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A newly discovered 16th-century painting of Süleyman the Magnificent, due to be sold by Sotheby’s London this spring, is arguably the most ‘immediate’ portrait of him until the last years of his life. This is Süleyman in his pomp
Just over 50 years after Gentile Bellini produced what has now become the iconic image of Mehmed the Conqueror, another set of exchanges between the Serenissima and the Sublime Porte led to the canonical image of his descendant Süleyman the Magnificent in his middle years.
A newly found version of this likeness shows Süleyman The Lawgiver – “Kanuni Süleyman”, as Turks know him (1494–1566) – allegedly at the age of 43. This was about the time he conquered Iraq from the Safavids of Iran and roundly defeated the fleet assembled by the Pope and his allies at the Battle of Preveza.
The painting is not inscribed with his age, but relates directly to two other examples that are. One, now in the Uffizi in Florence (No 1, right), was copied for Cosimo de’ Medici some time between 1552 and 1568. The other (above, No 2) was copied for the Habsburg Archduke Ferdinand II of Austria between 1578 and 1599 to hang at Schloss Ambras in Innsbruck. It is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
Both versions were copied directly from a painting owned by Paolo Giovio, a humanist and historian, whose collection of more than 400 portraits, most with commentaries on the life and achievements of the person portrayed, was the locus classicus for Renaissance historical portraiture. In the only other known painting at the age 43, the Sultan wears an earring (mucem.org/media/3427). This flaccid derivative was installed by Paul Ardier, former treasurer to Henri IV of France, in the portrait gallery he assembled from 1617 to 1638 at the Château de Beauregard, near Blois.
The Sotheby’s painting, perhaps more vividly than any of the other known versions, captures the way Süleyman was described by a member of a Venetian delegation to Istanbul in 1534 – large black eyes, more compassionate than cruel, an aquiline nose slightly too large for his other features, a beard not shaven but cut close with scissors, long, red moustaches, and a long and slender neck.
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