This monumental, topographic view of Constantinople is remarkable and rare as a painted record of the city at a significant moment in its history. In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman forces of Sultan Mehmet II (1432-1481). This heralded the end of the Byzantine Empire and caused dramatic reverberations throughout the Christian West. Constantinople had been the capital of the Roman Empire since 330 AD and had rapidly expanded to become one of the most influential and prosperous cities in Europe. It was also, alongside Rome, a pivotal centre for Christianity. Even after the division of the Church into Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism in 1054, the city retained its religious significance, housing vitally important Christian relics, including the True Cross, Christ’s Crown of Thorns and the relic of the Holy Blood (later looted by the Venetian and French armies in 1204).
Following the Ottoman invasion, depictions of the city became increasingly prevalent as interest in cartography began to emerge across Europe. Mapping the city in this way often became imbued with symbolic significance as a means of re-appropriating the city for Christianity. However, these views also catered for those interested in its specific geography and topography, and who celebrated Constantinople as a centre for international trade. Since the early Middle Ages, the city had been the focal point of trade routes from the East to the West, and thriving communities of merchants from across Europe had established themselves there. Foremost amongst these were the Venetians who continued to maintain close links with the city after 1453. Though the Republic had declared war on the Ottomans a decade after the conquest, prompting their presence in the city to diminish, Venetians were still the largest foreign community there during the sixteenth century and remained the Ottomans’s ‘most important international trading partners well into the seventeenth century’ (E.R. Dursteler, Venetians in Constantinople: Nation, Identity, and Coexistence in the Early Modern Mediterranean, Baltimore, 2006, p. 3).
This impressive work, which is almost certainly by an Italian painter, can be dated to the late-sixteenth, or early-seventeenth century. The view is probably based on topographic prints of the city’s skyline, rather than first-hand observation. Certain elements, for instance, appear to relate quite closely to a large engraving by Pieter van den Keere (1571-c. 1646) dated 1616 (fig. 1). Rather than replicating the entire skyline of the city, however, the painter abbreviated the view in this painting, selecting only the most significant monuments. The cultural impact of Ottoman rule in Constantinople did not go unnoticed amongst visitors during the late-sixteenth century. The somewhat piecemeal nature of the cityscape, combining Byzantine heritage with new Ottoman structures, was often praised, with writers commending the mosques as beautiful, richly embellished and well maintained. In the present view, the Column of Constantine is seen in the centre to the left of the Bayezid II Mosque. Further to the right can be seen the Süleymaniye Mosque, constructed between 1550 and 1558, and the Valens Aqueduct. At the far left of the composition, the painter has included the small archipelago off the coast in the Sea of Marmara, as well as a view of the famous Hagia Sophia. That the painter was familiar with van den Keere’s engraving is also indicated by the similarity of the large galleons on the water in the foreground, as well as the fact that he seems to have copied the minarets from the engraving, showing them as square structures, perhaps misunderstanding van den Keere’s use of hatching.
The picture would have made a significant statement on behalf of the patron and was certainly commissioned by someone who had dealings with Constantinople, either in a mercantile or diplomatic capacity. An old inscription on the reverse of the canvas relates that the picture belonged to a ‘PIETRO DEL VERME’. The Dal Verme were a noble Veronese family who had links with Venice from the fourteenth century. In 1364, Luchino Dal Verme (c. 1320-1367) was appointed by the Venetian Republic to quell the Revolt of Saint Titus in Crete and following his success was granted a Venetian noble title. Luchino Dal Verme later died in Constantinople and this monumental depiction of the city may have been commissioned by a descendant.