Obscurities in sultan portrait remain as historians discuss mysterious figure
The portrait of Sultan Mehmed II, who led the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, has attracted nationwide attention after being purchased by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality for 770,000 British pounds (6.5 million Turkish Liras) at an auction house in London.
Believed to have been painted by Italian painter Gentile Bellini in 1480 during the artist’s visit to Istanbul, the artwork is one of the only three portraits of the sultan made during his reign.
Despite some historical claims regarding the portrait’s fate after the last brushstroke was hit by Bellini, it is still unknown how the work was taken out of the Ottoman palace to be sold at an international auction today.
It is highly probable that the artwork was lost as a result of the political power struggles in the military bureaucracy after the death of Sultan Mehmed in 1481, says a quote from prominent historian Halil İnancık’s book, “The Ottoman Empire.”
The pressures of various power centers in the capital forced the new sultan, Bayezid II, to give up his father’s policies and these forces demanded the restoration of sharia, Islamic laws, in all spheres of life which led to the destruction of Bellini’s frescoes and selling some of his works in Istanbul bazaars, the book says.
However, the most obvious and realistic interpretation of the fate of the portrait is seen in the studies of Semavi Eyice, a Turkish art historian and archaeologist.
The work of art was found by a Swiss historian, Rudolf Tschudi, in a house in Basel in 1959, which was owned by a family in 1807 by a Swiss trader.
Following the notification of the discovery to Franz Babinger, an orientalist who also wrote a monograph on Mehmed II, an answer was sought to shed light on one of the great mysteries of the portrait: Who was the figure next to the Sultan?
It is unknown who the other person, right next to the sultan, is, even though it is stated in the writing behind the portrait that is one of his sons.
Speaking to Hürriyet Daily News, İlber Ortaylı, a prominent historian, said he predicted that the figure might be depicting the youngest prince, Cem Sultan, who had later found himself in self-exile in Europe after being defeated by his brother in their battle for the throne.
Babinger’s argument is also based on the claim that the person in the portrait was Cem.
But Cem had been serving as a governor in the Central Anatolian sandjak of Konya for six years when the portrait was drawn and the fact that he had not come back to Istanbul since his appointment leaves questions lingering over this theory .
Also, the fact that Mehmed’s other son and his successor, Bayezid, was also a governor in Amasya, another Anatolian sandjak, and that Mustafa, his other son, died years before Bellini’s visit, makes these claims weak.
One last claim put forward takes into account the person’s clothing style, skin color and beardlessness, which could indicate that the person is a foreigner who may have been very close to the sultan, bringing to minds the possibility of other scenarios that are yet to be scrutinized.