Similarly to when I was in Amsterdam at the Rijksmuseum a couple years ago – where I discovered the seventeenth-century paintings of Albanians by the excellent painter Jean Baptiste Vanmour, I made another great find when I was in Brussels in 2015 – the capital of the EU and the arts world with renowned names such as René Magritte or extraordinary architects like Victor Horta, at the Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR).
But this time it was not a coincidence. 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’s a remarkable thought that the same painter was also depicting images of common Albanian men in the great era of Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeg.
Which immediately brings us to wonder, did he ever paint or sketch Skënderbeg? The circumstantial evidence I will present shows that it’s more than conceivable that Bellini did indeed sketch Skënderbeg’s portrait, most probably in 1466 when Skënderbeg 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 Durrës, in September 1479. The reason for his trip to Istanbul? With 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-centuries old Venetian Republic still had trade interests in the dominions that were being swallowed by the Ottomans, especially along the East-Adriatic coast. On November 25, 1480, Bellini would paint one of his most famous portraits – its last owner was Sir A.H. Layard. In 1917, his widow donated this epic portrait to the National Gallery in London (2).
During this pivotal trip for Bellini (and the Albanians), he also made seven drawings of two Albanian men I analyse below, 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 (fig. 1) I wonder if he also immortalised Skënderbeg?
After seeing the exhibition “The Sultan’s World,” I bought the book published by the BOZAR. Inside, on page 162, there was the same drawing I saw made with the tip of Bellini’s pen (fig. 2). It shows a proudly standing man with a note “so-called Albanian” (also described as “Arnavut” – 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 simple of 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, that portrays a common Albanian figure.
There is also another drawing featuring a standing man turned to the left (fig. 3), which has a hood similar to a ‘qeleshe’ (albanian hood), long kilt, and shoes without tassels on their peaks. The man’s left hand is released, the right hand is placed on the belt, his face looks weak and has thin moustaches (also without a beard). Clearly, the second man is also an Albanian figure wearing the same costumes and cloak with buttons.
Why did Bellini draw these common Albanian men?
Many Italian cities, especially Venice, attracted and hosted flourishing Albanian, Armenian, Greek, and other communities escaping from the Ottoman invasion. Moreover, the only persistent threat to the Ottoman expansion in the Balkans from 1448 was the Albanian King Skënderbeg, who preserved Albania’s independence until 1468. Therefore, Skënderbeg had become a modern-day celebrity – proclaimed as defender of Christianity.
The short lived independence was brutally extinguished in 1479 with the second siege of Shkodra, which Sultan Mehmed II led personally. Surely, the author the Sultan’s famous portrait must have been aware of the Albanian crusade against the Turks. Perhaps he sought to immortalise his Albanian encounter, and present an image of Albanian men in the great era of Skënderbeg as sober, reflective, and even distinguished. (3)
There are three main findings which support the idea that Bellini did in fact sketch Skënderbeg.
A great Albanian erudite, Faik Konica, was the first to seriously be interested in this subject, when in 1901 he published a seminal article, “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 included two portraits of Skënderbeg.
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.” Skënderbeg travelled all around Italy, including Venice, between 1461–1466, therefore, probably Bellini did indeed sketch the Albanian hero.
There is another note in the same collection about an engraving of Skënderbeg made in the year 1500 by the publisher of Albanian origin Bernardinus Venetus de Vitalibus “who was inspired by sketches made by the painter Gentile Bellini” (fig. 4). This engraving represents Skënderbeg in profile, turned to the right, with a long beard, wearing a fluffy Italian robe.
The engraving was published in the book of Marin Barleti and is considered by many scholars as the most authentic portrait of the hero. Its authenticity is based on an authentic earlier engraving – Bernardinus did not complete a fictional and virtual portrait.
In her study from 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 Uffici 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 origin of the Skënderbeg portrait in Florence comes from the collection of Paolo Giovio (1483–1552), humanist, doctor, historian, who has also written a biography of Skënderbeg. Paolo Giovio collected many works of great masters like Raffaello, Michelangelo, Vasari, even the portrait of Sultan Mehmed II made by Bellini. The portrait was made by Florentine artist Cristofano del’Altissimo, but who copied an earlier engraving (fig. 5).
Ferid Hudhri also writes about Gentile Bellini and the thesis that he painted Skënderbeg, when the Albanian hero visited Italy (7). Why there is such a 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 indeed make the original sketch.
If we look carefully at the engraving of Skënderbeg in the book of Marin Barleti and the one in Uffici Gallery there are striking similarities. Is this random or coincidental? Of further interest is a bronze medal of the portrait of Skënderbeg made by the famous Italian artist Antonio Pisano a.k.a. Pisanello. He also made medals of Sigismondo Malatesta’s face, Ferdinand of Aragon, and Mehmed II.
This medal so creates the third similarity. All three portraits come together at the same point: Gentile Bellini.
- The Sultan’s World – The Ottoman Orient in Renaissance Art (Center for Fine Arts, Brussels, 2015)
- Franz Babinger, Mehmed the Conqueror and His Time (Princeton University Press, 1992)
- 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 the Albanian coating and costumes are distinctive as well as very exotic and preferred even in the apartment of Popes in the Vatican.
- Faik Konica, “Is there an authentic portrait of Skanderbeg,” Albania Journal(Brussels, 1901)
- Vincens Malaj, “Albanologica Facts,” Volume I, pp. 157–70 (Ulcinj, 1999)
- Dhorka Dhamo “Skanderbeg in Fine Arts” New Albania, No. 11, p. 26 (Tirana, 1967)
- Ferid Hudhri, “Albanians in World Art,” Albanological Studies, p. 43 (Tirana, 2012)
- Kristo Frasheri, Skenderbeu (Toena 2002)