Facing East: Gentile Bellini's Portrait of Mehmet II
This book recounts the adventures of Gentile Bellini's portrait of Sultan Mehmet II, produced at the Ottoman court, Istanbul in 1480 and hanging today in the National Gallery, London. In the intervening years, the portrait got caught up in some key cultural moments: in the activities of the British archaeologist and Orientalist Austen Henry Layard (excavator of Nineveh in Iraq) who purchased the picture in 1865; in early attempts to define national patrimony in Italy; and in a legal debate over the definition of a "portrait" in England. It influenced the Ottoman search for reliable historical imagery in the 16th century, and returned triumphant to Istanbul in 1999 in a moment when Turkey was petitioning for membership in the European Union. It is both a renowned picture and a reviled one, an iconic image that has also been marginalized for its poor condition and imperfect provenance.
Facing East is an object biography, telling the story of Bellini's painting while using it as a lens to explore an array of historical and art historical topics, including authenticity, verisimilitude, ownership, cross-cultural exchange, and political identity. It explores global connections, past and present, through a single but endlessly fascinating portrait.
I explore Bellini's stay at the Ottoman court and the varied understandings of naturalism in “The Sultan’s True Face? Gentile Bellini, Mehmet II, and the Value of Verisimilitude” in The Turk and Islam in the Western Eye, 1453–1750: Visual Imagery before Orientalim, ed. James Harper, Ashgate, 2011.