On May 29, 1453, an ambitious 21-year-old Ottoman sultan named Mehmet II sent shockwaves through the Western world. Following a 57-day siege, he successfully conquered Constantinople, toppling the Byzantine Empire. In his first act, Mehmet the Conqueror, as history has named him, marched into Hagia Sophia and declared it a mosque. For many historians, the fall of Constantinople—Christendom’s easternmost stronghold for 1,100 years—marked the end of the Dark Ages.
Mehmet’s conquest also created a precarious situation for the thriving, mercantile Republic of Venice. The city’s prosperity and cultural vitality had depended on its strategic position as a gateway to Asia and Africa, and centuries-long trade with the Byzantines. Although decades of intermittent war with the Ottomans ensued, in a surprising moment of cultural diplomacy, a masterful portrait of the sultan by one of Venice’s most revered artists would help bring the conflict to a ceasefire.
Bordering the Mediterranean Sea, Venice had established commercial links with Constantinople as early as the 10th century by obtaining exclusive trading privileges from the Byzantine emperors. Imported spices, carpets, raw silk, cotton, illustrated manuscripts, and inlaid metalwork (among other portable goods) made an indelible impression on Venetian culture. The influence of Moorish and Islamic styles can still be seen in Venice’s multicultural architecture. The prolific circulation of foreign ideas had also transformed Venice into one of Europe’s largest, wealthiest, and most powerful city-states.
Although Venice managed to hold back the Ottomans for several decades after the fall of Constantinople, when Mehmet extended an offer of peace in 1479, the republic, outnumbered, quickly accepted. In addition to customary spoils of war like treasure and territorial concessions, the sultan had an unusual demand: The Venetian Senate must send a painter to his court in Istanbul, the new, fast-growing capital of the Ottoman Empire.
The senate quickly selected Venice’s most acclaimed local artist: