Hi, Venice? It's Istanbul. Can You Send a Painter?
The New York Times, Dec. 11, 2005

Review of Gentile Bellini and the East, an exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Boston - When Rudyard Kipling wrote, "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," he had obviously forgotten about the long history of the Venetian Republic. A child of Byzantium, Venice exploited its ancient ties to that crossroads of Europe and Asia to build up a thriving trade in goods and ideas that shaped its art, architecture and institutions.

When the Byzantine Empire finally fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, Venice was largely cut off from the original source of its prosperity and, as importantly, its cultural vitality. Decades of war followed, and Venice found itself on the front lines in a clash of civilizations between the Islamic world and Christian Europe, an uncomfortable position for a nation that preferred trade to conflict and prided itself on its cosmopolitan outlook.

It was an unequal contest between a rising superpower and a mercantile republic whose glory days were behind it, so when the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II extended to Venice an offer of peace, the Senate quickly grasped it.

Along with the usual demand for territorial concessions and chests filled with treasure, Mehmed had one more request to make of the Venetians: that they send to his court one of the many fine painters practicing in the city. The Senate chose the best they had, ordering Gentile Bellini to stop his work decorating the doge's palace so that he might turn his talents to beautifying the sultan's palace in Istanbul.

The story of Gentile Bellini's nearly two-year sojourn (1479-80) in the Ottoman capital is the subject of "Gentile Bellini and the East," an exhibition opening on Wednesday at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here. The show captures a rare moment of fruitful cross-cultural exchange in what has often been a sorry tale of xenophobia, religious intolerance and tit-for-tat atrocities between two great civilizations. The paintings and drawings Bellini completed in Istanbul, as well as those he made upon his return, serve as reminders of the benefits of cultural border crossing.

Among the works Bellini created while at the sultan's court was his famous "Seated Scribe," in which the Islamic passion for the written word is lovingly conveyed by a European with a gift for illusionistic rendering. Here in miniature we can watch a thrilling drama unfold as one great tradition reaches out to touch another. Bellini depicts the young scholar, dressed in sumptuous robes and completely absorbed in his task, with the respect due to one whose dedication to learning embodies a pinnacle of human achievement. There is no hint of condescension here. Given the evident sympathy of the artist for his subject, it is hard to believe that the two belonged to peoples whose normal means of communication was in the form of gunpowder and iron shot.

The exhibition also recalls a time when artists were central figures in the diplomatic give and take, along with prize racehorses and other trophies that were traded among the great courts of Europe and Asia. (When, a couple of years after Bellini's voyage, Lorenzo de' Medici wished to confirm an end to hostilities with Pope Sixtus IV, he did so by sending some of his favorite artists - including Botticelli and Ghirlandaio - to Rome to decorate the new Sistine Chapel.)

A more unusual transaction involving art and politics is also recorded in the Gardner exhibition. It comes in the form of a bronze medal by Bertoldo di Giovanni with a portrait of the sultan based on a drawing Bellini had made while in Istanbul. The work was commissioned by Lorenzo in gratitude after Mehmed delivered his brother's murderer to Florence in chains.

Bellini sailed to Istanbul as a cultural ambassador, but that rather tepid term - conjuring up images of ballerinas performing dutifully before yawning dignitaries - hardly conveys the cultural gulf that a Venetian artist had to leap across or the motives of the powerful ruler who invited him.

Mehmed was a man of large appetites and larger ego, and his desire for a Venetian painter of the first rank had less to do with promoting mutual understanding than with his ideas about what befitted a ruler with global ambitions.

Bellini was the perfect candidate. The techniques and disciplines he learned in his father's workshop were the kind that traveled well. They placed a premium on the accurate description of forms and textures, allowing the artist to record exotic places as easily as more familiar terrain.

His portrait of the Ottoman ruler reveals the skills that so enchanted his patron. Set within an illusionistically rendered arch decorated with a jewel-encrusted cloth, the turban-crowned Mehmed appears fully human and yet every inch a king. The carefully individuated features, including the sharply hooked nose and receding chin, demonstrate that Mehmed preferred accuracy to empty flattery. The preference was not due to modesty, however; an inscription in the lower left-hand corner, now largely obliterated, once read "Victor Orbis" ("Conqueror of the World").

According to a contemporary account, "when the emperor beheld the image so similar to himself, he admired the man's powers and said that he surpassed all other painters who ever existed."

Bellini remained in the Ottoman capital for nearly two years, then returned home, his notebooks filled with images of the customs and costumes of the Near East. His "St. Mark Preaching in Alexandria" (1504-07), with its crowd of turbaned spectators, anachronistic minarets and exotic locale (enhanced by the inclusion of a giraffe in the background), teems with sights and sounds recalled from his time in Istanbul. "The Reception of the Venetian Ambassadors in Damascus," painted by one of his followers, likewise reflects the broader cultural vistas this sojourn opened up. For a generation and more, Italian paintings were populated by elaborately robed merchants in settings enhanced by Moorish arches and palm trees, much of this directly inspired by or borrowed from the drawings Bellini made as souvenirs of his trip.

Of course Bellini's voyage, like all such exercises in cultural diplomacy, could not fundamentally alter the course of history. Mehmed died only a few months after Bellini's departure. He was succeeded by his son Bayezid II, a religious puritan who found his father's eclectic tastes unsuitable and sold off Bellini's paintings and drawings in the bazaar at Istanbul - where Bellini's fellow Venetians snapped them up at bargain prices.

The rivalries, misunderstandings and mutual suspicions that set Muslims and Christians at one another's throats for generations remained. But "Gentile Bellini and the East" eloquently attests to the possibilities that open up when two cultures treat each other with respect and pool their resources.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

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