It's difficult today to imagine Baghdad and Washington exchanging a court painter as part of a peace treaty. But in 1479, the resolution of a war between the Italian city-state of Venice and Sultan Mehmet II of Constantinople included such a provision. After losing a long and expensive struggle against the Ottoman Turks, the Venetians agreed to loan a top painter to the sultan. They chose Gentile Bellini.
Bellini came from a family of artists that included his father, Jacopo, and his younger brother, Giovanni. At age 50, he was at the height of his powers and popularity. He had been commissioned to paint murals for the Doge's Palace (the seat of Venetian government), and it is likely that he was recommended for the Turkish job, or at least talked into taking the assignment, by a diplomat friend.
Bellini's two years in the sultan's service were marked by his close observation of this cosmopolitan city and its people. While very little of Bellini's Venetian work remains, a tantalizing number of drawings and paintings from Constantinople (now Istanbul) survive. These works fill out the exhibition "Gentile Bellini and the East," at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
This small, jewel-like exhibition tells not just about a neglected painter of the early Italian Renaissance, but also how cultural curiosity flourished throughout the Mediterranean. Even frequent territorial disputes could not dampen the cultural and trade exchanges that brought the artistry and wealth of the Near East into close contact with the virtuosity of Italian craftsmen.
Sultan Mehmet II was known for his fierceness in battle and for his sweeping ambition. But rulers bent on global domination also needed expertise in languages, religions, scholarship, statesmanship, and culture. From letters written by Italian diplomats, scholars have determined that Mehmet was a cultured man who appreciated the art of the Byzantine Empire he had so roughly overthrown. He greatly admired Christian devotional art, giving rise to rumors of his conversion. He even intervened to save Greek Byzantine mosaics in the Church of Hagia Sofia, now considered one of the most important monuments of the Greek Orthodox Church.
Instead of closing off Constantinople to Christians and Jews, Mehmet encouraged them to return and set up trade. He also brought in painters, sculptors, and metalworkers from Naples and Florence. Whatever skills the Italians had, Mehmet was determined to bring them into his court.
This spirit of curiosity ran both ways, with the Italians paying close attention to Islamic innovations, as demonstrated by several carved and inlaid brass containers featured in the exhibition, along with medals, textiles, and historic documents.
"We think of Islamic states as closed," says Alan Chong, co-curator of the exhibition, "but they really aren't." He explains that Mehmet, like other rulers, looked to classical heroes for inspiration, even Western heroes such as Alexander the Great. Cultural exchange played an enormous role in satisfying those aspirations.
Bellini's voyage to Constantinople must have been undertaken with some trepidation. It's easy to wonder if he saw himself as a cultural ambassador or as the pawn in a huge international chess game. Whatever his thoughts, once he had arrived, he turned his discerning eye on the city with the zeal of an anthropologist. He made pen and ink drawings of people he encountered on the street, including one of a minutely observed drawing of a young Greek. On the drawing's edges, he even noted the color and texture of her gown and veil. He drew scholars and soldiers in the Topkapi, the sultan's palace, again making annotations for future use.
Mehmet, like most conquerors, enjoyed having his portrait done. The first such painting by Bellini in the exhibition is dated a year after his arrival, leaving scholars to muse that perhaps the sultan tested Bellini by demanding examples of other portraiture before he agreed to have his own made. It was not unusual for Muslim rulers to indulge in this popular Western fashion. The Koran is often assumed to forbid figurative art, but Mr. Chong says the Koran's injunction is against images of the prophet Muhammad. Bellini's portrait of Mehmet was considered an excellent likeness and was much copied. That, along with his other work, earned him a great reputation among the Turks.
Bellini must have had excellent access to the Ottoman court, with the exception of the women's quarters. No images exist of Muslim women, not even veiled ones. However, he was able to delineate with remarkable intimacy the faces and garb of courtiers and others of the sultan's household. One such stunning portrait is of a young man, "Seated Scribe," believed to be a page at Mehmet's court. This work, in brown ink with watercolor and gold, shows Bellini's complete mastery of the Islamic decorative technique and is the exhibition's centerpiece. In this painting, the worlds of East and West mingle with a delicacy and harmony that modern viewers can only admire - and envy.
• 'Gentile Bellini and the East' continues at the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Boston through March 26. It will be at London's National Gallery April 12 to June 25.