Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 19, 2012
James G. Harper, ed. The Turk and Islam in the Western Eye, 1450–1750: Visual Imagery before Orientalism Transculturalisms, 1400–1700.. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011. 342 pp.; 70 b/w ills. Cloth $124.95 (9780754663300)

In the eleven essays contained within The Turk and Islam in the Western Eye, 1450–1750: Visual Imagery before Orientalism, scholars address a longstanding issue in cultural history and the arts—the perception of different cultures in the Mediterranean and the representation of their peoples by Europeans in the early modern period. Early modern Westerners displayed difficulty in categorizing their non-European neighbors, as artists who traveled, as well as those who incorporated non-Westerners into their imagery at home, were influenced not only by the visual sources on which they based their compositions, but also by propagandistic literature, the geopolitics of their era, and popular opinion. Hence, the art and architecture influenced by the Ottoman Empire and its impingement upon the Christian realms of the “West” has consistently defied methodological categorization. The book’s editor, James G. Harper, ably grapples with these issues in his introduction, noting that neither what he terms the “Iron Curtain” model in historiography on the subject nor Fernand Braudel’s “Global Village” model adequately explain early modern attitudes toward the “East” (5–6). Edward Said’s groundbreaking study on Orientalism in the nineteenth century has further complicated visual analysis of these early modern materials—casting an anachronistic shadow on scholars’ attempts to determine how artists addressed non-European subjects in the pre-industrial period of globalization.

The first of three sections in the volume presents five essays dedicated to works of art produced predominantly by Venetians, who grappled with the Ottoman presence in their culture over a period of nearly four centuries. Elizabeth Rodini addresses the issue of verisimilitude in portraiture produced for the Ottoman sultanate, focusing on the first recorded instance of a Western artist, in this instance Giovanni Bellini, painting the features of a Turkish Muslim potentate. Benjamin Paul examines the perennial impact of apocalypticism on the Venetian public in times of crisis with an examination of Venetian painting after the Battle of Lepanto, and Paul Kaplan and Johanna Fassl offer essays on ethnicity and the Venetian portrayal of the Turk in painting from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century that will be examined further below.

The second section regards greater Italy and Europe’s view of the Eastern Mediterranean. In an essay devoted predominantly to landscape architecture, Christopher Pastore presents Ferdinando I de’ Medici’s fascination with Islamic culture. Heather Madar offers a critique of Albrecht Dürer’s images of Ottomans—focusing not on the famous drawings made in Venice, but on Dürer’s use of these figures in his Apocalypse series; while Larry Silver provides a catalog of prints produced in Flanders and the Holy Roman Empire that portray Ottomans in a variety of propagandistic ways. Christina Strunck examines the art produced beyond Venice after the Battle of Lepanto in a sensitive essay that accurately assesses the shift from portraying Turks as barbarians to their depiction as a noble foe. As the emperor Trajan’s sculptors realized when they chronicled his campaign against the Dacians on his commemorative column in the second century CE, defeating an inferior foe does not ennoble the victor.

The last section in the volume contains two contributions that cross the European boundary: the first, an essay by María Judith Feliciano on the perception of the threat of Islam in New Spain; and a second in which the tables are turned and the author, Baki Tezcan, examines how artists portrayed Europeans in two early modern Ottoman manuscripts.

Three of the essays stand out in their ability to grasp the subtle shifts and differences in attitude toward the non-Western Mediterranean in the early modern period. Kaplan’s contribution forms a part of his ongoing examination of the Black in Western art, as it demonstrates how early modern artists blurred the boundaries between races and geographic regions in portraying the Turk. Pointing out that there appears to have been no visual stereotype for the Turkish people in Western art of the period due to their ethnic diversity, Kaplan examines how artists—particularly in Venice—selected Black exemplars to portray Turkish subjects in their paintings. This lack of a formal stereotype, compounded by misconceptions of “Black” Muslim Africa (linked to the Republic’s relations with the Mamluks), encouraged Venetian artists in particular to choose a stark ethnic stereotype to portray a variety of roles in their paintings. Relying on a thick description of the role Blacks played in Ottoman society throughout the empire, Kaplan’s analysis emphasizes the success with which Venetian artists were able to comfortably integrate the foreign into their own works.

Fassl inverts this model in her perceptive essay on Giambattista Tiepolo and his use of an “Oriental chorus” of spectators in a number of religious works. Working on the premises of shifting geopolitics and the Enlightenment approach to encyclopedic knowledge, she demonstrates how Tiepolo both disarms and alienates the “Turkish” observers in his paintings of Christian martyrdom. Resorting to an analysis both of the role of the dramatic chorus in ancient theater and the anthropological connotations of the mask (an integral part of eighteenth-century Venetian society), Fassl is able to situate the Islamic “other” in both menacing and playful, albeit melancholy, roles in Tiepolo’s art and that of his son, Giandomenico. A fundamental point, however (and it is unclear whether Fassl intended this or arrived at it subconsciously), is that she rarely employs the term “Turkish” in the chapter. In general, she addresses these foreign figures as “Oriental,” while pointing out several indications that Tiepolo intended the viewer to assume the figures are Turks. Nevertheless, she reverts to the term only in her final conclusion. The ambiguity with which both Fassl and Tiepolo address the Turkish-ness of Tiepolo’s foreign observers actually serves to underscore the overarching problem in the examination of the “Turk” in pre-industrial Western art.

Finally, Tezcan provides a crucial key to an understanding of the difficulty art historians have had in approaching this topic. Tezcan discusses two imperial manuscripts commissioned during the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent: the first recording a universal history from the Islamic perspective, and the second chronicling the Western discovery of the New World. In a remarkably clear and astute analysis, he demonstrates how efficiently Turkish artists distanced Europeans in their representations of the mystical and historical past, as well as in portrayals of contemporary events. To the Ottoman, all Europeans were “Franks”—the inhabitants of every Western nation lumped together under one rubric and identified iconographically by a common mode of dress. Both manuscripts serve to establish a dichotomy between the “Frank” and the “Turk” that is easily recognizable, as that dichotomy is based not on geopolitics but religion. Interestingly (though Tezcan does not mention it), the use of the term “Frank” to denote Latin Christians was adopted by the Ottomans from Byzantine usage in the two centuries after the Fourth Crusade, during which the moniker served to create a religious partition between Eastern Christians and their Western adversaries.

Tezcan’s essay delineates the most important attitudes early modern Westerners and Easterners displayed toward each other. While Europeans simmered in the caldron of bubbling nationalism—with the rise of bellicose absolute monarchies, splinter nations, and competing empires in the Americas—nations in the East were quickly subsumed into the Ottoman entity over the course of less than two centuries. And for the Ottoman, ethnicity was always based on religion, rather than nation or race. This did not occur as strongly in the case of Western self-perception nor for their perception of their Eastern adversaries. When Europe looked eastward, it was confronted with a much more cohesive worldview than it possessed itself. Early modern European artists appeared unwilling to acknowledge such a clearly defined divide based purely on religious belief, even though it provided the source for their worst fears and nightmares. The strongest of the essays in this volume acknowledge the polyvalent, even confused response European artists displayed toward their Muslim foes, rather than adopting the religious “us” versus “them” stance that many Ottomans accepted as a status quo.

As a whole, The Turk and Islam in the Western Eye presents a number of problems. There is a significant amount of overlap in the material covered by the different contributors, and unfortunately little consistency in the orthography used by each author in translating Turkish and Arabic. The worst issue, however, lies in the publisher’s treatment of the volume. Copyediting errors abound; footnotes have been misplaced; and the quality of the reproductions is generally poor. Even familiarity with a painting will not allow the reader to locate pertinent details mentioned in the text. In several essays, the authors’ lengthy formal analyses must be followed using a marginal illustration measuring less than 3 × 2 cm. Although there is a general bibliography in addition to cited bibliographies at the end of each essay (which to this reader seemed redundant), the book lacks an index. Nevertheless, the volume offers a variety of energetic responses to the fundamental questions posed by Harper regarding the problematic of visual imagery and the Eastern “other” in early modern art and architecture.

Helen Walberg
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Fine Arts, Kadir Has University

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