Bringing Bellini's Mehmed the Conqueror painting back in Istanbul

Since the day Ekrem İmamoğlu became the mayor of Istanbul in June 2019, I think the most elegant and meaningful thing he has done so far is buying the Mehmed the Conqueror portrait. The mayor and the team who developed and carried out this idea should be congratulated.

Since the day Ekrem İmamoğlu became the mayor of Istanbul in June 2019, I think the most elegant and meaningful thing he has done so far is buying the Mehmed the Conqueror portrait. The mayor and the team who developed and carried out this idea should be congratulated.

We all knew that one of the three known portraits of Mehmed the Conqueror was to be auctioned because this was big news for some time. But nobody had even hoped that this painting would return to the land from which it had taken its inspiration. This was because for all those years, neither the state of Turkey, nor its bourgeoisie and its local governments, nor nongovernmental organizations had such a reflex. Obviously, some things have changed. Even though the Ministry of Culture did not move a finger, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (İBB) bought the painting. We later learned that one of the best private museums of the city, the Sakıp Sabancı Museum, also participated in the auction held in the U.K. Actually, the painting would have been very suitable for that museum as well. 

The significance of this 500-year-old painting, which is accepted to have been painted in the Bellini atelier, is that it carries the image and the spirit of Mehmed the Conqueror into today. This oil painting with dimensions of 45cm to 33cm has a small place in Western art history. Its value stems from its age, mostly because it comes from the brush of a veteran master and from the fact that the subject is a Turkish sultan. On the other hand, it has a much bigger and richer meaning for Turkey.

The portrait of Mehmed the Conqueror has enormous meaning as it symbolizes the period deemed most significant in Turkish history. It is a powerful art piece that not only represents the image of Mehmed II but also his unique world view.

Istanbul’s transition to the Turks is one of the milestones of Ottoman and even Islamic history. For this reason, the commander whose name is cited in the hadith and who later takes the name Conqueror, Mehmed II, is one of the symbolic names of Turkish, Ottoman, and Islamic identity even today. We can say that he is accepted as the most important sultan of the Ottoman Empire. This is because he “conquered” Istanbul.  

On the other hand, what made him the “conqueror” is his courage, as well as his intelligence and way of thinking that led him to build giant cannons and choose to use advisors of foreign backgrounds more than Turkish ones.   

In fact, after destroying Byzantium, he considered himself the successor of Rome and diverted his campaigns to the Italian coasts. This was so because he was a person who knew so much about Homer that he would visit Troy, read books in several languages, write poems, and have painters brought from Italy to have his portraits done. He was what would several centuries later be called an emperor of “enlightenment.” 

What is interesting is that it was the Milli Görüş tradition, the “National View” religiopolitical movement connected to a series of Islamist parties, is the one that embraced the Conqueror (Fatih in Turkish) and the conquest of Istanbul the most. Former PM and National View leader Necmettin Erbakan named his son “Fatih.” Erbakan and his followers always celebrated the conquest of Istanbul in some way in historic costumes. Today, too, his students in the government follow this tradition. They praise the military genius of Mehmed II, and they glorify war and the success won by war, gunpowder, and victory gained by blood and violence… Sultan Mehmed’s cultural heritage is not relevant beyond the discussion taking place these days on whether to make Hagia Sophia a mosque or a museum. On the other hand, dozens of texts on his cultural identity are in books and manuscripts in the archives of Topkapı Palace. And the most concrete and known objects that have survived until today are his paintings done by Gentile Bellini. These paintings have been hanging in European museums for a century.

Indeed, there were some others, living on this land, who wanted to commemorate the Conqueror and his cultural heritage before. His most famous portrait in the National Gallery in the U.K. was brought to Turkey by the bank Yapı Kredi in 1999 within the framework of the celebration of 700 years since the founding of the Ottoman Empire. It was exhibited in the gallery in Galatasaray, Istanbul, for one month, to long lines. Writer and art critic Doğan Hızlan wrote, at the time, that “Fatih’s portrait should have been ours.”

The portraits of Fatih show us that he cared very much about Western painting and found them to be universal, and thus had a portrait of himself made. His son Bayezid II, who succeeded the throne, did not adopt this style. His younger son Cem, who Mehmed is rumored to have favored and to have found more daring, lost the fight for the throne. The winner of the struggle, the devout Bayezid II, caused the end of the cultural transformation launched by Fatih. His younger brother Cem Sultan became an eccentric hostage in European palaces and was portrayed in many paintings of the period. He was also the theme in many books. Through the painting, we face Cem once more, this time with his father Mehmed the Conqueror.  

In fact, it is a mystery who the person facing Fatih is in the painting that arrived in Istanbul. In Christie’s catalog, the idea that this person is a Western diplomat is dominant. There are many different views voiced as well. But the widely accepted view is that this person is Cem Sultan. This view is based on an article written in 1973 by art historian Semavi Eyice. With a reference to famous historian Babinger, he claimed that “Mehmed II and his son, painted by Gentile Bellini” is written on the back of the painting. Why, then, is this message in Italian not on the back of the painting bought now? That is another mystery. As a result, the idea that the person across from the Conqueror could be the legendary son Cem is nice, and is accepted here.

If we come to the topic of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality bringing the Conqueror’s painting to Turkey, the person who has contributed the most in building the current identity of Istanbul, we should say that nothing can be more normal than this. We were all very surprised at this development simply because previous local administrations did make a similar move. One of the main duties of the İBB is to protect the culture of the city and meet the cultural needs of the city’s residents. This is the reason it is an establishment that has several libraries, museums, theaters and cultural centers. Actually, it does not have a proper painting or art museum. We understand from the statements made in connection with the portrait of the Conqueror that a collection is being developed, and with the new painting added, they will all be exhibited in a museum.    

Of course, we hope that this museum in which the portrait of the Conqueror will also be showcased will meet accepted standards and that the municipality will work with the appropriate experts on this issue. It is also important that this painting is not confined to the office of the mayor or a similar place, but will be able to be accessed by the public. It is also possible that this will be the opening kickoff for local governments to invest in art museums. 

For those who keep harping on the price of the painting, we should say that the money paid for a painting that contains huge connotations for Turkey is simply not important. I don’t know if it means anything, but I would like to remind you that once you cross the border to Europe at the Kapıkule border gate, in every major city, there is a painting museum containing the paintings by the masters. Turkey, which boasts that it is bigger, richer and more powerful from most of them, chooses to spend its money on bridges and palaces for prestige. This gap, somehow, seems like it will never be closed.  

To give an idea about universal painting prices, in the Basel Art Fair that ended a couple of days ago, a painting by Balthus was put on sale for four million dollars.

October 27, 2020 A new dream for Taksim