Branding Power in the Fifteenth Century

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In 1453, Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople and the Roman Empire came to an end. Twenty-seven years later, Venice accepted Mehmed’s control of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Silk Route. Nevertheless, he needed to show his power and rebrand himself as a good neighbour to the Greek-speaking elite of Constantinople and Latin-speaking Christendom. Here’s what he and the artist Gentile Bellini teach us about using names, luxury, body language, and the iconography of competing traditions to brand power for new and diverse audiences.

The Ottoman conquest of Constantinople saw Christendom suddenly and catastrophically diminished. The hardest hit was Venice, which fought for nearly thirty years to recover its lost dominance of its vital trade routes. In 1479, the Venetians sought peace with their new neighbours. Among the peace and trade terms, Mehmed asked for the gift of a Western artist. The Venetian Doge offered Gentile Bellini, who had recently completed a series of portraits of Venetian rulers.

Mehmed had no shortage of artists working in the Ottoman tradition. Indeed, in the same year, he commissioned a second portrait, possibly by Shiblizade Ahmed. This portrait shows the Sultan as a contemplative man smelling a rose. In the Ottoman tradition, with its Persian and Chinese influences, it incorporates unpainted paper into the image with no background.

Gentile Bellini, Sultan Mehmet II (Constantinople, modern Istanbul, 1480).
Attributed to Shiblizade Ahmed, Portrait of Mehmet II, c.1480, opaque pigment on paper, 39 × 27 cm, Topkapý Sarayi Muzesi, Istanbul, H 2153, fol.10a. © Sonia Halliday. This image from The Whitfield Collection.
Sultan Mehmet II by Gentile Bellini – Seated Scrible, 1479-1481. © Isabella Sewart Gardner Museum.

But in seeking out a Western artist, Mehmed perhaps saw that he needed to speak to two new audiences: the Christian elite of the city he had conquered, and the princes, kings, and rulers around the Mediterranean who might question his legitimacy as a European ruler.

The task that confronted Bellini was to do in images what the Treaty of Constantinople had done through diplomacy and legal terms – project Mehmed’s power and legitimacy. In modern terms, he was to rebrand Mehmed, shifting his image from that of a fearsome Muslim warrior and scourge of Christians to that of a cultivated man and partner of Christian powers.

Speak the language of your audience

Bellini and Mehmed approach the task in a number of ways. Mehmed does not soften his claim to rule. He bore the title of Qaiser-i-Rum, of Caesar of Rome, as all rulers of Rome had done since Julius Caesar. In Bellini’s painting, he goes further, and the now faded inscription on the left pedestal proclaims him “Imperator Orbis”, or “Ruler of the World”. This exaggeration is made not in his native Turkish, the Arabic of his faith, or even the Greek spoken by the elite of Constantinople, but in the Latin of his audience. Exaggeration aside, it is a clear reminder that he is now the ruler of the most powerful empire west of China.

Show the audience what they know

For his part, Bellini does not shy away from Mehmed’s different religion and culture, but echoes Mehmed’s claim to Roman imperialism by placing him within a recognizably Roman triumphal arch.

Roman triumphal arch

He uses other icons familiar to Latin rulers. Above the imperial arch and the Latin claim to the world, is the most obvious branding – the six crowns that appear above him. Yet these are the most ambiguous images in the painting.

Neither the Ottomans nor the rulers of Byzantium wore crowns, so they seem purely Western. Three crowns also appear on the bronze medal Bellini also produced during his stay in Constantinople. But what do they mean?

Gentile Bellini and Constanza da Ferrara, Medal portraits of Mehmed (Istanbul, 1480 and Ferrara, 1481)

One study, by Padani Fabris, suggests they symbolise the preceding six Ottoman sultans with Mehmed represented by the pearl centrally placed on the rug in front of him. Other studies suggest that they refer to the three territories he governed – Greater Greece, Trebizond, and Asia.

More ominously, the two columns of crowns evoke the triple tiara worn by the popes in Rome. Alongside Mehmed’s claim that he is a “conqueror of the world and his more reasonable claim that he is “Qaisar-i-Rum”, or “Caesar of Rome”, they ambiguously serve as a reminder that behind the branding, learning, and cultivation stands a powerful military more than able to enforce the terms of a treaty.

Show them what they want

Mehmed and Bellini get to the point of the negotiations and the new geopolitical settlement through the use of luxury. The bejeweled rug over the balustrade in front of Mehmed may look Eastern, but it and its presence in the portrait also reflect the tastes and preferences of the Venetian rulers Bellini was more accustomed to painting and who were among Mehmed’s audience. It is a clear reminder of now who controls Venetian access to the Silk Route and to the source of these luxury goods.

Voyage of discovery: a 15th century manuscript depicts Marco Polo setting off from Venice for the East in 1271. In use from around the 2nd century BC to the 15th century, the Silk Road connected many different civilisations across Asia, Persia, Arabia, East Africa and Southern Europe, through the merchants, diplomats, nomads and warriors who trod its paths. CREDIT: History Archive/REX Shutterstock.
It was the rise of velvet weaving in the course of the fifteenth century that ushered in the change. Gold-brocaded velvet with diagonal wavy vines, Italy, 1430–1440.
Woven in different colours and teeming with a range of ornamental effects, the Italian velvets of this period constitute an exquisite union of imaginative artistry and consummate craftsmanship. Fig.: Velvet with gold thread and gold loops woven in, Italy, 1470–1480.
Around 1500, at the zenith of the Renaissance, Italy’s silk weavers excelled in the production of two-dimensional, stylized forms of the greatest opulence and elegance. Multi-coloured velvet with fruits, flowers and diagonal vines, Italy, ca. 1420.

Fabric sources: Abegg-Stiftung.

Make the position of power your own

The rug and balustrade and rug also permit a blending of traditions, particularly through Mehmed’s position and body language. It appears Bellini has him in the same kneeling posture as his Ottoman contemporary, Ahmed. This pose, traditionally used by the artists of Timurid Persia to depict sultans, is unthinkable for a Christian ruler, who only kneels before God, Christ, and their saints. The balustrade, also used by Bellini’s brother, Giovanni, in his portrait of the Doge Leonardo Loredan (about 1501), conceals this conflict of traditions.

After the Conquest of Delhi, Timur Holds a Feast (Shiraz, Iran, 1436) Topkapi Saray, Istanbul.
Gentille Bellini, Ritratto del Doge Giovanni Mocenigo (Venice, c 1478-1507) Museo Corerr, Venice.
Giovanni Bellini, Doge Leonardo Loredan (Venice, 1501-02) National Gallery, London, NG189). Images via Wikipedia.

Like the rug and balustrade, Mehmed’s three-quarter profile lets him speak to rulers in the Christian west in a way that is innovative and in keeping with Ottoman tradition.

The pose places Mehmed in his own tradition. It is in this pose that Persian artists have Timur, holding a feast after his conquest of Delhi, and Ahmed depicts Mehmed himself. In Venice though, the pose was only just becoming fashionable, perhaps because of the city’s proximity to the Ottoman Empire. Like the rest of Latin Europe, the Venetian tradition preferred the full profile seen on coins to this day.

This pose had a number of advantages for Mehmed and the branding of his power.

In contrast to the austerity of the full profile, the three-quarter profile presents a deceptively intimate image of power. It seems that we have been given access to power at work and sense its burdens. The intimacy though is a deception – we do not know what the ruler is contemplating – a poem, a rose, the problems of the people, conspiracy or conquest.

By choosing this pose, Mehmend combines Ottoman tradition with Venetian fashion. The result is that Mehmed can appear to be both traditional and modern depending on his audience, a man of the “east” comfortable speaking to the “west”. Wherever we are though, Mehmed, like both traditions, is at a remove from his audience, and we are never able to look him, or his image of power, in the eye.

Mehmed, Bellini, and the Branding of Twenty-First Century Power

Mehmed died a year after sitting for Bellini in 1481. Bellini died in 1507, but their role in great power politics does not end there. Five hundred years after Bellini made his portrait, Sultan Medmed was flanked by Prime Ministers Tony Blair of Great Britain and Reycep Erdogan of Turkey at the opening of the Royal Academy’s exhibition Turks: a journey of a thousand years.

Surrounded by treasures rarely seen outside the palace Mehmed designed and had constructed, the two successors to the almost contemporaneous British and Ottoman Empires performed a spectacle of cultural and political power no less carefully choreographed than Bellini’s Mehmed.

In his preface to the exhibition catalogue, Erdogan wrote that “the exhibition comes at a most propitious time, as Turkey’s aspirations towards membership of the European family of nations in the European Union are centre stage.” Sentiments echoed by Blair, who said that “The story of the Turkic peoples as they moved westwards over a period of a thousand years, mixing with the other vibrant civilization they encountered, was to culminate in one of the greatest empires the world has ever known. Their long and complex journey through Central Asia, the Middle East, and of course, Europe, is something we should understand and reflect upon. It demonstrates that the interaction of different cultures in our own world is crucial if we are to survive.”

Their empires may have collapsed, but the rules governing culture and the image of power seemed not to have changed at all. Both men sought to rebrand their countries as open, tolerant and European nations to their domestic audiences.

Just as Mehmed sought the identities of Caesar, Timur and Genghis Khan, so Blair and Erdogan sought the image of the open, cultured, and tolerant European that Mehmed and Bellini created together. But their display was highly calculated: speaking to domestic audiences, skeptical of their nation’s involvement in the European Union. It also spoke to foreign powers, particularly France and Germany, who held deep reservations about both the War on Terror and Britain and Turkey’s aspirations and commitment to the European project.

Whether Blair and Erdogan were as successful in their rebranding themselves, their nations, and Europe as Mehmed and Bellini is not a question for this blog, The fifteenth-century exemplars do offer one lesson for political, military, and brand strategists alike: branding and image-making can only go so far. There needs to be substance, and in this regard, it may be better to win the war first.


Sources Used

“Doge Leonardo Loredan by Giovanni Bellini” (NG189), National Gallery website description.  

Serpil Bagci and Zerin Tanindi, “The Ottomans from Mehmed II to Murad III: art of the Ottoman Court” in Turks: a journey of a thousand years, ed. by David J. Roxburgh (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2005)

“The Sultan Mehmed II by Gentile Bellini”, (NG3099). National Gallery website description: 

Çolak, Hasan, “Tekfur, fasiliyus and kayser: Disdain, Negligence and Appropriation of Byzantine Imperial Titulature in the Ottoman World”, in Hadjianastasis, Marios (ed.). Frontiers of the Ottoman Imagination: Studies in Honour of Rhoads Murphey, ed. by Marios Hadjianastasis (Leiden: Brill, 2014).