The most important aspect one has to consider when looking at the Portrait of Mehmet II is the historical context which represents the key to understanding the work of art in question. It is highly relevant to shift one’s focus from the artistic achievement to the historical background of the last two decades of the 15th century, i.e. the time when the portrait was painted.
The 1453 conquest of Constantinople was a cataclysm felt throughout the entire Western world. The Ottoman Empire, now a force everyone feared, had not been assessed at its true power. The giant empire was born in Central Anatolia, but soon expanded and incorporated a myriad of territories and ethnic groups, such as the Greek in Western Anatolia, Arab, Armenian and Kurdish on the shores of the Mediterranean (Melikian, Venetians and Turks: A Mutual Curiosity).
The Venetians strongly opposed the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, which threatened the parts of Greece they controlled. Moreover, the demolished church of the Holy Apostles had been the model for their most famous monument, the 11th century masterpiece adorning the heart of Venice, the church of San Marco. Nonetheless, the advance and growth of the Empire continued.
A mixture of the East and the West, the Portrait of Mehmet II is an authentic instance of the successful meeting of two very different approaches to art. What is truly striking about the portrait is the warm Venetian light surrounding the face of the Sultan, which both lightens up his features, making the painting itself incredibly clear, and also gives the character a certain duality. This ruler-man duality illustrates Mehmet as a simple man, thanks to the clarity of the facial features, but also as an emblem, a precious figure in the history of humanity.
This lighting technique is perhaps the best example of how the Renaissance naturalist trend and Oriental art are intertwined in this particular 15th century masterpiece. As far as facial features, the viewer cannot help but notice the nasal structure of the Sultan, an aquiline nose suggesting wisdom and courage, traits of character that are also symbolized by the heavy beard, an ancient symbol of masculinity and maturity.
The contrast between the face of the Sultan and the edges of the painting, dominated by dark colors and a reduced amount of light, is supported by the choice of primary colors as far as the clothing of Mehmet is concerned. The two subtle shades of red that are to be identified in his robe, combined with the large white turban, a symbol of his greatness as a ruler, create a chromatic contrast that pleases the eye and highlights the face of the Sultan.
Mehmet II, the Conqueror, seized Constantinople in 1453 putting an end to the Eastern-Christian world of Byzantium. Considered by many historians as “the late-medieval world’s most powerful man” (Jones), Mehmet II was only 19 when he followed his father at the throne of the Ottoman Empire. Because of his young age, the Western world disregarded him and severely underestimated his strength and determination. Nevertheless, in 1453 he summoned his ministers in Adrianople where he expressed his desire to conquer Byzantium (Mehmet II, http://www.theottomans.org/english/family/mehmet2.asp).
After a two-month siege, and the refusal of his opponents to surrender, Mehmet II captured Constantinople. Following his great success, he entered the city accompanied by his chef ministers and rode to St. Sophia. He then kneeled in front of the church and sprinkled a handful of earth over his turban. This gesture would be known as the first step towards the conversion of St. Sophia into the most important mosque of the city (Mehmet II, http://www.theottomans.org/english/family/mehmet2.asp).
As far as trade was concerned, the Republic of Venice was the most important player in the Near East, maintaining their good reputation in the area thanks to skilled diplomatic initiatives which were being unrolled on two levels. At the highest level, thanks to their ambassadors, the doges were involved in trade negotiations with Muslim sultans and other officials.
These high-rank meetings followed strict proceedings, such as gift exchange. Relevant examples of this practice is the gift of the Venetian envoy Benedetto Sanudo to an emir consisting of fine cloth and Parmesan cheese, as well as the envoy’s present to the Sultan in Cairo – furs, cheese and luxurious textiles. In return, the representatives of the Venetian Republic received gifts ranging from watermelons and chickens, to Chinese porcelain. At a lower level, the Venetian Republic named consuls in the Near East. These were members of the Venetian nobility, elected by the Senate on two-year mandates and in charge of paying tribute to local officials (Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cedr/hd_cedr.htm).
Despite attempts from the papacy to prohibit trade between Venice and the Near East, the ties between the two parties could not be severed. On the contrary, Venetian officials always fought against such interdictions, and even defied the Pope in order to maintain the east-west trade exchanges (Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cedr/hd_cedr.htm). The Portrait of Mehmet II is significant proof of the lengths that the Venetian state went to in order to ensure peace and good trading relations with the Sultan.
Commercial Exchange, Diplomacy, and Religious Difference between Venice and the Islamic World. Metropolitan Museum of Art. April 2007. <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cedr/hd_cedr.htm>
Jones, Jonathan. “The Sultan Mehmet II, attributed to Gentile Bellini (1480)”.
The Guardian 26April 2003. April 2007. <https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2003/apr/26/art>
Melikian, Souren. Venetians and Turks: A mutual curiosity. International Herald Tribune 9 June 2006. April 2007. <https://www.nytimes.com/>
The Sultans. The Ottomans. April 2007. <http://www.theottomans.org/english/family/mehmet2.asp>