A double perspective and a lost rivalry: Busbecq and Lorck in Istanbul
The double perspective offered up by a pairing of artist and writer can leave a transfixing legacy. Take Restoration London as an example. It is almost impossible to visualize the city without viewing it through the engravings of Wenceslaus Holler and the diaries of Samuel Pepys. As Holler depicts London bridge decorated with the decapitated heads of traitors, it also comes alive as the place where the naval secretary Pepys took his brief pleasure with prostitutes. Similarly 18th century Venice is forever caught by the accidental double act of Canaletto and Casanova, rural 19th century Russia by that of Repin and Tolstoy while arguably the be-fogged 19th-century London conjured up by both Turner and Dickens still dominates our perception of this city.
(Note: If Pepys is firmly set in the English literary constellation, Holler, despite his equivalent brilliance, is less convincingly sung. This Prague-borne artist, loyal servant to both King Charles I and Charles II as their "King's Scenographer", would die in poverty and neglect. The bailiffs seized his sole remaining possession, his bed, as he lay dying in 1677.)
The combined vision of artist and writer also possesses our perception of other another great city: Constantinople-Istanbul of the 16th-century. The capital of the Ottoman Empire is caught in all its magnificent, turbulent, restless creativity in the writings of Ogier de Busbecq and the drawings of Melchior Lorck. Their names are not familiar. Indeed they seem deliberately obtuse, like a pair of scholarly footnotes celebrating obscurity. However as we will see their influence is just as powerful as that of Pepys and Holler over London. No history of the Ottoman Empire, no critique of Istanbul, no biography of Suleyman the Magnificent can escape using Busbecq and Lorck. They are vital sources, prisms through which the past is perceived. Busbecq and Lorck (like Pepys and Holler) were courtiers; men of talent attracted to the dangerous bright flame of royal patronage.
There is also an intriguing mystery about their relationship. For Ogier de Busbecq and Melchior Lorck maintain a deathly silence about each other, despite the four years they spent packed together in the same embassy compound in Istanbul and despite their great fame in Europe as "Turkish travellers". Their careers are comparatively well-documented, though the official papers no more than hint at the strong passions involved. For all their shared immersion in High Renaissance culture and their shared loyalty to the Hapsburg dynasty they were clearly very different characters. They seem like Herman Hess's Narziss and Goldmunde, where the career of the passionate artist is set against the foil of the reflective scholar.
Melchior Lorck could have screen tested for the role of the restless artist. He was beautiful, well-known, well-travelled and highly regarded by the society of both the princely courts and the ancient free cities. He was extraordinarily versatile. He could by turns be labelled an explorer, architect, poet, surveyor, artist, etcher, jeweller and engineer. His View of Constantinople was hung in one of the most revered sites of intellectual Europe, in the Great Hall of the University Library of Leiden. In modern terms it was the smash hit movie of the day.
Nor was he shy of celebrity. Lorck depicts himself dead centre, his head turned to one side to show a handsome profile, his cap rakishly slanted on the back of his head, his torso swathed in a fetching cloak to reveal puffed shoulders and perfect cuffs. His arms are extended with casual grace whilst his attenuated fingers dip a sliver of a pen into a crystal goblet of ink held out for him by the sort of forbidding bearded, be-turbaned Turk that frightened the hell out of Christendom. He portrays himself with a careless ease that is in complete contrast to the meticulous research, draughtsmanship and technical brilliance of his view of the 'enemy' citadel. For his audience it was all the more thrilling in that the power of the Ottomans was dreaded throughout Europe. To pile conceit on conceit Lorck based his picture on that of the Emperor Charles V standing before Ingolstadt. Lorck was a star.
Melchior Lorck was born into a large, noble family in 1526. They lived in Flensburg within the Danish-ruled Duchy of Schweslig-Holstein and his father was well-respected enough to receive the Danish monarch when he passed through the city. Lorck was proud of his noble birth but equally of his urban identity, signing all his pictures MLF, Melchior Lorck Flensburgensis. He was apprenticed to a master goldsmith in the great neighbouring Hanseatic city of Lubeck from whence in the course of his training he travelled through the other trading cities of the Baltic. Clearly this apprenticeship, like that of Durer, was also about design, drawing and composition as well as the casting, carving and mixing of precious metals.
By the time he was twenty he was set on his own course. At the Diet of Augsburg in 1547 he met such useful patrons as the Count Palatinate and the Prince-Bishop of Augsburg. His earliest surviving work, an etched portrait of Martin Luther, was made the following year. In 1549 King Christian III decided to foster this home-grown talent and provided funds for Lorck to finish his artistic education with an extended Grand Tour. The idea was for Lorck to return to the court of Denmark after four years. From the cities of the Netherlands the young Lorck travelled to Nuremburg and then south to Vienna, Bologna, Florence and the artistic apogee of Rome. The life, the light, the art was all together far too good. The young artist forgot to return to Copenhagen and King Christian was irritated enough to personally interfere and put a restraint on a legacy that Lorck was due to inherit.
Thereafter Lorck's trail goes faint, though no doubt he was moving from court to court and from commission to commission, before being despatched to Istanbul on an artistic commission by the Hapsburg Archduke Ferdinand. The official embassy was travelling down across the Balkans from Vienna. How Lorck got to Istanbul we do not know, though a small body of surviving sketches suggest that he took the sea route from Venice, perhaps with the Danubian navy, skirting the Greek coast on his way to Istanbul.
He probably arrived in Istanbul at the end of 1555 where, by his own account, he stayed for four and a half years. There may have been some sort of a row over his exact role and status at the embassy. This would certainly explain a curious document issued by the Hapsburg Court in February 1564 which retrospectively and explicitly states that Lorck had been "ordered to Turkey", as well as codifying and renewing Lorck's coat of arms and noble status. It is easy to imagine that the talented, free-spirited Lorck might have found the enclosed life of the embassy compound in Istanbul a bit stifling. The Hapsburg or Imperial Embassy was under the command of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq.
Busbecq was two years older than Lorck. The Ottoman capital could be a dangerous posting, the health of Malvezi, the previous Hapsburg Ambassador, had been broken by imprisonment in Istanbul. It was also an important posting. Only the best men were up to the job. Busbecq was one of those. Born in Flanders, educated at the universities of Louvain, Padua and Venice he spoke seven languages fluently. He was an intelligent, hard-working scholarly civil-servant, who was happy to confess that he found books "my companions and the joy of my life". He was also a private man, travelling with his own bed "which I always carried with me" and when faced with the curiosity of other travellers in a caravanserai he used to retire to the seclusion of a tent or a carriage. He plainly adored animals, was generous to his servants and cheerfully distributed wine to those that liked it - like his Tukish guards. Even in Istanbul he made a habit of receiving guests in the embassy grounds, entertaining and interviewing the many travellers that passed his door rather than venturing out into the city. He liked tennis, archery, fishing and the company of a few hand-picked and like-minded friends. This may well have been the natural working of a studious nature, but it was also a social defence mechanism. For Busbecq had a problem. He was a bastard. For all his talents he stood outside the charmed circle of nobility, that indispensable network of cousins, patrons and legally enforced priviliege. True his father, George Ghislain II, lord of the manor of Busbecq outside Lille in Flanders, was a gentleman, but Ogier had only been officially recognized when he was 27 years old. Busbecq was born with a chip on his shoulder but that is exactly what made him such a good observer. He appreciated the classlessness of Muslim society, its inate good manners, the equality amongst believers, the respect for education and that the Ottoman Empire was run on meritocratic grounds.
He had only entered the service of the Holy Roman Emperor's brother, the Archduke Ferdinand, in 1552. Two years later, having just returned from England where he had officially witnessed the marriage of Mary Tudor and Phillip II of Spain in Winchester Cathedral, Ogier was summoned post-haste back to Vienna. There he was given the task of patching up a truce with the Ottoman Empire and explaining why his master had annexed Transylvania and called himself King of Hungary. In particular the exact status of Siebenburgen needed sorting out. He was given 12 days in which to pack and brief himself for the new mission before leaving for the border. Busbecq was informed that he would be travelling with Anton Wranczy (Antonius Verantius) bishop of Erlau (Eger in Hungary) and Franz Zay, commander of the Danubian navy. What the Archduke failed to inform him was which of his entourage might be involved in espionage or working on 'parallel negotiations'. With the benefit of hindsight we know that one of the chief Hapsburg secret agents in Istanbul was Michael Cernovic, the son of a local rope-maker who ostensibly worked as dragoman to the Venetians.
It must have been a suprise for Busbecq to have found that Melchior Lorck, the young Danish artist, had also been sent on a mission to Istanbul by the Archduke. Lorck may have been in Istanbul for Busbecq's first visit in 1555 but was most certainly in the city for Busbecq's second mission from 1556-62, for we have a series of drawings clearly dated1556, 1557 and 1558. They spent nearly four years together in a caravanserai courtyard which was converted into an embassy compound. We have Busbecq's eloquent description of this compound, complete with his delight in the sea view, his Arab horses, his five she-camels and a fabulous menagerie of exotic pets. We also have a completely enchanting drawing of the view from the roof by Lorck. It is a beautiful composition, a masterful exercise in perspective with the long sagging flight of roof tiles punctuated by a distant mosque, minaret, the stump of the Arcadius Column and the sea. It is complete with a very Lorck like-detail, a couple making love on a rooftop verandah in the stillness of the afternoon siesta. It is intriguing therefore that Busbecq in his Turkish Letters, describes the embassy cellerman, how much he liked his apothecary, the company of his erudite doctor, how he enjoyed his professional rivalry with the French, how well he got on with one of the viziers, what the Spanish prisoners-of-war were like but of Lorck - nothing.
Clearly the dashing young well connected Danish nobleman-artist and the Flanders scholar-diplomat did not got on. There is just one possible oblique reference, when Busbecq mentions that he owns a "drawing of the column of Arcadius" which we know Lorck drew many times.
Melchior Lorck was no slouch in Istanbul. For not only was he working on his famous panorama of the city but he was filling sketch book after sketch book with intimate details of Ottoman life: weddings, funerals, naked prostitutes, uniforms, buildings, ships and antiquities. He had a fine eye for detail and returns again and again to the totemic power of the Ottoman horse-tail battle standards. He was also granted sufficient access to a harem to draw convincing scenes of everyday life as well as making portraits of Busbecq, Franz Zay, the Persian Ambassador, Roxelana and some Turkish dignitaries. Busbecq's own audiences with the great Sultan were brief, formal affairs but on February 15th 1559 Lorck had a sufficently long audience to create a half-length portrait. He must also have charmed his way into being allowed to make such a detailed sketch of the city's harbour and defences for the View of Constantinople, his chosen vantage point being the walls and towers of Galata.
By 1560 Lorck was back in Vienna, writing up his travels and working up his sketches into finished engravings, woodcuts, portraits and of course his celebrated panorama. Honours and flattering dedications poured upon him. Busbecq meanwhile was still locked in intractable and dangerous negotiations in Istanbul and may have been envious that some of his thunder as Turkey expert and traveller was stolen. Maximillian, King of the Romans, Frederick III of Denmark and the Duke of Schweslig-Holstein were all delighted to add Lorck's exotic oriental portraits to their collections and responded with grants of arms, patents of nobility, pensions and new commissions. In these years Lorck confidently turned his hand to anything; surveying the Elbe, designing three triumphal gates for the new Emperor Maximillian or a new gate for the city of Hamburg. But his Turkey sketch books remained an inspirational gold mine. Over decades he used them to create 128 Turkish images, contributing them to anthologies, dictionaries and frontispieces, as well as in his own dedicated Turkey book, finally printed in Antwerp in 1574. Lorck eventually retired in some honour and estate to the Danish court at Copenhagen where he received a pension. This was cut off in 1583, the same year that he produced an engraving of a woman of the Gambia. Though his royal portrait of Frederick II – finished the previous year should have kept him in good odour at court. It is popularly supposed that once again he had angered the Danish King by deserting the court in favour of more travels. It is playfully suggested (though entirely unproved) that at the Copenhagen docks he had jumped on an English or Portugese ship and was off to test the charms of Araby or the Barbary coast.
Most of his best work - to the modern eye - comes direct from the sketch books and not from the "finished images', though in their day these were widely sold and collected as useful source material by such painters as Rembrandt and Poussin. There would be a retrospective edition planned in 1619 though this was only finally realised with the Hamburg edition of 1626 and 1646. This volume essential item in any library – happily Beckford’s old copy available for inspection in the British Museum prints and drawings department. But for the acquisitive and discerning eye of the English diarist and antiquarian, John Evelyn, who collected the remnants of Lorck drawings in 1641, very few of the original sketches would have survived. These would pass into the library at Stonor park. There was a renewed flurry of publication in the 1680’s when the siege of Vienna created a fever for images of Turkish men. Lorks portraits would be happily attributed to a whole new cast of contemporary Ottoman characters by unscrupulous publishers in need of illustrations.
Busbecq, loaded down with wagon loads of books, manuscripts, ancient coins and scholarly notes finally trundled back to Vienna in 1562. The truce he had laboriously patched together did not outlast his absence for more than two years.
His work as a scholar would last for ever. Amongst his bales of books were 240 Greek and Roman manuscripts, the first transcription of Augustus’s boastful Res Gestae from an inscription in Ankara and Europe’s first tulips and lilacs. He remained a valued and trusted servant of the Hapsburgs and by 1574 was well set-up outside Paris with the remunerative but easy task of managing the estates of the Hapsburg Dowager Queen of France. Here he had time for his books and his scholarly friends and time to polish-up his Ottoman notes. Ogier de Busbecq's Turkish Letters was published in Paris, in a Latin language edition, in 1588 (at a time when Lorck was well and truly out of the picture). The Turkish Letters have remained as fresh, as charming, funny and informative as the day they were first printed. They take the literary form of four letters from Turkey to a friend (to his fellow countryman and fellow Hapsburg diplomat Nicholas Michault) and the reader is flattered by being included within the circle of these two perfect Renaissance correspondents who were fluent in seven languages, who could quote Pliny, Polybius, Strabo and Plautus with the perfect assurance that his correspondent also knew well these cherished friends, and would also be able to appreciate the delicacy of his comparisons between Turkish and Spanish domestic architecture and share his fury at the destruction of anything ‘antique’- even if they be but copper coins as well his delight in making fine copies of any inscriptions he passed on his travels. The letters were of course no more than a literary convention. It was however one that clearly had multiple uses. By inference there appears to be a series of missing letters between letters Two and Three. The Third Letter is dated June 1560 and Busbecq writes in the first line of letter Three, "my colleagues have left me a long time ago...with whom you are acquainted from my former letters" - no we are not! - but what a supremely elegant way of air-brushing away any unwanted memories. The whole long period when Lorck was in Istanbul from 1556-1559 is avoided by the pretence of missing letters from the set of correspondence.
The book was ultimately translated into every major European language, cited as a role model by generation after generation of ambassadors and mined by historians and travel-writers. I was introduced to Turkish Letters by a living Busbecq, an English diplomat of high estimation though modest public rank, a connoisseur of Sung porcelain and alabasters from pre-Islamic southern Arabia. The last known copy of Lorck's Turkey book was destroyed during the British bombing of Hamburg in the Second World War. An English edition of Busbecq's Turkish Letters was recently re-printed in 2001.
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by Barnaby Rogerson