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The Empire Unvarnished

Luigi Mayer made his mark with lively, quirky scenes for the British ambassador to Constantinople, painting viziers and villagers, soldiers and servants across the Ottoman Empire. He deserves to be plucked from obscurity, argues Briony Llewellyn

When Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, was appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Porte in 1799, he saw it as an opportunity to record and acquire fine examples of classical antiquities from Greece (hence the Elgin Marbles). To this end he sought advice from one of his predecessors, Sir Robert Ainslie, on the terms of employment for an artist he wished to hire as his draughtsman. Ainslie’s response was that he had paid his artist 50 guineas a year, with board and travelling expenses, and “It was clearly understood that the whole of his works, drawings, pictures and sketches were to remain with me, as being my sole property.”

Ainslie’s artist is not named in the correspondence, but, from the remarkable watercolours that he produced, we know that he was Luigi Mayer (c1750/55–1803), who worked for the ambassador in Istanbul from probably 1786 until 1794, accompanying his patron on his return to England. Despite his large output of images depicting Istanbul and its environs, as well as the wider Ottoman Empire, Mayer’s name is known only to a handful of collectors, and then in large part thanks to the volumes of aquatints published after his original work. The artist Elgin eventually hired, Giovanni Battista Lusieri (1754–1821), was renowned during his lifetime, but until recently he too was unfamiliar to all but a few specialists. His name is now re-emerging from the obscurity into which it had fallen since his death, thanks to recent scholarly attention and to an exhibition at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh in 2012.

Mayer, whose work is very different in approach and execution, is also worthy of serious investigation, but he has as yet received no such boost to his reputation. Unlike Lusieri’s career, which is fairly well documented through contemporary correspondence and the records of his numerous patrons, large parts of Mayer’s life are shrouded in mystery. His name suggests he was of Germanic extraction, but nothing is known of his antecedents, nor are his place and date of birth reliably recorded. He appears to have received his artistic training in Rome, often signing his work Luigi Mayer Romano, and was reputed to have been a pupil of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Evidence of a formal association with the celebrated Italian artist has not come to light, but there is no doubt that Mayer’s work draws heavily on the example of his more famous predecessor, and in particular the series of 135 etchings, Vedute di Roma, that Piranesi produced from around 1748 until his death 30 years later. The combination of crumbling ancient monuments, encroaching nature and lively local figures, within compositions of sometimes startling perspectives, that characterises Piranesi’s work exerted a powerful influence on Mayer.

So too did Piranesi’s practice, followed by numerous vedutisti, or painters of views, of integrating text and image by including not merely the title  itself but an elegant, almost poetic explanation of salient elements in the view. By the early 1770s Mayer was in the employ of a Sicilian scholar and collector of antiquities the Principe di Biscari, in Catania. He remained in Sicily until the prince’s death in 1786, meeting some of the northern European travellers who came to explore the island, attracted by its wild landscape, erupting volcanoes and well-preserved Greek temples. How and when he came to the notice of Sir Robert Ainslie is another of the missing pieces in the jigsaw of Mayer’s life, but it may have been through the mediation of another Italian, the numismatist and antiquarian Domenico Sestini, author of numerous travel accounts, who was also employed by both Biscari and Ainslie.

It was common practice in the 18th and early 19th centuries for ambassadors and wealthy travellers to employ artists to accompany them abroad. In an age before photography, visual records of significant events and places were as important as textual documentation as markers of authority or achievement. Ainslie was not alone among diplomats in Istanbul in employing an artist to record the events of his office; as Philip Mansel, author of Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire, has noted, the city inspired an unusual number of “embassy pictures”.

Mayer’s best-known predecessor as an “embassy artist” was Jean-Baptiste Vanmour, who arrived in Istanbul in 1699 in the suite of the Marquis de Ferriol and spent the next four decades recording both the life and costumes of the city as well as successive sultans’ official reception of several European ambassadors. The brothers Gustaf and Ulrik Celsing, Swedish diplomats in the mid-18th century, commissioned a large collection of images, including some extensive views of the city and its shoreline. Ainslie’s French opposite number and rival for influence at the court, the Comte de Choiseul-Gouffier, also employed two artists, Jean-Baptiste Hilaire and Louis-François Cassas. While the two ambassadors jockeyed for position, promoting the interests of their respective countries, these artists, although employed in a private capacity, produced images that played their part in the tangled web of political intrigue.

Mayer’s work is unusual, not for his sweeping city panoramas and his recording of official occasions, magnificent as these are, but for his documentation of the more domestic aspects of Ainslie’s residency and for his charmingly bucolic renditions of life outside the city. He thus visually underlines for Ainslie’s contemporaries and successors the familiarity with Ottoman life for which the British ambassador was noted…

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Issue 53, Autumn 2015 Istanbul Unwrapped: The Princes Islands
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Buy the issue
Issue 53, Autumn 2015 Istanbul Unwrapped: The Princes Islands
£15.00 / $19.05 / 630.39 TL
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