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Islamic Art

A Very Special Portrait of Suleyman the Magnificent

By Roxane Zand
As an incredibly rare portrait of the fascinating ruler Suleyman the Magnificent heads to auction, Roxane Zand explores what makes it so special.

T here is always a special excitement when we receive a work of art that is significant both in historical and art historical terms, as is the case with a portrait of Suleyman the Magnificent that is offered in the Arts of the Islamic World sale on 1 May.

Not only is this portrait one of the few Western images of an Eastern potentate done by a European artist, but it probably also served as a primary source of inspiration for many later images of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent – arguably one of the most famous and fascinating of all rulers. When he came to power in 1520, Suleyman II inherited a vast empire which encompassed Syria, Palestine, Egypt and the Hijaz, including Mecca and Medina; extending eastwards towards the Caspian Sea, as far North as Vienna and parts of the African coast to the South.

As the tenth ruler of the House of Osman, Suleyman quickly became known locally as Kanuni ('the Lawgiver'), due to his important legal reformations. Also known in Europe as 'Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent' because of his prodigious administrative restructuring and keen artistic patronage, Suleyman was responsible for turning Constantinople (now Istanbul) into an important intellectual centre.

Portraits of him are rare as he did not commission these, unlike his predecessors. Details of his physical appearance were conveyed to European artists only through sketches created by artists who had accompanied foreign embassies to the Ottoman court. The two earliest known surviving depictions of Suleyman include a drawing by Albrecht Durer now in the Musée Bonnat in France, and a copper plate print by the Italian lithography master 'A.A' in Vienna, both dated 1526.

The present portrait bears striking similarities to both illustrations and it is quite possible that it even served as the original 'lost' model on which such depictions of the Sultan were based. Experts look for certain features to determine a relationship between one composition and another: in this case resemblances in the shape of his turban, the large drooping collar of his robe, his aquiline nose, fine lips and gently protruding chin with a thin moustache and slight delineation of the Adam’s apple, all point towards a strong connection.

It is always historically important to know who commissioned a work of art. In the case of this exceptional work, it is highly likely that either Andrea Gritti (1455-1538) Doge of Venice or his son Alvise Gritti (1480-1534) was the patron. Andrea Gritti had spent most of his life in Constantinople as a grain merchant and diplomat looking after Venetian interests. His son, Alvise played an important political role in the Ottoman state, advising both the Ottoman Sultan and European diplomats. A passionate patron of the arts, Alvise promoted architects and artists such as Titian who eventually painted four known 'portraits' of Suleyman.

Suleyman would have been far too grand to sit for the attendants of the ambassadors and other foreigners he received, which is why Alvise – who had artists around him and who received visits from the Sultan - may indeed be the patron behind this particular work. Everything about this work points to a masterful ‘hand’ behind its execution. Indeed, having been privileged to see it at close quarters, no less than a museum would be proud to become its next owner.

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