Sultans' wealth still dazzling to the West

Art: Opulent gifts, magnificent swords and works by royal artisans from the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul arrive in Washington.

March 11, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The omnipotent Turkish sultan and his harem attended by legions of fawning courtiers amid unimaginable luxury is a cliche today. Yet as a new exhibit at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art reminds us, such rulers actually existed until late in the 1800s.

"Palace of Gold & Light: Treasures from the Topkapi, Istanbul" brings more than 200 objects from the royal Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, the fabulous seat of the Ottoman Turk empire, which for nearly 400 years dazzled the world with its opulence.

The Ottoman Turks traced their lineage to a tribal warlord named Osman, who ruled a tiny principality on Christendom's eastern border between 1281 and 1324. Osman (called Ottomano by the Italians, hence "Ottoman") and his descendants gradually expanded the territories they controlled until their empire rivaled that of ancient Rome.

The Topkapi palace, a seaside complex of buildings with commanding views of the confluence of Europe and Asia, was built by Sultan Mehmed II, known in Turkish history as "Fatih," or "the Conqueror."

Mehmed achieved his greatest victory in 1453 at the age of only 19, when he captured the city of Constantinople, ancient seat of the Byzantine empire, after a long siege during which his troops pounded the old fortress walls with gigantic stone cannon balls flung from huge bronze artillery pieces.

The curved battle sword used by Mehmed, complete with scratches and nicks incurred during his campaigns, is one of the featured objects in the exhibition, along with the garment he wore beneath his armor and court robes and many historical manuscripts demonstrating the scholarly and artistic achievements of his court.

Mehmed and his successors were great patrons of the arts, and artisans from all parts of the empire flocked to the capital, renamed Istanbul, to work in the royal workshops.

Foreign diplomats and merchants showered the sultans with costly gifts as tokens of respect, and the sultans exacted tribute from their subject peoples in the form of all manner of manufactured goods and precious objects.

Topkapi's rulers filled their treasury with thousands of domestic and foreign-produced luxury items, including Chinese porcelain, intricately designed wool and silk carpets, richly embroidered textiles, silk royal robes, ceremonial armor and weaponry, illuminated manuscripts, musical instruments and jewel-encrusted domestic objects.

These objects, lavishly displayed in the royal palace, were intended to impress foreign visitors with the power and grandeur of the sultans and the refined appreciation for beautiful things cultivated by their court.

Europeans were enthralled by the opulence of the sultans and the mysteries of the harem, themes often exploited by the artists of the period.

In the 17th century, Moliere poked fun at the obsession with wealth in his play "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme," in which a bourgeois father allows his daughter to marry her young man only after the suitor pretends to be a sultan's son.

In Mozart's 18th-century opera "The Abduction from the Seraglio," two young women kidnapped by Turks scheme to win their freedom with the help of their European lovers. And the French painter J.A.D. Ingres beguiled and titillated 19th-century viewers with his fanciful scenes of reclining female nudes set amid exotic harem interiors.

At the height of its power in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Ottoman empire ruled a vast domain that included the Balkans, much of the Caucasus and the Crimea, most of the Middle East and the populated areas of North Africa.

Some highlights of the exhibition include a 16th-century ebony and ivory throne that was used in the field by Suleyman I the Lawgiver (r. 1520-1566) during his successful military campaigns, and an elaborate emerald-handled dagger crafted around 1747 as a gift from the sultan to the Persian ruler Nadir Shah.

Nadir was killed in an uprising before the gift could be delivered, so the dagger was returned to the royal treasury. Its historical and monetary value were highlighted in a popular 1964 movie, "Topkapi," about a daring jewelry heist.

There are also brilliant examples of royal ceremonial armor, weapons, jewelry, furniture and domestic objects such as fabulously jeweled and engraved flasks, jugs, basins and cups.

Many of these objects have never before been seen outside the Topkapi palace compound, which today is a museum overlooking modern-day Istanbul.

By the mid-19th century, Ottoman power was on the wane. The empire struggled on until the cataclysm of World War I. In the aftermath of that conflict, the modern republic of Turkey was born and the present-day nations of the Middle East emerged under British rule.

The present exhibition is organized by the Turkish Palace Arts Foundation, a nonprofit institution dedicated to fostering international cultural exchange.

"Palace of Gold & Light" continues at the Corcoran through June 15, after which it will travel to San Diego and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Treasures from the Topkapi

What: Palace of Gold & Light: Treasures from the Topkapi, Istanbul

Where: The Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. N.W., Washington

When: Wednesday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., through June 15

Tickets: $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors

Call: 202-639-1700

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