- Bellini and the East
This slim but very rich volume was written to accompany an equally small but significant exhibition that gathered thirty-three works to explore the exchange between Venice and the Byzantine and Ottoman lands to its east. The focus here is on the activities of Gentile Bellini, who serves as a kind of paradigm for the interconnecting, multilayered interests on both sides. The exhibition was organized jointly by the Gardner Museum in Boston and the National Gallery in London, presumably because of a desire to exhibit together the Gardner's Seated Scribe and the National Gallery's Portrait of Mehmed II, both convincingly attributed to Gentile. It also serves to showcase the National Gallery's recently acquired painting by Gentile of a door for a tabernacle that housed a Byzantine reliquary of the True Cross. The reunification of the actual reliquary with Bellini's painting of it for its tabernacle door was certainly one of the highlights of the show.
Gentile's famous trip to Constantinople in 1479–81, where he was sent by the Venetian government to fulfill the request of Mehmed II, the Ottoman sultan, for a "good painter," is presented as the central bridge between the two cultures. In addition to the two small portraits mentioned above, the exhibition reconstructs Gentile's activity in Turkey, claiming to include "all of the works thought to have been made by Gentile Bellini while in Constantinople" (6). Both the direct results of his trip and many related areas of exchange between Venice and her Eastern neighbors are explored through Venetian, Byzantine, and Ottoman objects. The works demonstrate primarily the impact of the East upon Venice, as seen in the works of Gentile and his compatriots, but also suggest some of the ways Western culture appeared in and influenced the Ottoman world.
The catalogue under review consists of entries for thirty-three objects written by a group of six scholars with an intricacy that matches the layering of cultures at the time. Each entry, in addition to questions of attribution and provenance, tracks cultural reflections within the work. Intermingled with the catalogue entries are four essays. Deborah Howard discusses Venice as a trader and traveler's melting pot. Caroline Campbell presents the topic of the Greek Byzantine influence in [End Page 864] Venice, exemplified by the donations and activities of Cardinal Johannes Bessarion and especially by the tabernacle door mentioned above, painted by Gentile for the hybrid Byzantine reliquary that Bessarion had presented to the Scuola della Carita. J. M. Rogers enumerates Mehmed II's interests in Western culture, evidenced in his purchases and commissions, and Alan Chong carefully reconstructs Gentile's activities in Istanbul.
The authors have chosen to intermingle the catalogue entries between the pages of the essays, rather than following the more standard system of dividing the volume into two parts, one for longer essays and one for specialized entries. Furthermore, inserted between these sections that mix narrative and catalogue style, two additional divisions are inserted, comprising small groups of catalogue entries on "Images of Mehmed" and on "Bellini in Istanbul." The reasons for this rather unusual organization are not explained, but the result is somewhat confusing. While it may have been an attempt to bring the objects closer to the specific essays that pertain to them, it is in fact disrupting to have the narrative of the essays interrupted, and the reader is likely to skip over the entries to read the continuation of each essay. The mixture also highlights some perhaps unnecessary duplication of information between the essays and the catalog entries.
This slightly awkward organization, however, does not diminish the importance of the enterprise. The topic of this catalogue is unusually challenging in its complexity. The conquering of Byzantine Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 and the ensuing intertwining of Byzantine and Ottoman culture in Istanbul is confusing enough. To investigate the Venetian relationship to this world adds another layer that teaches us even more about the phenomenon of...