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East meets west: Orhan Pamuk’s words paint a thousand pictures

By Jonathan Jones

The novel My Name Is Red offers a compelling evocation of the cultural dialogue between Venice and the Ottoman Empire.

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Orhan Pamuk [2]‘s My Name Is Red [3] is my summer book, and one of the most fascinating works of art history I have ever encountered. It also happens to be a gripping novel.

The book is one of several about Istanbul that won Pamuk the 2006 Nobel prize in literature [4]. It is set among the art community of the Ottoman [5] capital in the 1590s, at a time when the Islamic art of book illustration is under threat from new European innovations including perspective and portraiture. Should Istanbul’s miniaturists adopt some of the new European methods, or preserve beautiful traditions [6] handed down from the old masters of Persia [7]?

There’s no danger of me revealing the end of a novel structured as a murder thriller – I haven’t finished it yet – but the art history in Pamuk’s book has me absorbed just as much as the whodunnit plot. It imagines the workshops of the miniaturists and lets them discuss, in erudite detail, the history of book arts, the influence of China, the belief that pictures must illustrate stories, the exquisite beauty of detail.

The knowledge these artists have of European art comes entirely from Venice [8], the “Frankish” city that traded most closely with the powerful Ottoman Empire. Contact between east and west is a powerful phenomenon in Venetian art. A portrait that conveys the very world this novel recreates can be seen today in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum [9] in Boston. It is by Gentile Bellini – at least that is the usual attribution, questioned by some – and portrays a young scribe at the court of Mehmed II in Istanbul. Sitting in profile in ornate and gorgeous robes, he concentrates on his work while the European artist visiting the Ottoman court concentrates on portraying him.

Continue reading in Guardian [10]