Beyond Bellini

Beyond Bellini

Bellini is back! Istanbul has recently been hit by a craze of Bellini. Not the cocktail, of course, though the time is just right to enjoy the bubbly delight, but here we are on more serious matters. The portrait of Fatih Sultan Mehmed II, who led the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, hence known as Mehmed the Conqueror in Turkey, is making its way back to its hometown Istanbul, after centuries of separation. Thanks to the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, it was acquired on June 25 from an auction at Christie’s in London, after a fierce competition with a sum of 770,000 British pounds.

The portrait of the Sultan, faced by another person on the left side of the painting, is believed to be one of the three paintings by the Venetian painter Gentile Bellini, who visited Istanbul in 1479-80, upon an invitation by the Sultan.

Fatih was not only a military conqueror hero, but also a conqueror of the arts and literature, who knew many languages besides Turkish, including Persian, Arabic, Greek, Latin and Serbian. He was deeply interested in Western art and requested the Venetian Republic for an artist to be the guest of his court portrait himself. Gentile Bellini was chosen and sent to the Ottoman capital in 1479 as part of the peace settlement between Venice and Istanbul.

Coming from a family of notable painters, he was formerly appointed as the official portrait artist of the Doges of Venice in 1474. Being one of the most highly acclaimed artists of Venetian high society, he was the right one fit for the service of the Ottoman Sultan. Intimidated at first, Bellini was soon fascinated by the Ottoman life, imparting an oriental flavor to his art reflected in his later works. However, his stay was to be short lived as his host and subject model passed away in 1481.

Back to the portrait of Fatih, as it was not signed by Bellini there have been weak arguments about its originality, also questioning the identity of the facing person. Leaving that to art historians, the other figure is undoubtedly the mighty Sultan, that pointy arched nose is like a signature of Ottoman royal family. I had to opportunity to meet several times in person the late Princess Neslişah Sultan, the granddaughter of the last Ottoman Caliph Abdulmecid II, and she had the exact same amazingly affirmative majestic nose, apparently a strong gene that can surpass several generations in the Ottoman royal family.

After the death of Fatih, many artworks procured in his lifetime were either lost, or sold, or destroyed, due to political power games. His successor Bayazıd II followed the opposite path, leaving his father’s legacy and maintaining a policy to restore a more pious Islamic approach in all aspects of life, resulting in the destruction of Bellini’s frescoes and removing several Western paintings and statues from the Ottoman palace.

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu demonstrated great vision and determination in bringing the portrait back to its home, echoing Fatih’s vision of seeing Istanbul as a multi-cultural metropolitan city embracing Western arts, a great gesture of salute to the sultan who truly aimed at making Istanbul a world capital, quite contrary to the approach in turning the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, a world monument before anything else, not to mention the absurdity of the debates in covering its iconic mosaics during prayers.

Fork of the Week: When talking about peaches, one cannot go without mentioning one of the most iconic peach desserts ever created: Pêche Melba. It was created in the Savoy Hotel in London by the legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier in honor of Australian soprano Nellie Melba. A true classic, elegant and perfectly balanced, combining a scoop of exquisitely executed vanilla ice cream, fresh cream Chantilly, raspberry purée, and a delightfully sunny half poached peach, it is unmatched in its simplicity, pure perfection. The only place to be found this summer seems to be 16 Roof, the terrace bar of Swissôtel The Bosphorus, where executive chef Ali Ronay proudly serves it as the dessert of his own childhood.

Cork of the Week: Though there is still time to see Bellini’s painting in vivo in Istanbul, it is time for a good Bellini to start celebrating its return. But a very important detail to note down: The famed Venetian cocktail has nothing to do with Gentile, but it is named after his younger brother Giovanni Bellini, who was then under the shadow of his elder brother, but later outshined one-year older Gentile, becoming the most notable artist of the Bellini family and of Venice. The cocktail, made with peach nectar topped with Prosecco served in a flute glass, was invented by Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Harry’s Bar in Venice. Reportedly, he named the drink because of the resemblance of its pinkish hue, to that of the cloak of a saint in one of Giovanni Bellini’s paintings.

The Bellini cocktail is made only and solely with the highly fragrant white-fleshed pink-skinned peaches of Venice, elusive to find elsewhere, but luckily found in Turkey. Though the original recipe does not have raspberries, in later variations a spoonful of raspberry syrup or puree was incorporated, perhaps to accentuate the special pink tint. Truly loyal Venetians never use bottled or frozen peach nectar in Bellini when white peaches are out of season, but use other seasonal fruits, but of course they are no longer named Bellini, but after other great Venetian artists and composers.

To brush up your fuzzy memory on fizzy Venetian drinks, here it goes: Tiziano is with grapes, authentically with wild strawberry perfumed uva fragola; Tintoretto, you guessed it, it has to be tinted, so it is with pomegranate juice or syrup; Rossini is delightfully rosso, or red, with either strawberries or watermelon juice; Canaletto is with raspberries; and Puccini is with mandarin juice. Feel free to play with the fruits and colors and use any bubbly sparkling wine to make your own drink and name it after whoever you like. I make mine with flat fragrant peaches and name it after Selda Tokat, our heroic bubbly wine-lady, Sellini Nicely Pinky!