Art and Diplomacy in Ottoman Constantinople

Philip Mansel looks at interchange and intrigue in the cross-currents of 18th-century culture between East and West.

In The Muslim Discovery of Europe (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982) Bernard Lewis states that, for Ottomans, 'the idea of an alliance with Christian powers, even against other Christian powers, was strange and, to some, abhorrent'. In reality, alliances with Christian powers were a natural and inevitable aspect of Ottoman policy from its earliest days.

Ottoman soldiers first crossed into Europe, after 1550, as allies of either the Byzantine emperor, John Cantacuzenos or the city of Genoa. Thereafter the Ottoman empire rarely lacked Christian allies. Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople in 1453, was an ally and trading partner of Florence. Far from alliances seeming 'strange' or 'abhorrent' to the Sultan, on occasion he discussed policy with, and was entertained by, Florentines in the cosmopolitan district of Pera, across the Golden Horn from Constantinople itself. He had long been at war with Venice. However, after peace in 1479, Ottoman-Venetian relations became sufficiently relaxed for the Sultan to ask the Doge to find him a competent painter: hence Gentile Bellini's portrait of the Sultan, painted in Constantinople in 1480, today in the National Gallery in London.

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