Portraits of six Ottoman sultans painted in Venice  in the 1600s on sale

Portraits of six Ottoman sultans painted in Venice in the 1600s on sale

The auction house Christie’s in London will be offering a series of six portraits of Ottoman sultans for sale at the Art of the Islamic & Indian Worlds live auction on October 28, 2021. The portraits cover a period of 250 years of history: “from 1326, when Orhan became sultan until Selim II, who passed away in 1574.”

The series of paintings were initially 14 portraits, of which only one set survived and “is today property of the Wittelsbach family and on exhibition in Wuerzburg.”

According to a news release by Christie’s, Ottoman Grand Vizier, Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, asked Venice’s resident ambassador in Istanbul, Niccolo Barbarigo, on June 28, 1578, for portraits of Ottoman sultans he heard were in Venice. Barbarigo had no idea what Sokollu Mehmed Pasha was referring to, but the vizier insisted and in November 1578 “the Venetian senate finally commissioned duplicates of these portraits, writing in January 1579 that they were being prepared, and confirming in September that they had been shipped.” Christie’s suggests that the paintings must have arrived in Istanbul in late September 1579.

“The original set (the Munich set) was produced in Venice in 1579, at the instigation not, as one might presume, of a European patron, but of the Ottoman Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmed Pasha,” says Behnaz Atighi Moghadam, Specialist and Head of Sale Islamic Art at Christie’s.

“Our set [a later set] was also a royal diplomatic commission of the highest standard, but we do not know the details of exactly who they were commissioned by,” she writes in an email interview.

The original set was produced in Venice in 1579. The series of six paintings to be auctioned is currently the second-largest set in existence and dates from circa 1600.

“These six paintings are a magnificent reflection of one of the most intriguing and influential cultural exchanges between the Ottomans and Europe in the 16th century. They almost certainly once formed part of a set of 14 portraits of Ottoman Sultans, of which the sole surviving intact set is in Munich,” Atighi points out. “They are remarkable for their condition, for their fantastic provenance and for the fact that six out of the 14 have survived. They are also still on their original stretcher!”

In the 1570s, the painter Veronese served as the Serenissima’s (The Republic of Venice) official painter. He received many commissions, “including monumental canvases for the administrative chambers of the Palazzo Ducale.” Christie’s news release notes Veronese was the Venetian authorities’ “obvious candidate” to fulfill the Ottomans’ “seemingly surprising request'' for a set of portraits of their own sultans.

Yet it was not Veronese who painted the portraits. Christie’s notes that Veronese is “likely to have designed or given guidance on the design of the series,” yet “there are no surviving portraits from any of the known sets that can be attributed to his hand.”

Asked about who might have painted the sultans’ portraits, Atighi says “The Munich set was for a long time attributed to Paolo Caliari, commonly referred to as Veronese (1528–1588). The Munich set is now more plausibly attributed to a “Follower of Veronese”, an attribution that surely applies to the present set and to the paintings in the Topkapı Palace Museum, which come from several heterogeneous sources.”

Atighi emphasises that “even if Veronese took no part in the actual painting of any of the surviving portraits, he can be associated with the design of the original set on both stylistic and circumstantial grounds.”

She adds that “These Sultan portraits exemplify some of the principal characteristics of Veronese’s style. He has used a three-quarter bust format but in contrast to the rigid formality of, for example, Gentile Bellini’s portrait of Mehmed the Conqueror, he has given the pose dynamism and immediacy by showing more of the figure’s face and tilting the head, thus shifting the head along both the vertical and horizontal axes; and he has in several of the portraits created a twisting movement by turning the body and the head in slightly different directions. And the textiles are given texture with the most luminous of colours, and the designs particularly of the gold and silver textiles are highly reminiscent of those used elsewhere by Veronese.”

Atighi says, “In all likelihood one or both of those models was in Venice, and the German sets were produced there. A record of the 1579 commission [by Sokollu Mehmed Pasha] was surely kept in Venice, and the majority of paintings in both sets are on a twill canvas, the weave favoured in 16th-century Venice. Two or more artists were involved in each of the two German sets: in the present set [of six paintings] the portrait of Mehmed I was indisputably painted by a different hand from the other sultans, and at least two hands can be detected in the Munich set. Multiple hands point to collaboration in a workshop, while the differences we have noted suggest there may have been more than one workshop with access to models.”

According to Atighi, it's very possible “that a set or models of the 1579 commission were kept in Veronese’s studio, which continued to function even after his death in 1588.” 

“Benedetto Caliari (Veronese’s brother), his sons Carlo and Gabriele, his ‘heirs’ as they called themselves, continued to produce work in his style, though both Benedetto and Carlo died in the 1590s, leaving Gabriele Caliari, who died in 1631, to continue the family tradition,” she adds.

Atighi notes the similarities of another painting with the portraits of the Ottoman sultans, saying that a connection can be made between them: “Support for connecting these sets of Sultan portraits to the Caliaris comes from the monumental painting in the Doge’s Palace of Doge Marino Grimani receives the gifts of the Persian ambassadors, which is dated to 1603–1605 and ascribed Gabriele Caliari. In the depiction of the heads of the Safavid ambassadors, there are similarities, not previously noted, with those of several of the ‘Veronese’ sultans. Above all, each painting exhibits a characterisation and individuality that distinguish these paintings from any other Ottoman imperial portraits, reflecting Veronese’s well-known gift for imbuing life and vivacity to his figures.”

According to Christie’s, there are “two, possibly three” early sets at the Topkapi Palace Museum that on the creation of the museum in 1924 “were found in the Imperial Treasury or in the Queen Mother’s apartments, suggesting some of them may belong to the paintings sent in 1579.”

Atighi is not so sure: “The paintings in the Topkapi are from a handful of other sets, not our set. They also include portraits of different sultans. They require further study,” she says.

Christie's news release says it is possible “that the two German sets – one in Munich and one from Landshut - derived from two slightly different models. In all likelihood one or both of those models was in Venice, and the German sets were produced there.”

“The present set [of six paintings of Ottoman sultans] can be traced back to the collection of Count Gustav Adelmann von Adelmannsfelden (1858–1938), and until 1935 was kept in Schloss Berg, his property in Landshut,” Atighi shares. “It is not recorded how the Adelmanns acquired the paintings, but the family had at least two intriguing connections with the Ottomans. Konrad von Adelmann published a tract on the Ottoman army De origine, ordine et militari disciplina magni Turcae domi forisque habita libellus [The origin, order, and military discipline of the great Turks both at home and abroad] in Augsburg in 1525. As he died in 1547, he is too early for our purposes, and it is not known if any of his descendants retained an interest in the Ottomans.”

Atighi continues to share the history of the Adelmann family, but the fact of the matter is, it is unclear how the Adelmanns would have come into possession of these paintings: “At the beginning of the 17th century Anna Maria von Adelmann married Christoph Martin Freiherr von Degenfeld (1599–1653), who took up service for the Venetians in 1642 and led their campaigns against the Ottomans in Dalmatia and Albania, returning in 1648 as a hero to Venice, where he was showered with honours and rewards. Von Degenfeld might then have had the opportunity to purchase an existing set in Venice, and the motivation – to memorialise his efforts against the Ottomans. But how these paintings would then have passed to his wife’s family is unclear.  The precise history of the Adelmann set remains to be established, but its importance lies well beyond the realms of authorship and provenance.”

Atighi notes that identifying the sultans depicted in the paintings was easy, as “each sultan is named, and also bears a number in roman numerals which indicates the chronological order they were originally a part of , for the set of 14.”

She adds that a group of paintings of Ottoman sultans of this number and caliber “has never come up at auction before.” Together the paintings present an array of sultans, almost half of the original 14. Atighi writes that the portraits are “colourful and lively witnesses to an episode that was the culmination of a century of exchanges between Europe and the Ottomans relating to imperial portraiture.”

Atighi points out that “Gifts were the oil that greased the wheels of diplomacy in the medieval and early modern eras, and the Ottomans made numerous demands of the Venetians. But Sokollu Mehmed’s request was no ordinary demand for items of fashion or curiosity.”

She compares the Grand Vizier’s request with Mehmed the Conqueror’s (Fatih Sultan Mehmet in Turkish) demand to Venice: “[While Mehmed the Conqueror’s request] was related to portraits of his own, living person, Sokollu Mehmed’s a century later was for portraits of past sultans. The Ottoman interest here was not in the paintings as an expression of Venetian art, but as visual documentation, for Sokollu Mehmed’s request – which was the ultimate genesis of the present paintings – was part of a successful imperial initiative to create a definitive portrayal of the House of Osman."

The set of six paintings of Ottoman sultans is estimated to bring in between GBP 800,000 ($1,078,550) to GBP 1,200,000 ($1,617,830).

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