By Julian Raby
Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 5, No. 1 (1982)
Introduction: The aquiline, beturbaned features that glare out from this Quattrocento bronze medallion are not a romantic artist’s fanciful image of ‘The Oriental Potentate’, but an ad vivum likeness of Mehmed II, the Ottoman Sultan whose conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and destruction of the millenium-old Byzantine Empire, earned him at the age of 21 the awesome sobriquet of Fatih, the Conqueror. Yet what prompted a Muslim potentate to invite an Italian medallist to his court in the renascent city of Constantinople, the city that became known as Istanbul, or as Mehmed himself punned “Islambul”, “Full of Islam”? Was there not a paradox in a Muslim prince patronising an Italian medallist? If there was, this was not the only paradox surrounding Mehmed the Conqueror.
Mehmed was heir to an empire that was far from the homogeneous orthodox Sunni state that his sixteenth-century successors, in their clash with the heterodox Shiite Safavids, wished to promote. In the fifteenth century there were various attempts, most notably Shaykh Badreddin Simavna’s popular move- ment, to minimise the differences between Islam and Christianity. In this period of transition we find members of the Palaeologan house serving as commanders of the Sultan; and Mehmed’s long-standing Grand Vizier, Mahmud Pasha, had a brother who was his opposite number – Grand Voivode – in Serbia, while their mother was granted a monastery in Istanbul. Acculturation could not keep pace with the rapid march of Ottoman arms, and the conquest of Constantinople, in particular, extended the Ottomans’ cultural horizons, bringing them, on the one hand, face to face with metropolitan Byzantine culture, encouraging them, on the other, to become a naval power with extensive maritime contacts.