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Artists as Agents : : Artistic Exchange and Cultural Translation between Venice and Constantinople---The Case of Gentile Bellini, 1479-1481


This dissertation is a historical study of Gentile Bellini's artistic visit to Constantinople and its artistic products--the painted and the medal Portrait of Mehmed II and drawings of Ottoman people--that articulates Bellini's role as an agent of artistic exchange. Although recent publications purport to celebrate Bellini's intercultural experience, they remain within what I call the Renaissance and documentary paradigms: Bellini's works are treated either as a universal achievement of Renaissance art that amazed the Sultan, or as documents of social life and customs in Constantinople. My dissertation, in contrast, argues that these works are a logical outgrowth of the practices of visiting court artists, the increasingly prominent role of images in political and cultural communications between courts and states, and the rising role of artists in diplomacy, which developed during the second part of the fifteenth century on the Italian peninsula and in the Greater Mediterranean. This dissertation examines how Bellini's artistic products reflect Mehmed II's politically motivated interests in ruler portraiture, as well as relate to theories and functions of portraiture in Renaissance courts. That is, this dissertation argues that Bellini's works have an expressive symbolic purpose; thus my work revises and in part contradicts Renaissance accounts of how Bellini amazed Mehmed II and his court with his superior knowledge of art and skills in verisimilitude. My analysis demonstrates that Bellini learned from the art that he encountered in Constantinople, and that, while there, he tried to make his work comprehensible to viewers familiar with Eastern traditions. Bellini fashioned a new, polyglot visual language out of Romano-Byzantine, Venetian, and Timurid artistic traditions to express imperial authority and to visually proclaim the emerging cosmopolitan structure of Ottoman society developed by Mehmed II. In the end, this dissertation reveals that Bellini drew from a wide range of artistic conventions, including contemporary models available to him in both Venice and Constantinople--distinct, heterogeneous cultural capitals in the Mediterranean, interconnected by trade and cultural exchange

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