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Rome’s Turkish Secret

In 1833 Horace Vernet, the French Orientalist, created a fabulous ‘Turkish Room’ at the top of a tower in Rome’s Villa Medici. By Paolo Girardelli. Photographs: Daniele Molajoli

  • In the centre of the painted ceiling Horace Vernet created an Islamicised version of European grotesque, adding floral and animal motifs to a geometric pattern based on the ‘şamsa’, or eight-pointed star (photo: Daniele Molajoli

For generations of Romans the Villa Medici, seat of the Académie de France à Rome, has been a sort of hidden paradise. Over centuries the Academy hosted, trained and inspired artists, writers and scholars. In my university years, I remember students skilfully forging invitations to the legendary bal masqué held every year by the spiritual heirs of Poussin and Ingres. Poussin would have been the Academy’s first director had he not died in 1666, the year it was founded.

Designed in the second half of the 16th century by Florentine architects for Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici (future Grand Duke of Tuscany), the Villa Medici is one of Rome’s rare landmarks in a clearly Tuscan style. It became the seat of the French Academy only in 1803, at Napoleon’s behest. The institution, created in 1666 by Louis XIV and his minister Colbert, had formerly been housed in different places, including the Palazzo Caffarelli on the Capitoline Hill and the Palazzo Mancini on the Corso. Very Roman, very Tuscan, very French… the Villa Medici, with its gardens, intoxicating views and fragments of ancient sculpture incorporated in its decoration, nevertheless epitomises Rome in many ways, and is at the centre of the city’s cultural life.

One hidden corner, however, evokes an altogether different geography: a Turkish room, hidden in one of the two towers crowning the villa. It was decorated in the “Turkish” style in 1833 by Horace Vernet (1789–1863), then director of the Academy…

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Issue 63, 2021 Lure of the Exotic
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Other Highlights from Cornucopia 63
  • Flights of fantasy

    The artist Lithian Ricci has rescued a dilapidated old house on the Golden Horn – and transformed it into a magical work of art. Berrin Torolsan is dazzled. Photographs: Monica Fritz

  • Mistaken Identities

    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. Julian Raby peels away centuries of confusion to establish her true identity – as Süleyman’s wife, the legendary Roxelana

  • Saved by the royal bed

    Defeated by Russia in 1709, Charles XII of Sweden took refuge with the Sultan. Confined to camp, the King sent out Cornelius Loos, his military draughtsman, to capture the wonders of the Ottoman Empire. Only 50 of the drawings Loos brought back survive – rescued from beneath the King’s bed during a riot. Philip Mansel dives into a splendid book on Loos’s eye-opening work, and Robert Ousterhout marvels at his drawings of Ayasofya

  • The Marvellous Eye of the King’s Artist

    Three centuries ago Cornelius Loos, Charles XII’s military draughtsman, captured the atmospheric grandeur of Ayasofya’s interiors with panache and precision. Robert Ousterhout lingers over Loos’s peerless drawings

  • Going with the Grain

    For many peoples bulgur came before bread. It may now be ultra-fashionable, but versatile, nutritious bulgur was in fact the world’s first processed food. Berrin Torolsan celebrates the revival of this Anatolian staple and its nutty joys with a collection of intriguing recipes

  • The smile that launched a thousand shish

    Ever since it was founded in 1945 on the edge of Istanbul, people have flocked to eat at Beyti’s, the grill house that taught the city the importance of Sunday lunch. The journey, says Andrew Finkel, is always worth the effort

  • Age of innocence

    The astrophotographer Tony Hallas spent an idyllic childhood in 1950s Turkey, where he first marvelled at the night sky. On his recent return, he found hulking cruise ships and Disneyfied destinations. Here, in the first of two articles, he looks back at the Turkey he left behind, and evocative family photographs capture a world waiting to be discovered

Buy the issue
Issue 63, 2021 Lure of the Exotic
£600.00 / $762.42 / 24,928.25 TL
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