The Other: fear and loathing in Renaissance Europe


The Bozar exhibition The Sultan’s World looks at the depiction and perception of the Ottomans in Europe, from the Fall of Constantinople to the Peace of Zsitvatorok

Them and us

The Ottomans have long held a special place in the European imagination. Subjects of fear, fascination, anxiety, admiration, respect and contempt at various times, and sometimes simultaneously, the Turk entered the European consciousness in the late Middle Ages and never left.

A groundbreaking exhibition at Bozar in Brussels investigates and illustrates the many ways in which the Ottoman East was perceived and portrayed by the West during the Renaissance. That very dichotomy between East and West, Ottoman and European, Muslim and Christian, is shown to be a construct of politics and visual polemics going back hundreds of years.

The period covered is bookended by two historical events: the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 and the Peace of Zsitvatorok in 1606. The former marked the beginning of greater Europe’s awareness of the Turkish juggernaut as a military threat. The latter signalled a détente in the long-running conflict between the Sultans and the Hapsburgs, and the first formal recognition by each political power of the enemy as a diplomatic equal.

The Sultan’s World: The Ottoman Orient in Renaissance Art traces the evolution of Europe’s perception and understanding of the Turks over this roughly 150-year period, from the first wildly speculative imaginings to eventual appropriation of Ottoman culture in border lands like Hungary and Poland.

“This exhibition is innovative in that it includes not just the usual suspects – Italy, Germany, the Netherlands – but also the countries of East-Central Europe,” explains Guido Messling, one of the exhibition’s three curators.

That shift in perspective, getting away from placing the countries of “Western” Europe front and centre and moving towards seeing the whole of Europe as a contested battleground, results in the realisation that the region usually referred to as Eastern Europe was in fact central to this conflict. Hence the deliberate use of “East-Central Europe” to refer to the countries of the former Soviet bloc. 

Shaping identity

A key partner in the exhibition is the Krakow National Museum, which will host The Sultan’s World after it leaves Brussels. Co-curator Michal Dziewulski from Krakow explains the importance of the Ottoman Empire to Polish culture. “Poland was the only country at the time, in the 16th century, that was at peace with the Ottomans,” he says. “So the influence of the Ottomans is quite different in Poland. There’s a lot of assimilation.”

That distance has less to do with the world outside than with the world inside our minds

- Elif Shafak

One of the paradoxes of East-West relations suggested by the exhibition is the way identity is shaped in relation to an “other”. The Turk, portrayed as exotic, dangerous or just plain different, helped to confirm ideas of an opposed European identity. And yet the Ottomans saw themselves as heirs to the Byzantine Empire with equal right to rule in Europe.

Co-curator Robert Born of the University of Leipzig sees the admission of Croatia and other Balkan states to the European Union as an opportunity to re-examine Western Europe’s historical relationship to the Ottomans.

“The new members of the EU were formerly part of the Ottoman Empire,” he explains, “areas that felt the impact of not only conflict but also of long periods of peace.” The border regions of the Ottoman Empire were multinational, multi-confessional and multi-ethnic, just like the evolving Europe of today.

The Sultan’s World contains a breathtaking variety of objects from more than 50 institutions across Europe: paintings, tapestries, ceramics, metalwork, scientific instruments, weapons, textiles, books and prints. It’s organised thematically, starting with depictions of historical events, and covering exoticism as visual metaphor, travels by diplomats, merchants and artists, portraits of the sultans and assimilation in courtly culture.

Over time, imaginative and fantastic depictions of the Turk gave way to more and more realistic portrayals based on first-hand observation.

Attraction and fascination

Equally fascinating is the way in which the Sultans were active collaborators in the creation and dissemination of their own likenesses. In 1479, for instance, Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople, asked the Signoria of Venice to send their best painter. Gentile Bellini, the official portraitist of the Doges, travelled to the Ottoman court and produced a refined and elegant painting, on view at Bozar.

The sultan is depicted in three-quarter view, regal and aloof, gazing into the distance. He is seated beneath a delicately carved archway, behind a parapet covered with a richly jewelled textile. He is at once a foreign potentate and a Renaissance prince.

Turkish novelist Elif Shafak has contributed personal commentary on selected pieces in the exhibition, which can be heard on the audio guide or read in the gallery booklet. She writes: “The works of Renaissance artists is a wonderful place to start rethinking the distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’. As this exhibition so beautifully demonstrates, that distance has less to do with the world outside than with the world inside our minds.”

“In the end,” says Bozar director Paul Dujardin, “there is not so big a difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’.”

Yet those small differences can be a source of attraction and fascination, as well as fear and loathing. In the end, it is the attraction that holds the most power here, as the beauty of the Other overcomes fear.

Until 31 May, Bozar, Ravensteinstraat 23, Brussels

Image: Sultan Suleiman II, circa 1530, attributed to Venetian
© Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna