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THE LAST COURT PAINTER: FAUSTO ZONARO AND ABDULHAMID II
1.       Roswitha
4132 posts
 09 Aug 2008 Sat 10:11 pm

 

Istanbul was a natural destination for a struggling artist. Containing about one million inhabitants, it was not only capital of an empire which stretched from Albania to Armenia, and from Salonika to Sana´a, but also one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Approximately 58 % of the Ottoman population were Muslim, 22% Orthodox, 15% Armenian, and 5% Jewish. In addition there were many foreigners, for whom Istanbul was a land of opportunity, particularly since imperial decrees in 1839 and 1856 had made all religions, in theory, equal under the Sultan. Regarding prosperity in the Ottoman Empire as more attractive than freedom in the newly independent Kingdom of Greece, thousands of Greeks left in order to work in Istanbul. Poles and Hungarians found the Ottoman Empire a haven from oppression in the Russian or Austrian empires. The Sultan´s court painter in 1864-76 was a Pole, Stanislas Chlebowski, as were many Ottoman generals. Istanbul had three roles. It was one of the diplomatic and commercial centres of Europe, to which it had been connected by train since 1888; it was a modernising metropolis where schools taught French as well as Ottoman to the empire´s elite, Muslim, Christian and Jewish; and, since the Ottoman Sultan was Caliph of the Muslims, it was the capital of Islam.

The cosmopolitan nature of the Ottoman capital was expressed in the Almanach du Levant, which gave the date, the name of the relevant religious festival and the time of sunset and sunrise (Muslims and Jews still lived by a calendar in which the day began at sunset) for each day in Ottoman, Greek, Armenian, Ladino, Bulgarian and French. The costumes which could be admired on the Galata bridge, linking the European city of Pera to the traditional Muslim districts of Istanbul, included Greeks in flared white kilts; Circassians in black sheep skin caps; Kurds in embroidered jackets; Albanians in white breeches, as well as Europeans wearing the latest fashions. One witness said: ´there is nothing like it in the whole world from San Francisco to Peking, nothing so vivid, so alive, so heterogeneous, so anomalous, so fascinating´.

Italians too had been living in Istanbul, since before the Ottoman conquest in 1453, owing to the presence of colonies of Venetian and Genoese traders. Until its replacement in the middle of the nineteenth century by French, the second language of international commerce in Istanbul, as in the other ports of the Levant, was Italian. The man who helped Sultan Mahmud II turn Ottoman troops into a modern army after the massacre of the Janissaries in 1826 - and who taught the Sultan to ride in the western fashion - was an elegant officer from Piedmont called Colonel Calosso. An artist from Malta, Count Amedeo Preziosi, had lived in Istanbul, painting its people and costumes, in 1842-76.

When Zonaro arrived in Istanbul, it was ruled by Sultan Abdulhamid II. Intelligent but autocratic, he had dissolved the first Ottoman parliament and ended the brief experiment with constitutional government in 1878, only two years after his accession. Traumatised by the deposition and suicide of his uncle Abdulaziz in May 1876, the deposition three months later for mental instability of his brother Murad V, soon followed by a war which brought the armies of Tsar Alexander II within sight of the minarets of Istanbul, at times, in the words of one of his Grand Viziers he was ´out of his mind with fear and jealousy´. Imperialism and nationalism threatened the very existence of the empire. He reacted by concentrating power in the palace of Yildiz located outside Istanbul on a hill above the Bosphorus (it was called Yildiz, or star, since it was so easy to see the stars there).

Abdulhamid rarely visited the city of Istanbul. Instead he made Yildiz into a separate palace city, the last great power statement of the Ottoman dynasty. It was at once a palace, a ministry, a military head-quarters, and a university. Behind the high walls of Yildiz were offices, barracks, museums, schools, hospitals, pavilions, a theatre, a library, a furniture factory, a photography laboratory, a printing press and a zoo. Ministers were summoned there at any time of day or night. In 1895 the French ambassador was told ´The Sultan has ended by absorbing everything...Everything is decided at the palace, the most insignificant as well as the most important affairs´. He was said to pay one half of his empire to spy on the other.

Even in Istanbul itself there were nationalist demonstrations. On 18 September 1895 2000 armed Armenians demonstrated in front of the offices of the Sublime Porte, the Ottoman government, crying ´Liberty or death´. Abdulhamid reacted, both in 1895 and after a terrorist attack in 1896, by allowing Armenians to be massacred in the streets of his capital by mobs of men ´laughing like children on holiday´, in the words of a foreign diplomat. Ottoman soldiers and policemen looked on, or occasionally joined in.

A foreign artist like Zonaro, however, was the right man in the right place. The Sultan rarely permitted the construction of a factory. Possibly fearing the use of electricity by terrorists, he allowed it only in embassies, hotels, hospitals and his own palace - not in the city itself. Contemporaries regarded Istanbul as a miracle of beauty. The future King Abdullah of Jordan called it ‘fascinating beyond description, a city of great beauty enthralling in every season, summer and winter alike…nobody and nothing seems strange and you can find anything you want from any country.’ The air of the Bosphorus was ‘tonic to the body and exhilaration to the spirit’. An employee of the Ottoman Bank called Louis Rambert found the Bosphorus ‘a spectacle of real enchantment…What light! What sunshine!’

Few cities have been recorded so fully, by one artist, as Istanbul by Fausto Zonaro. By his own count, Zonaro painted (out of a total oeuvre of about 2,400 works in all mediums) around 1,300 pictures of the city – a unique total, more than Canaletto painted of Venice. Zonaro was allowed, by the Sultan´s police, to paint anywhere in the city, even inside mosques, except Yildiz and the great Muslim shrine of Eyyup. Regarding Istanbul as a pre-industrial paradise, Zonaro painted as many different aspects of the city as possible: pashas, beggars and hammams; street barbers, public letter-writers, gypsies, fishermen; and firemen rushing across Galata bridge. .His landscapes included views of fountains, grave-yards and many different districts: Anadolu Hisari, Salacak, Uskudar, Kumkapi, Tatavla, Besiktas, Nisantas, Ortakoy.

A lover of women, in Europe a painter of nudes, he shows many Istanbul women unveiled or with flimsy white veils. This may be wishful thinking, since contemporary photographers record women hidden by the dark black cloaks and scarves on which Abdulhamid´s police insisted. In keeping with the city´s location on the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, and his own love of the sea, Zonaro excelled in seascapes. In these pictures, masts and minarets, sails and clouds, mist and smoke, above all light and water, combine into some of the most evocative of all representations of Istanbul.

Zonaro also painted the religious ceremonies which, before the restrictions imposed by Mustafa Kemal, dominated the public life of the city. The painter went where photographers did not, or could not, go. Every Thursday afternoon he went to hear Rufai dervishes. One of his most remarkable pictures, The Dervishes of 1910 depicts an elder of the Rufai order walking on the prostrated backs of some disciples, while chanting dervishes, possibly including Zonaro himself, are watched by groups of Turkish children and European ladies. A photograph of it still hangs in an Istanbul dervish tekke today, since there is no other visual record of such a ceremony. Another picture, painted for Abdulhamid to give a Shia leader, is a reminder of the presence of a considerable Persian minority in Istanbul. It shows Shia muslims chanting and cutting their flesh on 10 Moharrem, to produce blood in commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, as they still do in Iran and Lebanon.

Zonaro´s importance as a painter of Istanbul is enhanced by his unparalleled access to the Ottoman court. He was introduced there by the European ambassadors, who played such an important role in the capital and in his own career. In 1896 he painted an enormous picture of the crack Ertoghrul cavalry regiment of the Imperial Guard, riding across the Galata bridge on white horses, watched by passers-by. Admiring it in his studio, the Italian and Russian ambassadors suggested that he present it to the Sultan. Abdulhamid, who knew that the survival of the empire depended on the power of its army, was pleased by this image of Ottoman power and modernity, rather than the usual Orientalist representations of picturesque decay. As a reward Zonaro was appointed to the post of Painter of His Imperial Majesty the Sultan, recently vacated by the death of the previous holder, another Italian Luigi Acquarone. His salary was low, only 40 lira a year, but was frequently augmented by gifts and further payments from the Sultan, and by sales of pictures to private individuals.

Italians were welcome in the Ottoman palace. Since the reigns of Selim III (1789-1807), and Abdulhamid’s Rossini- and brandy-loving grandfather Mahmud II (1808-39), it had created its own synthesis of East and West.. French and Greek were heard there as well as Ottoman. Although he learnt some Ottoman, in the palace Zonaro probably most frequently spoke French. Whereas the Sultan had public buildings like the Central Post office in Eminonu and the Land Registry ofices in Atmeidan built in neo-Turkish styles, and maintained Islamic traditions of piety, Yildiz was built and decorated in a variety of European styles, generally under the supervision of his chief architect, called Raimondo d´Aronco. Abdulhamid’s opera troupe in Yildiz was directed by another Italian, Arturo Stravolo. The director of the
Imperial band, and the Imperial school of music, in succession to Giuseppe
Donizetti, brother of the composer, was Guatelli Pasha.

Austria, France and Britain had already occupied, respectively, Bosnia in 1878, Tunisia in 1881 and Egypt in 1882. Russia was the traditional enemy, and regarded Istanbul, as Nicholas II said in 1896, as ´the key to her back door´. Germans already helped train the Ottoman army.Until it invaded Tripolitania in 1911, Italy was erroneously believed to be a power without designs on Ottoman territory – another reason for the popularity of Italians in the palace.

As ´Painter of His Imperial Majesty the Sultan´, like many previous court painters Zonaro began to paint ´palace pictures´, large official canvasses glorifying the empire and the dynasty, which were commissioned by the Sultan to hang on the walls of his palaces and are still today in the collections of the Turkish National Palaces. The Attack shows a scene from the Ottoman Empire´s brief and victorious war with Greece in 1897: with drawn bayonets, cheering Ottoman soldiers charge Greek troops. It still hangs in the ambassadors´ waiting room in Dolmabahce palace, a bracing reminder to European powers that, in defence of its territory, the Ottoman Empire was capable of putting up a good fight. As a reward for this picture Zonaro was given the keys to 50 Akaretler Sokak, a three storey house in an elegant classical terrace built to house court officials behind Dolmabachce palace.

At a time when Istanbul was coveted by Russia, Bulgaria and Greece, and its Christian population was growing faster than its Muslim population, the Sultan also commissioned Zonaro to paint scenes from the Ottoman conquest, such as the entry of Mehmed II into the city and the fleet’s transport overland from the Bosphorus into the Golden Horn, as if to reassert the city´s Ottoman identity.

Zonaro´s most successful palace pictures are the smaller, more impressionistic and less glossy views of the visit of the German Emperor and Empress Wilhelm II and Augusta Victoria to Abdulhamid II in 1898, on their way to Jerusalem and Damascus. The German alliance was the Sultan´s principal diplomatic weapon in his attempts to safeguard the Ottoman Empire; indeed at Damascus Wilhelm II declared that he would always be a friend to the Sultan and the 300 million Muslims of the world. For once, royal personages do not dominate pictures commissioned by a monarch. The picture of the Emperor and Empress leaving the Chalet Kiosk at Yildiz, which had been especially extended for their visit, focuses on the Sultan´s horses and his footmen´s magnificent blue and gold liveries. The picture of the Emperor and Empress embarking at Dolmabahce unites in one canvas four dominating elements in Istanbul under Abdulhamid: the sea; the German
alliance; the palace; and mosques. The Sultan himself is nowhere to be seen.

Zonaro was the last interesting court painter in Europe. In other courts, like Vienna, Saint Petersburg and Madrid, with the advent of photography, the tradition of court painting was dying out. The only contemporary rival to Zonaro as a court painter, Philip de Laszlo, as the exhibition at Christies in London in 2004 proved, painted more royal sitters, from more different royal families, than any other court painter in history. His portraits are flattering but lack depth. Moreover he painted nothing else. Zonaro covered every type of subject necessary to a monarch in search of dynastic glorification: history, ceremonies, portraits, battles.

Zonaro became a court painter in every sense, deriving most of his income,
inspiration and occupations from the court. He frequently visited and painted Yildiz, which he called the Sultan´s ´earthly paradise´, studied Ottoman, wore the fez and an Ottoman uniform and medals, gave drawing lessons to and painted princes in a studio in the grounds of Yildiz and instructed artists in the Imperial Porcelain Factory, founded by Abdulhamid at Yildiz in 1893, in the art of painting on porcelain. Gilded neo-islamic frames were made for Zonaro´s pictures in the palace workshops; and he arranged pictures on the palace walls, and in the museum the Sultan established in the palace grounds. While doing so, he once met the sultan himself, with whom he was able to exchange a few words in Ottoman. Abdulhamid advised him to cut off bits of a painting if it did not fit the space above a doorway. He was also charged with plans for creating a weapons museum. Zonaro’s eldest son was given a scholarship to attend the imperial lycee at Galatasaray and his pictures were on sale in the shop established in 1886 on the grande rue de Pera to sell products from the imperial factories. Visitors to his studio, many of whom bought pictures, included artists, ambassadors, pashas and, during a Mediterranean cruise in 1907, Winston Churchill.

The popularity of Zonaro in Yildiz confirms the vigour of the Ottoman Sultans’ tradition of commissioning portraits, which was commemorated in the exhibition on ‘The Sultan´s Portrait’, held in Topkapi palace in 2000. It had begun with Gentile Bellini, sent from Venice in 1479 at Sultan Mehmed II’s request to paint his portrait. As a Venetian, a painter and a visitor to Istanbul, Bellini was a model for Zonaro: indeed one of his commissions from Abdulhamid would be to copy Bellini’s portrait of Mehmed II. Disapproval of portraits in the Muslim world was widespread. Unlike his father and grandfather Sultans Abdulmecid and Mahmud II, Abdulhamid himself refused, when Sultan, to sit for a photograph or a portrait. Nevertheless, even in the palaces of the caliph of Islam, there had never been an Islamic prohibition of human images.

Despite its European architecture and culture, Yildiz was also the last great Islamic palace. The most important ceremonies there were Muslim, such as the Sultan´s weekly Selamlik at the Hamidiye mosque or the departure of the Sultan´s gifts and the pilgrim caravan to Mecca every year, which Zonaro painted in 1903. It was in Yildiz that the Hejaz railway was planned to take Muslim pilgrims and the Sultan´s soldiers from Damascus to Mecca itself. Zonaro painted a portrait of the man behind the railway, Izzet Holo Pasha, Second Secretary and the Sultan´s adviser on Arab affairs, said to be the most influential man in the palace and also to nourish a secret contempt for his master.

By 1908, according to one estimate, 12,000 people inhabited the palace city of Yildiz. Outside the palace walls, however, the Sultan´s authority was crumbling. Telegrams arrived almost daily in Yildiz with news of revolts in the provinces. ´Outside my world of art I could see that the empire was beginning to be shaken by increasing political turmoil´, wrote Zonaro in his memoirs. In July 1908 a revolt in Macedonia, led by Young Turk officers hostile to the Sultan´s autocracy and convinced of the empire´s impending partition by Russia and Britain, spread rapidly, partly owing to the Sultan´s failure to pay his own troops. On 24 July, on the advice of his ministers, the Sultan abolished censorship and promised elections for the autumn. In effect he had restored constitutional government. Istanbul exploded with joy. In the words of the English traveller Aubrey Herbert the city seemed to glow like a rose. Christians and Muslims embraced in the street. Despite detestation of his government, the Sultan himself remained popular. Zonaro remembered that, when Abdulhamid went to mosque on the first Friday after the restoration of the constitution, he was cheered by crowds carrying banners proclaiming ‘Liberty, Equality Fraternity and Justice’: ‘never in my life had I heard such a cry. Never had I seen so many exulting people.’

Like other court painters such as Goya, Primo Pintor de camara in Spain and Baron
Gerard, Premier Peintre du Roi in France, who were ready to paint both Bourbons and Bonapartes, so Zonaro, despite being Painter of His Imperial Majesty the Sultan, was prepared to paint his master´s enemies. To most court painters, money and opportunity mattered more than loyalty. Moreover Zonaro was a liberal who believed, like most people in Istanbul in 1908, that the Young Turk revolution was the dawn of a new era.

The sketch of a woman raising her veil to look at the Ertoghrul regiment, made for the picture which had gained Zonaro his title of Painter of His Imperial Majesty the Sultan, appeared in 1908 on the cover of the Figaro illustre, as a symbol of the rebirth of liberty in Turkey. That October Zonaro, at his own request, was finally allowed to paint three portraits of the Sultan. Zonaro later remembered that the Sultan, frowning and deep in thought, did not say a word.

During an attempted counter-revolution in April 1909, partly caused by Istanbul troops’ fury at their loss of privileges, and the prospect of serving in distant provinces, Zonaro sheltered a neighbour in his house. He was father of Zonaro’s friend Enver Bey, one of the Young Turk leaders. As Young Turk troops from Salonica took control of Istanbul on 24 April 1909, Zonaro completed a portrait of Enver Bey himself, portrayed as a stern young officer in uniform, fixing onlookers with a chilling stare. Behind him are some of the wild-haired Macedonian irregular troops who had helped take control of Istanbul. Enver´s signature appears in Zonaro´s vistors´ book on 28 April, the day after Abdulhamid was informed of his deposition. As a souvenir of the sitting, Enver gave Zonaro the binoculars which appear in his portrait. Soon after the deposition of Abdulhamid, Zonaro gave a party in his house in honour of his new patron, Enver Bey.

The court painter´s enthusiasm for revolution did not, however, save his career. He had disputes with the new government not over politics but over the more vital matters, for most artists, of accommodation and remuneration. Abdulhamid had been lavish in distributing rewards and favours to his servants; the new regime, although keeping Abdulhamid’s heir Mehmed Reshad as Sultan, preferred to cut the cost of the court. Zonaro was dismissed from the post of painter to the Sultan and asked to pay rent on his house since the fall of Abdulhamid. Regarding his treatment as an insult, on 20 March 1910 he left Istanbul on the Orient Express. Refusing a request to return, he eventually settled in San Remo.

If he left Istanbul, Istanbul did not leave him. On the shores of Liguria, he wore the fez, painted new pictures of Istanbul, made copies of old ones, and wrote memoirs of his life in the Ottoman capital, which he planned to publish accompanied by his wife´s photographs. By a strange coincidence, in 1923 another exile from Istanbul, Abdulhamid´s brother, the last Sultan Mehmed VI, who had fled the new Kemalist regime, also settled in San Remo. He died there three years later, followed by Zonaro in 1929. The quality of Zonaro´s archive preserved by his grand-daughter Yolanda Zonaro Meneguzzer in Florence, including his visitors´ book and his wife´s account-book, as well as the memoirs and photographs, reinforces his importance as a witness to Istanbul´s imperial sunset. Thanks to Zonaro and Abdulhamid, Istanbul has at least as good a record, in pictures, of its last years as an imperial capital and court city as Berlin, Vienna or Saint Petersburg.

 
 

http://www.philipmansel.com/article_view.asp?id=8

 

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