Identity and Self-Fashioning of an Ottoman Ruler as Shown in Gentile Bellini’s Portrait of Sultan Mehmed II (1480)

  • Abstract:

    On 1 August 1479 the Venetian Senate received a request from Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1444-46/r.1451-1481) for a painter. The Venetian Senate decided to send its most prominent painter, Gentile Bellini (fl. 1460-1507). Because of the diplomatic importance of this assignment, it can be understood that Bellini was not only sent to Constantinople for his artistic qualities, but also as a cultural ambassador for Venice. Unfortunately, only few works from Bellini’s stay at the Ottoman court (1479-1481) have survived, including some drawings, a medal of Mehmed II and the painting Portrait of Sultan Mehmed II (1480). This paper seeks to address the concepts of identity and self-fashioning in Bellini’s Portrait of Sultan Mehmed II, by examining its attribution, provenance and iconography. Moreover, a comparison between this painting and the surviving medals of Mehmed II will allow for a detailed study of the iconographical devices of power used within the portrait. Although accepting Portrait of Sultan Mehmed II as an important cross-cultural artistic testimony, due to the complexity of the painting’s condition and conservation history, few scholars have further explored its significance as a political and cultural expression of self-representation by an Ottoman ruler. Therefore, this paper aims to examine the intercultural dialogue between the identities of the painter and the sitter. In addition, I will discuss not only how portraiture is used to create a cross-cultural identity, but also how courtly culture and the Renaissance itself had an impact on the staging of this multi-layered identity.