Sultan Bayezid I (r.1389-1402), also known as Yildirım ('The Thunderbolt'), was the fourth ruler of the Ottoman Empire. During his reign, he expanded his empire into the Balkans and Anatolia, defeating a Christian army to secure his position in the region. His attempt to further increase Ottoman prestige by engaging in the Battle of Ankara led to his demise following his defeat in 1402 at the hands of Timur’s forces.
The present portrait of the Sultan, depicted in three-quarter view looking over his shoulder and wearing a large turban and richly embroidered cloak, was directly influenced by a painting of Bayezid by Paolo Caliari, called Paolo Veronese, now housed in the Collection Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich (inv. no.2243) (R. Kultzen and P. Eikemeier, Venezianische Gemalde des 15. Und 16. Jahrhunderts, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, München, 1971, pp.236-9). The discovery of the present painting is important as it re-emphasises the significance of Veronese’s original series of fourteen portraits of Ottoman Sultans, all now in Munich, which inspired the creation of at least three, if not more, subsequent sets which were painted between the late sixteenth to nineteenth century. For example, a print of Sultan Bayezid engraved by Franz Xavier Jungwierth in 1766, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (inv. no. SP.180:64), is described as ‘after a drawing by Veronese’, further highlighting the connection between the artist’s original painting and the artworks which followed it.
Europe’s fascination with its powerful, Muslim neighbours inspired a wave of accounts and paintings of the Ottoman world. The taking of Constantinople in 1453 by the young Mehmet II ('The Conqueror’) not only sparked this interest, but the young Sultan himself, who invited European painters to his court, further fuelled this fashion. The period following his reign saw relations between the Republic of Venice and its powerful neighbour reach a state of relative calm, initiating a period of exchange and trade.
Paintings served as important diplomatic gifts. Notable are a set of portraits now in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul which were shipped from Venice to Istanbul in September 1779. These were most likely the result of a request by the Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, who was interested in establishing a local genealogy of the Sultans, to Niccolò Barbarigo, the Venetian ambassador in Constantinople, for such works. Mehmed Pasha must have been aware of the existence of such a series in Venice, as established after the Venetian ‘embassy’ to Istanbul in 1579 (J. Raby, ‘From Europe to Istanbul’, exh. cat. The Sultan’s portrait: picturing the house of Osman, Topkapı Palace Museum, Istanbul, 6 June – 6 September 2000, Istanbul, Işbank, 2000, pp.136-163).
Paolo Giovio (1483-1552), the Italian historian and biographer, is also known to have owned a series of portraits of Ottoman Sultans that he commissioned after a group of miniatures which Barbarossa, Suleyman the Magnificent’s admiral, gifted to a French commander in token of gratitude in 1453. Only one painting of this series still exists, depicting Sultan Mehmed I (now in the Museo Archeologicao, Como). Contemporary copies of Giovio’s series were painted by Cristofano de’Altissimo for the Duke Cosimo of Medici (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, inv. no. 5182), as well as woodcuts by Tobias Stimmer produced for the publisher Pietro Perna (published as ‘Elogia Virorum Bellica virtute Illustrium’) (see G. Le Thiec, 'L'entrée des Grands Turcs dans le Museo de Paolo Giovio' in Mélanges de l'Ecole française de Rome, Italie et Méditerranée, 1992, Vol.104, pp.781-830, No.2).
Whereas in the Giovio series, the Sultans appear to be represented from the side, in the present painting, the subject holds a cross-shoulder glance pose in the manner of the great masters Giorgione and Titian. Veronese was known for his interest in foreigners, possibly developing the idea of a set of Ottoman Sultans for himself. When Bayezid died in 1403, Veronese would have been free in his choice of representation. An interesting detail shared by the present painting and the Munich work is the flap of fabric ending in a single pearl which hangs down from the turban. This detail may have been accidentally or intentionally re-interpreted by Veronese from a printed image of the Sultan published by Guillaume Rouillé in Lyon in 1553 (Promtuarii Iconum Insignorium) and Francesco Sansovino in 1571 (History of the Ottomans), of which Veronese would have been aware and in which Bayezid wears a helmet in which his ears are covered by a mail curtain resembling pearls.
In addition to the complete sets in Munich and Istanbul, two fragmentary sets of Sultan portraits exist in the Topkapi Palace, as discussed by Filiz Çağman (F. Çağman, ‘Portrait Series of Nakkas Osman’ in The Sultan’s Portrait: picturing the house of Osman, exh. cat., Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul, 6 June – 6 September 2000, Istanbul, Işbank, 2000, pp.174-5). In both cases the painting of Bayezid is preserved, making it unlikely that the present example formed part of either. However, Çağman also mentions four more royal portraits after the Veronese series which were donated or purchased from Dr. F.R. Martin, the Swedish collector, in 1929, for the Topkapi Palace Museum collection (ibid, p.175). It is therefore possible, though as yet unproven, that the present painting came from the same series as those once owned by Dr F.R.Martin.