When I was in Amsterdam at the Rijks Museum a couple years ago I discovered the 17th century paintings of Albanians by the excellent painter Jean Baptiste Vanmour. Similarly, in 2015, I made another great finding when I was in Brussels, the capital of the EU and the arts world with renowned names such as Rene Magritte and extraordinary architects like Victor Horta, at the Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR).
But this time it was not random chance, with great interest I went to see an exhibition showing at the BOZAR, "The Sultan's World - the Ottoman Orient in Renaissance Art" . (1) As I had hoped, I discovered two works of art depicting Albanians, by a Renaissance artist, that sadly are unknown in Albania. I was elated when I found that they came from Gentile Bellini’s pen (a great Venetian artist of the Italian Renaissance, 1429-1507).
In the mid-fifteenth century, Bellini’s success seemed unstoppable; in 1466 he made decorations and frescoes in the Scuola Grande di San Marco, in 1469 he was commissioned to immortalise Emperor Frederick III, and in 1496 he made the great composition Procession in St. Mark's Square. It is a remarkable thought that the same painter was also depicting images of common Albanian men in the great era of George Kastrioti Skanderbeg.
Which immediately brings us to wonder, did he ever paint or sketch Skanderbeg? The circumstantial evidence I will present shows that it is more than conceivable that Bellini did indeed sketch Skanderbeg’s portrait, most probably in 1466 when Skanderbeg was in Venice. But, evidence remains indefinite so public and private scientific research initiatives are needed to give a definitive answer to this hundred-year-old myth.
Gentile Bellini travelled to Constantinople (Istanbul) between 1479-1480 by road, which would have taken him past Albania’s key port city Durres, in September 1479. The reason for his trip to Istanbul? With a keen interest in legitimising himself amongst the royal European court, Sultan Mehmed II sent a Jewish diplomat to Venice to find “a good painter” (“un buon pittore”) to be brought back to Istanbul.
This was only twenty five years after the final fall of Byzantium. In that time, the ten-century-old Venetian Republic still had trade interests in the dominions that were being swallowed up by the Ottomans, especially on the eastern Adriatic coast. On November 25th 1480, Bellini would paint one of his most famous portraits - its last owner was Sir A.H. Layard. In 1917, Layard’s widow donated this epic portrait to the National Gallery in London. (2)
During this pivotal trip Bellini also made seven drawings of two Albanian men, which I analyse below. As well as drawings of a Greek woman, a Standing Turk, a Seated Janissary, and two further unknown pieces. Later Sultan Bayezid II, who was more hostile to religious and ethnic paintings, removed Bellini from Istanbul. I frequently visit the National Gallery and when I see Bellini’s Mehmed II I wonder if he also immortalised Skanderbeg?
PORTRAIT OF MEHMED II, Gentile Bellini 1480
After the exhibition "The Sultan's World” I bought the book published by the BOZAR. Inside, on page 162 there was the same sketch I saw created by Bellini. It shows a man proudly standing with the caption So-Called Albanian (it is also referred to as Arnavut which is the Turkish for ‘Albanian’). He has an intelligent face, great moustache but no beard, and a simple hood over his head. The left hand is inside the pocket, the kilt is long and of a traditional Albanian style, accompanied by a cloak purposefully draped over his shoulders. This extraordinary drawing, made in the year 1479-1480, is the first of its kind in the entire history of European fine arts and Renaissance as it portrays a common Albanian figure.
There is also another drawing featuring a standing man turned to the left, which has a hood similar to a ‘qeleshe’ (a type of Albanian hood), long kilt and shoes without tassels on their peaks. The man's left hand hangs loose, the right hand is placed on the belt, his face looks weak and he has a thin moustache (also without a beard). Clearly, the second man is also an Albanian figure as he is wearing the same costume of a cloak with buttons.
1479 Gentile Bellini (inventory nr 3956,Stadel Museum in Frankfurt am Main)
ALBANIAN, Gentile Bellini (inventory number 3957)
Why did Bellini draw these common Albanian men?
Many Italian cities, especially Venice, attracted and hosted flourishing Albanian, Armenian, Greek, and other communities as people escaped the Ottoman invasion. Moreover, the only persistent threat to the Ottoman expansion in the Balkans from 1448 was the Albanian King, Skanderbeg, who preserved Albania's independence until 1468. Therefore, Skanderbeg had become a modern day celebrity - proclaimed as the defender of Christianity.
This short lived independence was brutally extinguished in 1479 with the second siege of Shkodra, which was led by Sultan Mehmed II personally. Surely, the author of the Sultan’s famous portrait must have been aware of the Albanian crusade against the Turks. Perhaps he sought to immortalise his Albanian encounters, and present an image of Albanian men in the great era of Skanderbeg as sober, reflective and even distinguished. (3)
There are three main findings which support the idea that Bellini did in fact sketch Skanderbeg.
A great Albanian erudite, Faik Konica, was the first to seriously be interested in this subject, when in 1901 he published a seminal article entitled, Is there an authentic portrait of Skanderbeg? (4) Konica writes that in the Imperial Museum in Vienna there is a collection of historical portraits gathered by Archduke Ferdinand of Tyrol from 1578 to 1595, which includes two portraits of Skanderbeg.
In the nineteenth volume of the "Yearbook of Collections of the Imperial Family” there is a note that says, “one portrait has been forged on a model made by Gentile Bellini in 1466 when Skanderbeg had gone to Venice”. Skanderbeg travelled all around Italy, including Venice, between 1461-1466, therefore, Bellini probably did indeed sketch the Albanian hero.
There is another note in the same collection about an engraving of Skanderbeg made in the year 1500 by the Albanian publisher, Bernardinus Venetus de Vitalibus, “who was inspired by sketches made by the painter Gentile Bellini”. This engraving represents Skanderbeg in profile, turned to the right, with a long beard, wearing a opulent Italian robe.
The engraving was published in a book by Marin Barleti and is considered by many scholars as the most authentic portrait of the hero. Its authenticity is based on a genuine earlier engraving - Bernardinus did not complete a fictional portrait. In 1967, Dr. Dhorka Dhamo stated with conviction that, "the results show that the colour portrait is based on drawings made directly by the painter Gentile Bellini, during the time when Skanderbeg was in Italy. It is located in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence." (6) But one year later, Dr. Malaj Vincens ruled out the Bellini link concluding that the portrait must have been drawn by Italian artists when he was in Rome and Naples. (5) However, he fails to quote Konica’s article nor does he refer to notes citing Bellini as the author.
The idea behind the Skanderbeg portrait in Florence comes from the collection of Paolo Giovio (1483-1552), a humanist, doctor and historian, who has also written a biography of Skanderbeg. Paolo Giovio collected many works by great masters such as Raffaello, Michelangelo, Vasari, and even the portrait of Sultan Mehmed II made by Bellini. The portrait was made by Florentine artist Cristofano del’Altissimo, but copied an earlier engraving.
Ferid Hudhri also writes about Gentile Bellini and the theory that he painted Skanderbeg, while the Albanian hero was visiting Italy. (7) Why there is such disparity in the debate? The issue of a rigorous analysis to verify the authenticity of the portrait remains open. However, the evidence, especially circumstantial, shows that Bellini probably did make the original sketch.
SKANDERBEG by Bernardinus Venetus de Vitalibu
Gjergj Kastrioti Uffizi Gallery
If we look carefully at the engraving of Skanderbeg in Marin Barleti’s book and the one in the Uffizi Gallery there are striking similarities. Is this random or coincidental? Of further interest is a bronze medal depicting the portrait of Skanderbeg made by the famous Italian artist Antonio Pisano (otherwise known as Pisanello). He also made medals portraying Sigismondo Malatesta, Ferdinand of Aragon, and Mehmed II.
This medal thus represents the third likeness of Skanderbeg. All three portraits come together at the same point: Gentile Bellini.
Epidamn Zeqo holds an MSc in European Political Economy from the London School of Economics and a dual MA in International Relations and Modern History from the University of St. Andrews. A native of Albania, he lives and works in London.
This article was originally published here: http://www.exit.al/en/2017/04/30/gentile-bellinis-link-with-fifteenth-century-albania-and-gjergj-kastrioti-skenderbeg/
1) The Sultan's World - the Ottoman Orient in Renaissance art, (Center for Arts fine, Brussels, 2015)
2) Franz Babinger, Mehmed the Conqueror and His Time, (Princeton University Press, 1992)
3) I must also highlight another passage from The Sultan's World, "A few of the figures [including the so-called Albanian] can be found in frescoes by the Umbrian painter Pinturicchio (1454-1513), who may have received the drawings in question through Bellini's brother-in-law Andrea Montegna (1431-1506), while they were working together on the Casino del Belvedere under Pope Innocent VIII (1484-1492) in Rome in 1488. Accordingly, the so-called Albanian in Frankfurt…Can be seen in the Disputa di Santa Caterina (1493-1494) in the Sala dei Santi of the Appartamento Borgia in the Vatican. Here, however, the realistic representation of the drawing was renounced in favour of a more pleasing decorative effect. The costumes partly feature patterned fabrics, the buttons on the cloak of the Albanian were centrally relocated to the undergarment and his boots provided with laces”.
This is very interesting and shows that Albanian costumes were distinctive as well as being considered exotic, and perhaps even preferred, in the apartment of the Pope in the Vatican.
4) Faik Konica, "Is there an authentic portrait of Skanderbeg”, Albania Journal (Brussels, 1901)
5) Vincens Malaj, " Albanologica Facts", Volume I, pp. 157-170 (Ulcinj, 1999)
6) Dhorka Dhamo "Skanderbeg in fine arts” New Albania, No. 11, p.26 (Tirana, 1967)
7) Ferid Hudhri Albanians in world art, Albanological Studies, p.43 (Tirana, 2012)
8) Kristo Frasheri, Skenderbeu, (Toena 2002)