Bellini’s Portraits of the Ottoman Sultan

In the Guardian, Orhan Pamuk writes about Gentile Bellini’s portraits of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II.


…Gentile Bellini’s “voyage east” and the 18 months he spent in Istanbul as “cultural ambassador” that is the subject of the small but rich exhibition at the National Gallery. Though it includes many other paintings and drawings by Bellini and his workshop, as well as medals and various other objects that show the eastern and western influences of the day, the centrepiece of the exhibition is, of course, Gentile Bellini’s oil portrait of Mehmed the Conqueror. The portrait has spawned so many copies, variations and adaptations, and the reproductions made from these assorted images have gone on to adorn so many textbooks, book covers, newspapers, posters, bank notes, stamps, educational posters and comic books, that there cannot be a literate Turk who has not seen it hundreds if not thousands of times.

No other sultan from the golden age of the Ottoman empire, not even Suleyman the Magnificent, has a portrait like this one. With its realism, its simple composition, and the perfectly shaded arch giving him the aura of a victorious sultan, it is not only the portrait of Mehmed II, but the icon of an Ottoman sultan, just as the famous poster of Che Guevara is the icon of a revolutionary. At the same time, the highly worked details – the marked protrusion of the upper lip, the drooping eyelids, the fine feminine eyebrows and, most important, the thin, long, hooked nose – make this a portrait of a singular individual who is none the less not very different from the citizens one sees in the crowded streets of Istanbul today. The most famous distinguishing feature is that Ottoman nose, the trademark of a dynasty in a culture without a blood aristocracy.