The Fall of Constantinople depicts a highly important moment in the history of the Ottoman Empire and Christian Europe. The capture of the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which occurred after a siege by the Ottomans under the command of twenty-one year-old Sultan Mehmed II and against the defending army of Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos, changed the course of history. In reference to the city of Constantinople, the Prophet is believed to have said in a hadith the following words: "Verily, Constantinople shall be conquered, its commander shall be the best commander ever and his army shall be the best army ever." The siege which lasted from 6 April to 29 May 1453, led to the capture of the city and marked the end of the Roman Empire, an imperial state which had lasted for nearly fifteen centuries.
The conquest was a significant blow to Christendom, and the Ottomans thereafter were free to advance into Europe. Following the capture of the city, Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1444-46/1451-81) 'The Conqueror', made Constantinople the new capital of the Ottoman Empire. Several Greek and non-Greek intellectuals fled the city before and after the siege, migrating particularly to Italy and it is argued that they helped fuel the Renaissance. Some also mark the date of the fall of the city and the dissolution of the Byzantine Empire as the closing of the Middle Ages.
The present painting is an extremely rare and important late fifteenth/early sixteenth century representation of Constantinople. The composition includes all the major monuments of the Byzantine city, most importantly the Hagia Sophia Church and the Hippodrome in the centre, with the Aqueduct of Valens in the background. Parts of Galata district appear on the right and the Vianga harbour on the lower left corner. Turkish vessels can be identified from their banners with a white crescent on a red background. Byzantine vessels as well as the vessels of those defending the city including the Venetians, Genoese, Cretans, Anconians, Aragonians and the French are also visible in the Golden Horn, positioned behind the chain which was placed at the mouth of the harbour to prevent the Turkish ships from entering. The Turkish flags can also be seen flying above a small postern gate, the Kerko-porta (‘Belgrad Kapisi’) and the towers of the Golden Gate (‘Yedikule’). As these flags as well as the smoke over the city indicate, the painting appears to be a representation of the actual day the city fell, 29 May 1453.
This painting is closely related to a small and highly important group of late fifteenth-century maps illustrating Constantinople topographically, particularly those in Christopher Boundelmonti’s (c. 1480) Liber Insularum Archipelagi, produced between 1430 and 1480 and now preserved in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. The city’s monuments and overall appearance share common features with the maps in Liber Insularum, which must have been the ultimate source of inspiration for this painting. Earlier copies of this manuscript, dating from the first half of the fifteenth century, include few representations of Constantinople that predate the city’s siege and capture by the Ottomans. There is no recorded fifteenth or early sixteenth-century oil on canvas portraying the fall of the city, making the present work an extremely rare and historically important document.