Mehmet the Conqueror and Constantinople: A Portrait of Youth and Ambition

By Christopher Eimer, Spink Books Hardback, £25.00. ISBN 9781912667 666. Available from www.spinkbooks.com

Mehmet II was barely twenty-one years old when he conquered Constantinople in 1453 and ended the Eastern Roman Empire after 1123 years of existence. Feared and demonised in the West for capturing Byzantium, the young leader set out to expand the Ottoman Empire and, within thirty years, he created an extensive trading network and introduced a successful administration.

Mehmet II effectively took his empire to the next level and made it an international powerhouse. In addition to being a formidable military leader, he was a genuinely learned ruler who was schooled in the classics and Western humanities and wished to expand his empire militarily but also culturally. Thus, he promoted an environment open to new ideas and cultural exchange, inviting European artists, scientists, and scholars to his court. His teenage years coincided with a revival of relief portraiture in Renaissance Italy, an artistic genre that the sultan would come to adore in his mid-twenties. As a means of representation, this genre had its roots in imperial Rome where it was developed about a millennium before its reappearance in the 1430s. A relief portrait was essentially a circular bronze coin that displayed the subject’s profile and his titles on one side, and, on the reverse, it showed specific moments of relevance for the subject. As a medium of communication, the coin could serve different pur[1]poses. Whereas its foremost function was to preserve its subject’s physical features and biographical information, powerful patrons, such as Mehmet II, used it as a means to convey a particular image of themselves, even as a statement of authority. After Mehmet II’s rise to power, this type of representation would become a model upon which the Ottomans would fashion their imperial enterprise. It should also come as no surprise that Mehmet chose a medium of representation with its roots in imperial Rome as he regarded himself as the new Caesar.

Cristopher Eimer’s substantial book fulfils two purposes. The first one is to explore the rise of the Ottoman dynasty, from its consolidation to Mehmet’s reign, highlighting how the sultan’s rise to power forever changed Ottoman history. As for the second purpose, Eimer endeavours to show how Mehmet, well aware of his role as the leader of an international powerhouse, used relief portraiture as a means of representing himself, his family history and his role as leader of a rising empire. To fulfil both purposes, Eimer thoroughly examines several bronze relief medals of Mehmet II, with a particular focus on the Magnus Princeps one. To this day, the author of the Magnus Princeps remains unknown, but historians have speculated that it was probably made around 1450, about three years before Mehmet toppled the Byzantine Empire. In this respect, Eimar’s impressive command of coin art, coupled with his extensive knowledge of Ottoman history, provides a detailed account of Mehmet’s personality, political aspirations and, to a certain degree, even personal tastes. In his introduction, Eimer describes Mehmet’s rise to power and his growing interest in bronze medallic portraiture. He also indicates how this genre, whose foremost exponent was Antonio Pisano (c.1395-1455), soon became a medium of communication for powerful Italian patrons to establish their identity by conveying a particular image of themselves.

In Chapter I, the author turns to the delicate theme of family succession and power struggle in Ottoman dynastic history, discussing how Mehmet II put an end to it by securing his family line. Eimer also explores Ottoman legends surrounding the city of Constantinople and its eschatological and prophetic significance, its conquest being regarded as the realisation of a prophecy with universal appeal for Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike. According to the Ottoman tradition, the fall of Byzantium signposted the beginning of a new era under the guidance of a God-appointed ruler. It is exactly against this broader scenario that one can understand Mehmet’s imperial pretensions to the inheritance of the Eastern Roman throne. Accordingly, Eimer considers the inclusion of a subject’s personal titles in relief portraits and their importance in terms of making powerful political statements.

Chapter 2 constitutes the central part of the book and provides the main thrust of Eimer’s research. He conducts a thorough analysis of the Magnus Princeps coin to establish its authorship. By comparing the Magnus Princeps with other coins, such as a later medallic portrait made by Constanzo Da Ferrara for Mehmet, Eimer is able to trace the sultan’s physical but also political growth. Additionally, Eimer gives a detailed and comprehensive account of medallic relief portraiture as a new genre to which sculptors and epigraphists, such as Cyriacos of Ancona and Pietro Da Milano, adhered. While Eimer is unsuccessful in establishing the authorship of the Magnus Princeps, he nonetheless delivers a flawless analysis of relief portraiture in all its aspects.

In Chapter 3, Eimer turns his attention to specific details of the Magnus Princeps portrait as visual indicators of Mehmet II’s familial history and personal aspirations. For instance, when examining the medallic portrait, we can see these nods in features such as the choice of patterned kaftan or the use of a feather sticking out incongruously from the rear of Mehmet’s cap, which may all be references to Mehmet II’s great-grandfather, Bayezid I, who was known as Yildirim, or Thunderbolt, for the rapidity with which he moved his troops. Later in the chapter, Eimer explains how relief portraiture somehow helped bridge the gap between Eastern and Western artistic traditions, giving rise to a brand-new way of conveying one’s identity. To this purpose, he introduces the concept of ghaza, or holy war, a commonplace ethos in the Ottoman philosophy throughout the 1300s and 1400s which blended the search for booty with political opportunism and religious motivation. This philosophy perfectly reflected Mehmet’s self-aggrandising mindset as he considered himself a present-day Alexander the Great. This vision sat side by side with that of ghaza warrior as demonstrated by the sultan’s expansionist agenda. Though an exquisitely western invention, medallic portraiture turned out to be an ideal vehicle for integrating elements culturally closer to home, in particular the calligraphic script, which over many centuries constituted a fundamental element of Islamic art. Thus, the integration of an Islamic tradition into a Western artistic genre is a perfect blend of two distinct methods of communication whose potential was fully appreciated, and amply exploited, by Mehmet. For instance, a closer look at the Magnus Princes reveals how such creative synthesis occurs as the Arabic phrase lillah (which translates as ‘To God’ or ‘For God’) is shown as a decorative pattern of Mehmet’s woven cap. Since writing is the natural transmission of thought to paper, the presence of that phrase directly above the sultan’s head is a metaphor for that transmission, which, in turn, provides Mehmet with an opportunity of projecting himself as a receptor of Allah’s Divine message and a servant of God. This would explain the dual role of Mehmet as a present-day Alexander (a military conqueror) and God’s agent on earth, with the Fall of Constantinople being God’s will all along.

In the fourth and final chapter, Eimer recaps his findings from the previous three chapters and considers Mehmet II’s interest in Western forms of arts. A point of significance is that the creation of an artist studio at the Ottoman court was all part of Mehmet’s attempt to forge a broader East-West geopolitical identity, which was to be most publicly expressed in the rebuilding and repopulation of Constantinople.

In conclusion, this is an incredibly well-researched work where Cristopher Eimer relies on his extensive knowledge of medallic portraiture and Ottoman history to offer new insights into Mehmet II’s life. The meticulousness and intensity of this book are reflected in the extensive bibliography as well as in the explanatory notes, which provide supplementary information and offer ideas for further research. As a result, each reference in the book is perfectly contextualised and clarified, and the overall effect is that even readers unfamiliar with the topic are never left on their own. Further, the extensive illustrations will make this book a useful reference source for art historians but also all those with an interest in this historical period.

Antonio Battagliotti