"The image of the Turk as a terrifying warrior dominated the European's concept of his Eastern neighbour from the time of Turkish ascendancy over the Byzantine Empire in 1483 until the decline of Ottoman power in 1699". Thus begins the introduction to an exhibition held some thirty years ago in New York (St. Clair, Alexandrine N.: The Image of the Turk in Europe, exhibition catalogue, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1973, p.7). It shows a European fascination with the depiction of the Turk, which ranges from caricature (pl.12) to realism and indeed respect as shown for example in the images worked by Melchior Lorichs (cover pl. and pl.10). The situation with paintings was similar, with numerous images of Turks appearing in paintings at the beginning of the sixteenth century.
European artists also travelled to Istanbul. Most famous of these is Gentile Bellini, whose visit in 1480-81 achieved what sixteen years of Venetian diplomacy and armed confrontation had failed to do: a dialogue with the Ottomans (Raby, Julian and Klinger, Linda: 'Barbarossa and Sinan: A Portrait of two Ottoman Corsairs from the Collection of Paolo Giovio', Venezia e l'Oriente Vicino, Atti del Primo Simposio Internazionale sull'Arte Veneziano e l'Arte Islamica, Venice, 1986, p.47). His portraits of the sultan together with notable figures at the Ottoman court including Hayreddin Barbarossa made him justly famous. Also of the same period is a well-known medal struck in honour of Sultan Mehmed II (Mack, Rosamond E.: Bazaar to Piazza, Islamic Trade and Italian Art 1300-1600, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2002, pl.165, p.157).
One of the most frequently depicted figures of the time was Hayreddin Barbarossa. As a figure in Europe he was well known both from his achievements as Ruler of Algiers and Admiral of the Ottoman Fleet and also because of his features. "The forehead is low, the gaze penetrating, and the beard and moustaches bristle ferociously" (Süleyman the Magnificent, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1987, no.5, p.52). His fame was such that Paolo Giovio "not only obtained a painting of him from Istanbul which was then worked up for his famous villa museum at Como, but also prized his Koran, a velvet caftan and the vessels he used for eating and washing which had been captured in 1535 on the Hapsburg occupation of Tunis" (Süleyman, op.cit., p.52). He was, like Sultan Mehmet, the subject of a bronze medal (Klinger and raby, op.cit., fig.4). His image summed up the European fear of the Turk.
The present cameo has all the facial features associated with Hayreddin Barbarossa and seems to be taken from the most famous early image of him, the 1535 engraving of him by Agostino Veneziano (Süleyman, op.cit., p.52). It has exactly the same three-quarter view, making the prominence of the nose very clearly visible. The present image makes him appear a little younger than in the engraving. Whether this cameo was intended to be a personal portait of the corsair or whether it was a depiction of him as an embodiment of The Turk we cannot be sure.
The turban in this cameo is very unsual and completely different from the turban on the engraving. It does not correlate to any known original turbans, and indeed the horizontal band, as it is depicted here, would probably have fallen away in real life from the rest of the turban. This makes it almost certain that it is copied from a visual image rather than from life. Such a turban is found in a print of a Turk by Jost Amman. It originally appeared in the Türkische Chronica, printed in Frankfurt in 1577 as fig. 9 (Seelig, Gero: The New Hollstein German Engravings, Etchings and Woodcuts, 1400-1700: Jost Amman Book Illustrations, part V, Rotterdam, 2003, no.1351, p.223, text p.215).
The present cameo has a fillet left proud of the outline around the entire figure. Either this is the result of grinding down the agate after an original form, presumably an oval, had for some reason broken. The other more likely possibility is that it was originally made like this so that it could be mounted into a small box or similar piece of furniture.