Istanbul - Tramonto sul Bosforo

“The Reception of Turkish and Persian Culture in Venice” by Giampiero Bellingeri

[Tempo di Lettura: 7 minuti]

G.B. Donà’s volume Della Letteratura de’ Turchi (The Literature of the Turks, Venice 16881)is currently regarded as the first comprehensive study published in Europe about Turkish culture, science, and art. Across the centuries and the various stages of the fickle relationship between La Serenissima (the Republic of Venice) and the ‘despotic’ Ottomans, Turkish culture was either dismissed as lacking originality and significance, or utterly denied in order to support the narrative that the subjects/“slaves” of that giant, rival, neighboring empire were incapable of having a culture or intellectual life. To the Venetians, a militarized, war-oriented society of serfs, presided over by an aggressive state apparatus dedicated exclusively to the submission of free peoples and individuals, such as the Ottoman Empire, had to rest on inadequate education and cultural standards.2 These stereotypes circulated in the squares and in the markets – both real and “ideological”. Perhaps it was the Venetians themselves (who were rather skilled in editing, managing, and distributing artificially constructed views on Turks and Persians) who spread them and let them crystallize.
In the troubled Serenissima (where, especially in Padua, scholars discussed the work of “infidel” philosophers such as Averroes and Avicenna in the shadow of Aristotle, and even the much-maligned and yet alluring Koran),3 the salient and most original traits of the Ottoman Empire and of its urban aesthetics in particular were regularly the object of censorship, negation, contestation, and propagandistic reduction – but also, as we will see, of admiration. As a matter of fact, speculation in the Veneto about these cultural differences was of far more complex.
The same is true for the rather intense cultural ferment that characterized the vast cultural context that gave birth to the literary practices later commented upon by Venetian authors, travellers, and analysts, who did acknowledge the multifarious, complex quality of the society and culture of Constantinople. Around the solid and yet ethereal skyline of the city, we do recognize the shifting traits of the landscape that these surely partial observers described. The cupolas, for instance, so typical and picturesque, stand out against the horizon, dominating the Bosphorus. They seem to provocatively and maieutically reproduce the imposing and ever competing forms of Hagia Sofia and the Seraglio. The landscapes and scenic vistas described by Venetians in Constantinople had the power to influence judgment by agreeing with, nodding to, or confirming one of the many aspects of the canon or the other (negative, reactive, or reasonably constructive).
Within this troubled socio-historical framework, with its trends, zeitgeist, and narratives, a whole array of cultural practices, either acknowledged or contested, were taking shape and are certainly worthy of note. It is this “expressive” entirety that will, obviously, be taken into account; although in our case, we are looking to operate within a literary environment, one that is, by convention, neither narrow nor dryly specialised: given that these architectural features influenced the city’s inclined planes, perspectives, and sensibilities, and were engraved upon the conscience and the spirit of the city, they did, in fact, give rise to a cultural context. Let us now consider how these elisions came to be articulated.

“[…] Quivi [nella Polis eccellente] fiorirono le virtù dell’armi, le invenzioni delle scienze, le ragioni dell’arti, l’eleganza del scrivere […]. Hora la natura e la virtù pare habbino nelle calamità nostre le giurisdittioni loro.
Soggiacciono i Regni miserabili e deserti a peregrini horribili spettacoli […], come che la barbara violenza […] habbia ancora svelto ogni memoria di quelle opere illustri, lasciando tante, et si belle campagne à povere genti […]”.4

“[…] Here [in this most magnificent city] the virtues of chivalry, the progress of science, the genius of art, and the elegance of the written word prospered […]. Now nature and virtue seem to have agreed to ruin us. Our wretched, deserted kingdoms are theatres for horrible spectacles […], as if a barbarian violence […] had cancelled all memories of those illustrious monuments, leaving such beautiful lands in the hands of undeserving people”.

Il Canone di Avicenna (1597)
Il Canone di Avicenna (1597)

Let us look more closely at these illustrious monuments: “Le fabbriche [di Costantinopoli] di fuori non appareno,ma dentro sono bellissime, et fabbricate à loro modo che à me assai piace […], le moschee, le sepolture, ponti […], tutte cose per l’anima […], li lochi di studenti, et le sue Scuole, le stanze de’ putti con li suoi studij, con li lochi delli Maestri, et Lettori, tutti spesati, et salariati, ponti, bagni, fontane, campanilli è le Moschee, et tutto per le lemosine è fatto…”.5
“It may not appear so from the outside, but inside, buildings [in Constantinople] are beautiful and built in a way that pleases me very much, […] the mosques, the mausolea, the bridges, […] all things for the soul […], all the places where students go, and the Schools, the dormitories with their pupils and their books, the rooms for the teachers and lecturers – whose accommodation is paid for – and bridges, baths, fountains, minarets and mosques, all paid through charity…”.

There is an abundance of places that the Empire devoted to the cultivation of knowledge and learning: “Vi sono Cento, e Venti Colleggi dove stanno molti Scolari chiamati Sophà, che vol dire Sapienti, o Studenti, à quali è dato in esso Colleggio à ciascuno una Camera…”.6
“There are a hundred and twenty colleges were many scholars reside, they are called Sophà, which means Scholars or Students. Each of them is given a room in one of these colleges…”.

When difficult times came and ambiguities were ill tolerated, people went back to brandishing the cross and a bellicose Orientalism against Turks, Turcophilia, and anticlericalism.7 The Ottoman debacle in Vienna in 1683 opened the doors to the diffusion of Ottoman culture, which had, until then, been marginalized and censored if not utterly rejected – and yet always acknowledged.
Along with the caliber and range of Ottoman cannons, the numerical and measuring system, and the names of ship’s captains (the so-called re’is), people also learned about the economic and administrative systems, the juridical apparatus, and the literature of the Ottomans. In fact, the Empire was perceived as a tangible cultural entity even after its collapse. In any case, it aroused a fair amount of curiosity: “… Si discorse, che mio pensiere esser dovesse, avvicinato che fossi a quel grande Colosso, il quale divorando gli altri, si rende sempre più complesso, e che fino al suddetto tempo non fù mai tocco da qual si sia Natione impunemente […] di scoprirvi il suo forte, & il suo debole, poiché il mondo in sé non contiene alcuna cosa di eterno. Fissato pertanto l’occhio sopra lo stesso, compresi a bastanza […]: Che quella Natione non si ritrovi in quel vigore così grande, come aveva acquistata la riputatione d’esser invincibile; Né ch’ella avesse tale rozzezza d’ingegno, e totale imperitia e nella cognizione delle scienze, e delle belle arti…”.8

“Due to my [G. B. Doná’s, future Venetian Bailo to Istanbul] proximity to that colossus that grew more complex as it devoured others and up to this point has never been touched by any Nation without retaliation […], it was established that my task was that of discovering its strengths and weaknesses, since this world does not contain any thing that is eternal.
Thus, by observing it, so much was clear to me […]: this Nation, invincible by reputation, was not so vigorous at all. Nor was it devoid of intelligence or unaware of science and art…”.

We can only imagine that Colossus in its full vigor, animated by a culture not “devoid of intelligence or unaware of science and art.” As if the polyglot Venetian youth, the aspiring dragomans to Pera, had not dedicated themselves for centuries to the study of aulic, popular, and didactic verses to build up their knowledge of Ottoman cultural forms! And what about all those Turkish (but also Arab and Persian) manuscripts that Venetians bought in Constantinople, acquired over the centuries by secular
as well as religious institutions, and now collected at the Biblioteca Marciana?9

Consider the following verses, with their accurate translation into Italian:

Dun ghiezè ben iarè vardum Benim Iaurim viucudà Iusumi iusune surdum
Ala ghiuslum elvidà
Mi portai hierisera
A gl’amplessi notturni Dell’Idolo, che adoro;
E mentre in braccio al sonno Mirai posar le belle luci chiuse Contemplando in quel volto
Il Paradiso accolto,
Le dissi in voce tremola e dimessa, Addio Lilla, mio ben, tu sei pur essa?10

Last night I joined The nocturnal rites
Of the Divinity I worship;
And as I watched her lay
her beautiful closed eyes in sleep’s arms And regarded Paradise itself
in that face of hers,
I told her in a wavering whisper,
Goodbye Lilla, beloved mine, are you still yourself?

Note how in his translation the cultivated dragoman – a skilled diplomat and political strategist – indulges in the multiplication of lines in order to convey the sense of an ever-attainable Arcadia. The post-Vienna period, after the Ottoman armies had been pushed past the Danube in 1683, officially acknowledged the existence of institutions, traditions, and cultural forms in the lands of Others. Greater contemplative ease and larger manoeuvering room were granted in order to return Greece and the Morea to the Graeco-Roman world and Turkish letters and “Alexandrine” culture – which were now deemed fit to join the re-constituted, Western-based Parnassus – to a shared classical, Oriental tradition. And yet, the option of a Palatine application had been long known: “[…] ama l’ocio, & la pace più che habbia fatto altro delli suoi maggiori […]. Dicon che è studioso di lettere, & specialmente delle cose di Aristotile: le quali legge con gli suoi espositori in lingua arabesca, & è studioso della Teologia sua: della quale ne fa professione à paragone delli suoi Mufty. È di età di anni quarantatrè in circa […]”.

“He loves idleness and peace more than any of his predecessors. […]. They say he is a scholar of letters, especially of Aristotle, whom he reads in the Arabic. And he is a student of [Islamic] theology, out of which he made his profession, like his Muftis. He is about forty-three years of age […]”.11

The excerpt describes none other than Suleiman, known as “The Magnificent” or “The Lawgiver” … (to be continued).

Istanbul - Tramonto sul Bosforo
Istanbul – Tramonto sul Bosforo

1 Della letteratura de’ Turchi. Osservazioni fatte da Gio: Battista Donado Senator Veneto, Fù Bailo a Costantinopoli, per A. Poletti, in Venetia MDCLXXXVIII, p.A.3, (in seguito: Donà, Letteratura…).

2 Cfr. P. Preto, Venezia e i Turchi, Firenze,Sansoni 1975¸ (lavoro celebre, riedito di recente presso Viella, Roma 2013), passim.

3 Sulle venete riprese dei classici dell’Islam, cfr. G. Vercellin (a c. di), Il Canone di Avicenna fra Europa e Oriente nel primo Cinquecento: l’Interpretatio Arabicorum Nominum di Andrea Alpago, UTET, Torino 1991.

4 Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venezia, Ms. it., cl. VII, 882 (8505): “Descrittione dell’Imperio Turchesco del Rev.mo Monsignor Maffeo Veniero Arcivescovo di Corfù” (post 1584), c. 45r-v.

5 Dal ms del resoconto del Viaggio da Venezia a Costantinopoli, compiuto nel 1550-‘51, dell’ambasciatore straordinario Caterino Zen, cfr. BMC, cod. Correr 1199, cc. 95-103 (1961). Si veda anche P.M. Tommasino L’Alcorano di Macometto. Storia di un libro del Cinquecento europeo, Il Mulino, Bologna 2013.

6 Rimando a una delle numerose copie manoscritte della Relazione, talora attribuita a Ottaviano Bon (bailo a Costantinopoli dal 1604 al 1608; ma si tratta di scrittura
successiva al regno di Murad IV, 1623-1640): Biblioteca Querini Stampalia, ms. cl. IV, cod. 647 (1080), Relazione della Gran Città di Costantinopoli con la Vita del Gran Turco, (cc. 128r-257v), c. 159r e 178r.

7 Cfr. L. D’Ascia, Il Corano e la tiara. L’epistola a Maometto di Enea Silvio Piccolomini, (papa Pio II), Introduzione ed edizione, pref. A. Prosperi, Pendragon, Bologna 2001.
8 Cfr. Donà, Letteratura…, cit., p. 2.
9 Donà, Della Letteratura de’ Turchi, cit., p. 8.

10 Ibid., pp. 35-39. Sono versi editi, tradotti dal dragomanno della Serenissima Gian Rinaldo Carli, originario di Capo d’Istria; su di lui, cfr. M. Infelise, G. R. Carli senior, dragomanno della Repubblica, “Acta Histriae”, V (1997), pp. 189-198.

11 [B. Ramberti], Libri tre delle cose de Turchi, in casa de’ Figliuoli di Aldo, in Vinegia, M.D. XXXIX, p. 30r-v.