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Mistaken Identities

Julian Raby on the real Roxelana

A portrait coming up for sale at Sotheby’s in October is one of the finest portrayals of an Ottoman lady of the 16th century. The painting’s gold inscription declares her to be the daughter of Süleyman the Magnificent, but Julian Raby peels away centuries of confusion to establish her true identity – as Süleyman’s wife, the legendary Roxelana

Unquestionably, the most celebrated woman in Ottoman history is Haseki Hürrem Sultan, popularly known in the West as Roxelana. She intrigued her contemporaries with her unprecedented relationship with the greatest monarch of the era, Süleyman the Magnificent. Her death in 1558 did nothing to quell this fascination – within three years a play called Roxelane was performed in France – and she continues to enthral the popular imagination to this day, having recently been a central figure in the hugely popular television series Magnificent Century (Muhteşem Yüzyıl). Her colourful life may be well documented, but images of her are few and far between, and those that exist have for centuries been subject to a series of misidentifications.

There is now a consensus that Roxelana was born in the west of present-day Ukraine, and seized when she was in her early teens, probably by a Tatar raiding party, but there is little consensus about her appearance.

Cloistered as she was behind the walls of the harem, it is understandable that depictions of her might have been rare. There has, however, been no study to unpick the misattributions, as Roxelana’s pictorial image is complicated by confusion with a Queen of Cyprus, a Saint from Alexandria, and her own daughter.


Hürrem/Roxelana entered Süleyman’s harem as a slave concubine, perhaps in 1520 as a gift on his accession to the throne. Yet in his devotion to her, Süleyman broke Ottoman protocols and conventions. Imperial concubines had previously been allowed to bear any number of daughters, but at most one son. Hürrem bore four sons and a daughter, the first in 1521, the others in fairly quick succession. Little wonder that rumours circulated of resentments in the harem, and a lurid tale emerged of how Gülbahar, the mother of Süleyman’s first-born son, had fought with Hürrem, scratching her face and tearing her hair, much to the chagrin of the Sultan.

While his mother was alive, Süleyman respected her position as the senior lady of the court. But after her death he took the unprecedented step of translating Hürrem from concubine to wife. Hürrem’s influence was such that she moved with her entourage from the Eski Saray (Old Palace) to the Yeni Saray (New Palace), today’s Topkapı Palace, despite the fact that Mehmed II had designated the Eski Saray for women, the Yeni Saray for men. Roxelana’s was a power move that contributed to the influence of the harem on court affairs, and she has been seen as initiating what is often called the “Sultanate of Women”.

Süleyman trusted her in his political and even some of his diplomatic affairs. When he was absent from the capital, she wrote to him about the political situation in Istanbul. And she was entrusted to send letters to Sigismund, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. Hürrem’s influence was considered by some to be baleful, however, and she was accused of using not only physical but magical charms as means of persuasion. She was even described as a witch.

Hürrem was more than Süleyman’s political confidante and the bearer of his children, however. Her Turkish name, Hürrem, derives from the Persian word for “joyous”, and, doubtless living up to her name, she became the darling of his heart, Süleyman frequently expressing his love
for her in poetry.


Today, legend has it that Hürrem was born Aleksandra Lisowska, the daughter of an Orthodox priest, and today the city of Rohatyn claims to be her birthplace. From the first, the guarded privacy of the harem encouraged those outside to speculate about her origins. Some claimed she was Italian; she was even said to be French. Yet as early as the mid-1520s the Venetian ambassador Pietro Bragadin said she was “di nazion Russa”, the origin most accepted in ambassadorial circles, as the Venetian envoy Domenico Trevisano in 1554 and a Moroccan envoy to the Ottomans in the 1550s confirm. “Russia” was then a term used broadly, with a distinction drawn between Muscovy Rus’ and the Rus’ of Ruthenia. Ruthenia was a vast region that includes western Ukraine, which in Süleyman’s day was controlled by the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. In 1550 Michalo the Lithuanian said Hürrem had “been captured from our land”.

Hürrem was known in an Italianised form as “la Rossa” (the “Russian”) and also as Roxelana or Rossolana. In Hürrem’s case Roxelana was largely understood in Europe to be a personal name, but a Latin poem of 1584 about the people and geography of Ruthenia was titled Roxelania, and a 17th-century Polish poet uses “Roksolanes” as a broad term for “Ruthenian girls”.


Hürrem Sultan’s closeness to Süleyman is expressed in the earliest known printed images of the couple, woodcuts from about 1532 attributed to the Nuremberg artist Erhard Schön (c1491–1542) (overleaf, top left). The “Süleyman” bears no relation to the images of the Sultan from the 1530s until his death in 1566, and instead was based on a heavy-set likeness of Süleyman’s father, Sultan Selim I.

Schön’s “Roxelana” appears to have been based on an image by another artist from Nuremberg, Sebald Beham, thought to date from 1530. In both Beham’s and Schön’s prints she has been given stolid features that match those of Selim, even though Bragadin had heard that she was “young but not beautiful, but graceful and petite” (giovane ma non bella, ma aggraziata e menuetta).

In marked contrast to the Schön woodcuts, which are somewhat theatrical and tinged with prejudice, are a pair of prints issued by Matteo Pagani in Venice (overleaf, bottom left). Here Süleyman and Roxelana are identified by inscriptions, with Roxelana described as “La piu bella e piu favorita donna del gran Turcho dita la Rossa”. The prints are not dated, but c1550 has been posited on the basis of Süleyman’s appearance. However, the model for Pagani’s Roxelana probably dates from
the early 1540s. Unlike Schön’s Süleyman, Pagani’s Süleyman can be authenticated from numerous contemporary portraits. The question arises as to whether his Roxelana bears any relation to her actual appearance. This is a question we might never be able to answer, and perhaps a more fruitful question is how it relates to other images of her.


Two oil paintings attributed to Titian’s workshop have been claimed as portraits of Roxelana. Both show a lady in a three-quarter pose, facing to her right and wearing a rich outfit and extravagant headgear.

The first – recorded in a Florentine collection by 1612, now in the Ringling Museum in Sarasota – displays the soft brushwork and restrained colouring typical of Titian’s middle years. The lady wears an Ottoman-style outfit and headdress but she has the vapid features of an idealised Italian Renaissance beauty. No inscribed versions of this image exist to support an identification with Roxelana. It can perhaps best be linked to an unspecific exotic portrait such as the one mentioned by García Hernández, who wrote to Prince Philip of Spain on August 3, 1559, to say he was sending him Titian’s painting of “una Turca o Persiana hecho alla sua fantasia”.

We can have much more confidence in the identity of the second painting (opposite), which is in the Uffizi in Florence. It depicts a lady regally dressed in satin robes with pearl buttons and a gilded, heavily jewelled tiara topped with a giant spinel, and a trailing veil. Attributed to Titian’s workshop, it is likely to be a copy, but authorship does not affect its iconographic importance.

Historically, it was assumed to be a portrait of Caterina Cornaro, who was briefly Queen of Cyprus and a prominent figure in Venetian society until her death in 1510. However, there are contemporary portraits of her by Gentile Bellini and Albrecht Dürer, neither of which bears a facial resemblance to the Uffizi painting. Behind the figure is a vicious spiked wheel of the type associated with Caterina’s eponymous saint, Catherine of Alexandria, who was miraculously saved from being tortured to death on a breaking wheel. It was the combination of its opulence and the wheel that led to the portrait’s identification as Caterina – which was fatally undermined during a recent restoration when it was revealed that the wheel was a later addition.
Comparing the Uffizi “Titian” and two other likenesses, both inscribed with her name, we can identify the subject with confidence not as Caterina but as Roxelana.

The first of these two images is the Pagani woodcut (page 10). Despite the difference in headgear, there are strong resemblances, even down to the puffiness of the tear gland above the inner corner of her left eye, a dimple in her chin and the slight folds at the corners of her mouth. Similarities in the nose, eyes and mouth are even closer in a bust version attributed to Titian’s studio, sold by Christie’s this summer (far right).

The second identifying image is an unbecoming French 17th-century work, first recorded at Kensington Palace in 1818, whose lack of pictorial merit is made up for by its inscription: Rossa Femme de Soliman Empereur des Turcs. The lady’s features have become coarsened and cheerless over a century or more of
copying, and there have been changes in the tiara, but the portrait’s lineage is made clear by an earlier painting, now at Knole House in Kent (where it is still mislabelled by the National Trust as “Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus”).


Once we accept that the Uffizi “Titian” depicts Roxelana rather than Caterina Cornaro, it removes any lingering doubts about the identification of the lady in the Sotheby’s portrait, which bears clear affinities with both the “Titian” likeness and the Pagani version of Roxelana, even if her headdress differs and her facial features are more emphatically rendered. The “Northern” painting thus belongs to a very small group of portraits of Roxelana produced within or soon after her lifetime.

Where exactly this Roxelana was produced is not immediately clear from its style or its inscription, biancke • rosa // fiola • solimano, which is puzzling on several counts. The spelling of Biancke is anomalous, and the meaning of “Biancke Rosa” unclear. Rather than “White Rose”, it might indicate “White Russian”, the Latinised form “Albae Russiae” being in use for “White Russia” by the 14th century. There seems little doubt it was meant to refer to La Rossa/Roxelana.

But how to explain the second line of the inscription identifying the lady not as the wife but as the “Daughter of Süleyman” – fiola being Venetian dialect for daughter? This is not the only example of confusion between Roxelana and her daughter, Mihrimah Sultan. A much-reproduced portrait in a private collection in Istanbul – a minor variant of the standard Western portrait of Mihrimah, or Cameria/Camelia as she was known in Christian Europe – has an inscription incorrectly identifying her as “Rosa” and the wife of Süleyman.

Portraits of Cameria follow a uniform type in which she remains forever young. The canonical surviving image is in the Uffizi, one of the portraits copied for the Medici from Paolo Giovio’s seminal collection in Como by Cristofano di Papi dell’Altissimo, in this case soon after 1570. Its inscription identifies Cameria by name, and as the daughter of Süleyman and wife of Rüstem Pasha. It also carries the date 1541.

This date brings us back to the Uffizi portrait of Roxelana. On the back of its canvas is a note ascribing it to Titian, with the date 1542. The dates of 1541 and 1542 are close enough to raise questions about whether the two portraits are linked.

In the second edition of his Lives of the Artists, published in 1568, Giorgio Vasari recorded that Titian had produced portraits “of Rossa, wife of the Grand Turk, at the age of 16, and of Cameria, her daughter, with most beautiful dresses and headdresses”. Vasari relied here on information from a Florentine artist and poet long resident in Venice, and it would have been easy for a mistake – of the sort for which Vasari is quite noted – to have crept in. The record more likely should
have read that it was Cameria who was
16 years old. In 1542 Roxelana would have been in her late 30s; in 1541 Mihrimah would have been 19 years old. These seem appropriate ages for the ladies in their respective portraits. And when we juxtapose the 1542 Roxelana and the 1541 Mihrimah (opposite) we can see how one could be the mother, the other her daughter.


Despite the fact that the Uffizi and Sotheby’s portraits were the products of two different schools of painting, and both were derivative of now-lost models, they share affinities that suggest they may be traced back to the work of a single artist. That artist was also the source for the Pagani image of Roxelana. Neither Pagani nor Titian travelled to Istanbul, and what Harold described as the “hard dull quality” of the Uffizi portrait of Roxelana has convinced most authorities to brand it a copy after a Titian original. In this case, we can add, Titian was copying another artist’s rendering at least in part. Who that artist might have been remains to be discovered.

There are sufficient images by different artists, European and Ottoman, of Süleyman from the 1530s until his death in 1566 to establish his changing likeness (see Cornucopia 62). The same cannot be said for his wife and daughter. Although the earliest known images of both women reflect respect, being neither lurid nor demeaning, European portraits of Roxelana and Cameria are better described as representations – or Western ideations.

Yet Roxelana is no mere Orientalist token. The paintings of her in two very different styles, one Venetian, the other Northern, succeed in projecting the power of her position and her personality. The figure has a regal bearing, her attire is opulent but disciplined, her features handsome and full of confidence, and sufficiently individualised to lend her image credibility. Puzzles and lacunae persist, however, fittingly for a lady who was heard of but never seen in public.

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Recommendations by Julian Raby

  • Donati, Lamberto, “Due immagini ignote di Solimanoi(1494–1566)”, Studi orientalistici in onore di Giorgio Levi della Vida, Rome, 1956, vol.I, pp. 219–33.
  • Gronau, Georg (1903), “Tizians Bildnisse Türkische Sultaninnen,” Beiträge zur Kunstgeschichte. Franz Wickhoff gewidmet, Vienna, 1903, pp. 132–37.
  • Hadjikyriakos, Iosif,  “Caterina Depicted”, Actual Problems of Theory and History of Art: Collection of articles”, vol. 9, eds A. V. Zakharova, S. V. Maltseva, E. Iu. Staniukovich-Denisova. — Lomonosov Moscow State University / St. Petersburg: NP-Print, 2019, pp. 686–691. ISSN 2312-2129.
  • Kenner, Friedrich,  “Die Porträtsammlung des Erzherzogs Ferdinand von Tirol. Der Orient,” Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen des Allerhöchsten Kaiserhauses 19, 1898, pp.98–146, esp. pp.129–30.
  • Madar, Heather, “Before the Odalisque: Renaissance Representations of Elite Ottoman Women,” Early Modern Women: An Interdsciplinary Journal 6, 2011, pp.1–41.
  • Molteni Monica, “Per l’Iconografia Cinquecentesca di Caterina Cornaro”, in C. Syndikus and S. Rogge (eds.). Caterina Cornaro, Last Queen of Cyprus and Daughter of Venice. New York, 2013, pp. 11–32.
  • Peirce, Leslie, “Shifting Boundaries: Images of Ottoman Royal Women in the 16th and 17th Centuries,” Critical Matrix 4 (Fall-Winter) 1988, pp.43–82.
  • —, Empress of the East: How a European slave girl became queen of the Ottoman Empire, New York, 2017.
  • Ruszczycówna, Janina, “O niektórych portretach Sulejmana II i jego rodziny,” Ars auro prior. Studia Ioanni Bialostocki sexagenario dicata, Warsaw 1981, pp.279–285.
  • Schaeffer, Emil, “Bildnisse der Caterina Cornaro,” Monatshefte für Kunstwissenschaft 4, no.1, January, 1911, pp.12–19.
  • Sokolnicki, Michel, “La sultane ruthène”, Belleten, 23, 1959, pp.229–39.
  • Born, Robert, et al., The Sultan's World: the Ottoman Orient in Renaissance Art, catalogue of an exhibition held at the National Museum in Kraków and BOZAR: Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels, Ostfildern, 2015.
  • Wethey, Harold E.,The Paintings of Titian: complete edition in three volumes. London, 1969–75. vol. I, 1969, p.130, cat.97, pl.168 vol.II, 1971, p.205
  • Wilde, Johnanes, “Titian's St. Catherine,” Addenda to Count Seilern's Collection, London 1969, vol.V, pp.4–6.
  • Yermolenko, Galina, “Roxolana: ‘The Greatest Empresse of the East’,” Muslim World 95, April, 2005, pp.231–248.
  • Royal Collection
  • Knole house

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