Talk about lifestyles of the rich and famous: In the 15th century, the Medicis had to keep up with the Mehmeds. In fact, the Renaissance princes learned a trick or two from the Ottoman sultans whose tastes leaned toward gold-threaded robes, bejeweled turbans and ornate weapons. The worshipers of Allah felt in competition with the Roman Catholics across the sea, and their lavish acquisitions advertised their power as well as their devotion to Islam.
These sumptuous trappings and their role in Ottoman life are the subject of a tantalizing exhibition, "Palace of Gold & Light: Treasures From the Topkapi, Istanbul" at the San Diego Museum of Art from Friday to Sept. 24. The show will then travel to the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., from Oct. 15 to Feb. 28, 2001.
The assembled riches are drawn from the collections of the Topkapi Palace Museum, part of the walled city in Istanbul built by Mehmed II, the Conqueror, which remained home to Ottoman sultans until the middle of the 19th century. The exhibition was organized for the nonprofit Palace Arts Foundation by professor Tulay Artan, a social historian at Sabanci University, Istanbul, and senior advisor and Islamic art authority Walter Denny, a professor of art history and Middle East studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. It includes about 200 works of art and artifacts, some of which have never before left the palace.
In the history of art, the accumulation of riches accompanies the consolidation of power. This show differs from earlier exhibitions of Ottoman art by examining its origins. "This show," Artan says, "focuses on the role of Mehmed the Conqueror and the founding of the Ottoman Empire."
In 1453, the youthful Mehmed II, an admirer of Alexander the Great, had his ships dragged over land under cover of night to the body of water known as the Golden Horn, where he launched a surprise rear attack to conquer the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. The name of the Christian city was changed to Istanbul, which became the new capital of Mehmed's Ottoman empire. He built Topkapi on the lofty site of the ancient Byzantine acropolis. The enormous seaside complex faced Europe to the West and Asia to the East, symbolizing the empire's position.
Mehmed II was not only a warrior, but also an aesthete and scholar who spoke Greek, Latin, Persian, and Arabic, and maintained an extensive library. Mehmed II had his portrait painted by the Italian Gentile Bellini. Subsequent sultans pursued his twin interests, especially Suleyman I, the Magnificent, considered one of the empire's great arts patrons.
By the 16th century, Ottoman rule extended to the Balkans from Greece to the border of Austria, the Arab East, North Africa, Crimea, Hungary, and, at times, parts of Italy, Sicily, Poland and Ukraine.
A benefit of this far-flung empire was access to the finest craftsmen, many of whom came to work for the sultans at Topkapi. From painting to embroidery, jewelry to book-binding, the art and artifacts created under Ottoman patronage reflect the diverse taste and styles of Eastern and Western cultures.
"By the second half of the 16th century, the Ottomans had developed a distinctive style that the empire looked back to as their great classical period. The art of this period was reflective of the fact that their culture and their political power had reached their zenith at the same time," Denny said. "The artistic style of the second half of the 16th century came to symbolize everything that was good, powerful, effective and just."
While the Ottomans, situated in the center of the silk trade, borrowed designs from China, India and elsewhere, they tailored them to their own ends. The ornamental scrolls of leaves and vines, known as saz, epitomized the 16th century designs of Shah Kulu, while his student, Kara Memi, elevated the use of floral motifs. Aspects of these decorations can be found on textiles, pottery, household implements, weapons, jewelry and books. While the elaborate designs are refreshing and pretty, they also serve as metaphoric reminders of the gardens of paradise.
The Ottomans' well-earned reputation as fearsome warriors of nomadic origins is symbolically addressed in the first section of the exhibition, "The Conqueror and His Court." The bone-handled, 40-inch-long curved sword that Mehmed II carried into battle is included in the show, along with his talismanic shirt embroidered with Koranic script asking for divine protection. The aesthetics of military prowess appear in the heavily decorated quivers and arrows, elaborate suits of armor and a fur-lined caftan. Books and paintings detail Mehmed II's exploits, and his spiritual raison d'e^tre is evident in the ornate calligraphy honoring Allah, along with pierced metal lamps representing the light of God, and the carpets woven with patterns of stars.