally commissioned by the Sultan himself.

Melling's drawing of the palace, the port, the Arsenal, kiosks on the Bosphorus and aqueducts outside the city are masterpieces of observation. They include not only such favourite subjects as the Sultan's procession to a mosque, or a Turkish wedding procession, but also what is probably the sole accurate representation of the interior of an Imperial harem (that of the summer palace on Seraglio Point). They were finally published, with the support of the French government, as Voyage Pittoresque de Constantinople et des rives du Bosphore in 1819.

Melling's patronage by the Sultan and his sister was one sign of the growing interest in Western painting in the Ottoman palace itself. After the massacre of the Janissaries in 1826, the Empire finally began a process of radical modernisation. Preoccupied by their growing opportunities for intervention in Ottoman affairs, the embassies lost their role as centres of artistic patronage. The Sultans themselves, as in the days of Mehmed the Conqueror, became the principal patrons of Western artists in Constantinople. Having won the favour of Sultan Abdul Hamid II by a picture of a cavalry
regiment crossing Galata bridge, an artist from the Veneto called Fausto Zonaro worked as Painter of His Imperial Majesty the Sultan from 1896 until 1910. The 300 or more canvasses which he painted of Constantinople and its inhabitants (from the Sultan himself down to itinerant street musicians) make him, in the history of Western art, at once the most prolific painter of views of one city and the last great court artist.