With Thomas Agnew & Sons Ltd., London, 1931;
Jackson-Higgs collection, New York;
(From which sold?) Sale, New York, American Art Association, December 1932;
William Fox collection;
Arthur Erlanger collection, New York;
With Acquavella, New York;
Baron Waldemar von Zedtwitz collection, New York, 1962.
Venise et l'Orient 828-1797, Institut du monde arabe, Paris, 2006;
Venice and the Islamic World 828-1797, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2007.
Executed in Venice some thirty years after the famous prototype by Gentile Bellini in the National Gallery, London, this is one of the few western images of an eastern potentate done by a European artist.
By the late 1470s relations between the Republic of Venice and its powerful neighbour, the recently-established empire of the Ottoman Turks, had reached a state of relative calm. The preceding two and a half decades had witnessed a seismic upheaval in the geo-political landscape of the north-eastern Mediterranean; beginning in 1453, when the 21-year-old Ottoman sultan, Mehmed II, marched in triumph through the streets of Constantinople, sending shockwaves through the ancient lands of Eastern Christendom. Throughout the 1460s and 70s, Mehmed continued to extend his empire with territorial gains in Greece, Bosnia and Albania.
By 1479, his power and prestige greatly enhanced, Mehmed was able to effect a peace treaty with the Venetian Republic that ceded further land and strategic fortresses in the Aegean to the Ottomans. We are told that in the course of the negotiations between the Sublime Porte and the Venetian senate, Mehmed expressed a wish for a "good artist" to be sent to Istanbul, and the Doge duly dispatched Gentile Bellini (1429-1507), who at that time was regarded as the leading painter working in Venice.
The Venetian 'embassy' to Istanbul in 1479, which included diplomats as well as painters, resulted in Bellini's celebrated portrait of Mehmed Fatih, dated 25 November 1480, now in the National Gallery, London, as well as a medal, several drawings and studies of figural subjects (and their ravishing costume) observed during the artist's two-year sojourn in the Ottoman capital.
Bellini's "journey to the east", and his measured and sensitive reponse to an unfamiliar 'oriental' culture, finds a counterpart in Mehmed's own fascination with the 'occidental' tradition of figural representation and his concern to express his own place within that tradition as a conqueror, and now ruler, of an empire that spanned both east and west. These preoccupations are evident in Bellini's portrait where imperial symbolism and allegory are manifest: the bust-length pose and triumphal arch harking back to imperial Roman models; the three crowns referencing the three domains of Greece, Trebizond and Asia; and the proud profile alluding to a lineage of great conquerors going back to Iskandar (Alexander). In appropriating the ancient realm of Byzantium, Mehmed consciously viewed himself as the new 'King of Rum [Rome]', heir to Alexander the Great and the Caesars.
A year after Bellini's portrait was painted Mehmed Fatih was dead. His successor, Bayezid II (1481-1512), "was as averse to figural painting as his father was fond" (Venice and the Islamic World, 2007, p.107) and, according to Giovanni Angiolello, the historian, all of Mehmed's paintings including the Bellini portrait were disposed of in the bazaar where they were acquired by Venetian merchants and brought back to Venice (Bellini and the East, 2005, p.95). The present portrait must have been painted soon after as the pose has been updated with a fashionable cross-shoulder glance in the manner of Giorgione and Titian.
Bellini's iconic image, which encapsulates the imperial ambitions of 'The Conqueror', became quite literally an icon, when in 2003 Turks of all ages queued in their tens of thousands to catch a glimpse of the painting when it returned briefly to the Turkish capital. The appearance on the market of this lesser-known but hugely important second painting provides an exceptional opportunity for a major institution or private buyer to acquire a work of outstanding public interest and historical importance.
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