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Walking across Koningsplein to Bozar, Brussels’ Centre for Fine Arts, you meet the statue of Godfrey de Bouillon on his rearing horse. In 1099 Godfrey led Walloon and Flemish forces on the First Crusade to Jerusalem where, his chronicler boasted: “The slaughter was so great that our men waded in blood up to their ankles and stirrups.” In Syria, French observer Raoul de Caen added: “Adults were put into the cooking pot and their youth were fixed on spits and roasted.” Set up on Koningsplein by Belgium’s first king, Leopold I in, 1830, Godfrey was named 17th greatest Belgian in a Walloon poll in 2005.

The crusader is inevitable background to Bozar’s bold, visually rich, historically challenging exhibition The Sultan’s World: The Ottoman Orient in Renaissance Art, launched this weekend. It includes paintings by Bellini, Memling, Tintoretto, Titian and Veronese that captivatingly document the beginning of the orientalist strain in western art. But the story is amplified and deepened by diverse displays of carpets, masks, weapons, scientific instruments, Pieter Coecke van Aelst’s album Customs and Fashions of the Turks (created while on trade mission to Constantinople), a monumental tapestry recounting the Habsburg victory at Tunis (the most expensive work of art Emperor Charles V ever commissioned) and many rare objects speaking of unlikely ideological fusion and cross-cultural currents.

A Dutch silver crescent badge proclaims “Better Turkish than Papist”. Niklas Stor’s woodcut depicts a giraffe sent from Egypt as a political gift to Lorenzo de’ Medici, which became a celebrity on the streets of Florence. Titian’s resplendent portrait of Suleyman’s daughter Cameria bizarrely recasts the Muslim girl in floor-length white veil as the martyred St Catherine.

But when Muslim visitors cross Koningsplein and encounter Godfrey, Bozar’s director Paul Dujardin asks in his exhibition introduction, “does the sight of the butcher of Jerusalem have the same effect on them as that of Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on westerners? Or the opposite? How would native Belgians react if the Turkish community were to collect money to put up a statue of Mehmed II in the centre of Brussels?”

Mehmed, who seized Constantinople in 1453 and made the Ottoman Empire a superpower, became a figure of obsessive interest and terror across Renaissance Europe. Coinciding with the birth of printing, this was a time of hunger for knowledge and especially for images. What did Mehmed the Conqueror look like? The ferocious dragon-helmeted “El Gran Turco” engraving, 1460, attributed to the Master of the Vienna Passion, is mere allegorical capriccio, based on a Byzantine medal. Then in 1479 Mehmed himself played art as soft power, requesting that a Venetian artist-diplomat visit his court.

The Republic sent Gentile Bellini, whose “Portrait of Mehmed II”, following Venetian dogal depictions, emphasises the sultan’s princely dignity by an illusionistic architectural framing of golden arch and parapet, raising the Ottoman ruler above the viewer. Mehmed, in part profile, looks canny, self-contained, engaging, but it is Bellini’s trappings of exoticism — bejewelled crimson robes, sumptuous white turban — which set the tone for the next century and beyond. Throughout the Renaissance, turbans got bigger, textiles more lavish, as the eastern threat, personified by Suleyman the Magnificent, gripped the European imagination.

Suleyman’s reign spanned the battle of Mohács (1526), when the last Bohemian-Hungarian king drowned in mud and the country was subsequently divided between Ottomans and Habsburgs; the siege of Vienna (1529), with camels roaming the city’s destroyed suburbs; and the conquering of the strategic Szigetvár (1566). All are commemorated here — “The Fall of Szigetvár” with special poignancy in rare figurative gouaches by Ottoman artist Ali, whose pristine, bright, silhouette-like depictions of pashas in tents before the rolling heads of Hungarian soldiers sit eerily with his violent narrative.

Meanwhile, Hans Eworth’s “Suleyman the Magnificent on Horseback” has the sultan galloping to Friday prayers in fur-lined gold cloak and a headdress soaring to the skies. In Vienna’s portrait, ascribed to Titian, Suleyman’s thin, wiry, pale face, defined by an aquiline nose and moustache, is compressed beneath a voluminous spherical turban that covers his forehead and the nape of his neck and pushes into his ear, bending it forward; he gazes beyond the viewer, his hand clasping an arrow.

By the 1570s, when Suleyman’s successor, Murat III, commissioned portraits of his entire dynasty from Veronese, the real protagonists are not the individual rulers, whose features the artist and his workshop could only guess at, but the enormous dynamic turbans: each distinctively shaped, densely textured, studded with gleaming precious stones, theatrically deployed on dark backgrounds.

What is going on in the heads beneath those turbans? “Distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’”, says Anglo-Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, who has written Bozar’s exhibition guide, “has less to do with the world outside than with the world inside our minds.” Myths go both ways: balancing western intoxication with the orient, sultans from Mehmed to Murat saw in artists such as Bellini and Veronese the opportunity to legitimise their own imperial positions by appropriating western iconographic styles.

Straining for layers of shared cultural memory that politics cannot reach, The Sultan’s World is a timely attempt at nuance, context, variety, in the history of oriental imagery. But it is yet more important as an exploration of how and why images work, the fears they feast on and fuel. You can feel the anxiety of a whole civilisation behind the strange mix of subtly modelled, naturalistic figures and horror-fantasy that is “The Martyrdom of St John”, from Dürer’s great Apocalypse woodcuts (1496-97). Presiding over the tortured saint is Roman Emperor Domitian, fancifully attired in a turban — a vision of the ending of the world coursing with millennial dread of Ottoman domination.

A century later you sense still the nervous justification in Tintoretto’s magnificent “Sebastiano Venier”, portrait of the 75-year-old white-haired chief admiral of the Venetian fleet, later doge, who led the allied victory at Lepanto (1571). Tintoretto’s rapid, robust brushstrokes bring out Venier’s commanding energy, determination, impetuosity, as well as the glowing sheen of his armour and purple, gold-buttoned cloak. He is placed at a window giving on to the drama of Lepanto’s burning ships, but looks at the viewer, drawing us into the conflict, insisting we understand his realpolitik.

Lepanto was a psychological turning point, removing the nimbus of invincibility clinging to the Ottoman forces since 1453. But western fear and fascination with the east never fully disappeared: they emerge, among many examples, in Rembrandt, Delacroix, Matisse, Cy Twombly’s “Lepanto” (2001). At a time of unprecedented production of and access to images fanning prejudice and terror, Bozar provocatively unpicks how we construct, and must deconstruct, visions of the Other.

‘The Sultan’s World: The Ottoman Orient in Renaissance Art’, Bozar, Brussels, to May 31, bozar.be, then Muzeum Narodowe, Krakow, www.mnk.pl

Slideshow photographs: Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica; Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen; Universitatsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg; The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Florida State University; Kunsthistorisches Museum; Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library; The Metropolitan Museum of Art; BambergStaatsbibliothek; The National Gallery


Letter in response to this article:

Don John of Austria led forces at battle of Lepanto / From Charles Giovanni Vanzan Coutinho

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