I had the great opportunity to meet Asst. Prof. Dr. Luca Orlandi of Istanbul Technical University Faculty of Architecture at the Bibliotheka seminar last May, where he gave an insightful lecture titled ‘the Italian Levantine heritage in Istanbul’. It helped me put not only the Levantine world but also the city’s Italian heritage into perspective. Curious for more, I later asked for an interview and luckily he agreed to give one for IT. We had a long great talk. In the first part of the interview, we focused on the city of Istanbul and architecture.
In the second part, we discussed the Levantine world, Italian heritage in Istanbul and Edoardo de Nari, “the last great architect of cosmopolitan Istanbul that no longer exists”.
As a Genoese who lives in Istanbul, do you feel at home far away from home because of the city’s Genoese heritage?
I don’t feel far away though what is left from the ancient Genoese is very few. It is in the memory rather than in reality. The Galata itself was rebuilt so many times; there are very few landmarks, but somehow the geography and the topography of the city allows you to see and to be very close to Genoa or to the feeling of being in old Genoa.
What brought you to Istanbul? How long have you been living here?
I have been living here for 13 years. When I was studying, I was in touch with some Turkish professors. One of them was Maurice Munir Cerasi. He was a Levantine born in Balat in the early ‘30s but he spent most of his life in Paris and then in Italy. I was already in touch with this city and the world of Levant. So I decided to move here to do my research in Ottoman architecture. Once I was here, I started to dig for more.
How did you end up here?
In the beginning, I came here just to study for my PhD. Then, I met the girl, who later became my wife. But I also realized I could have more opportunities here. For many reasons, I felt comfortable here. Of course, Istanbul is not directly by the Mediterranean Sea like Genoa but it is linked to it with the sea trade routes and in the past it was an important port connecting the two cities. When you walk in the streets of Genoa, there is this strong image of the common past; Galata street, the Galata Museum and many other places are linked to this geography. The glorious past of Genoa in the Middle Ages is still visible in Genoa as well as here in Galata and its richness is coming from this part of the Mediterranean. So I feel very much connected.
How would you define your status here? An expat? A Levantine? A Genoese?
I am not considering myself an expat here because I know a lot of them; they come and go. My case is different. I am not a Levantine, either. That concept ended with the empire. I feel like a ‘Genoese’, who settled here by chance!
The interesting thing is that in the case of Italians, it was more of a return to the city in the sense that they found things that belonged to them.
How did the authors like De Amicis visualize this city? Can we rely on their depictions or do you think their accounts are imbued with fantasy?
Following the tradition of French writers, Italian travellers arrived a bit later. Orientalist literature was mostly developed by French and English authors. The interesting thing is that in the case of Italians, it was more of a return to the city in the sense that they found things that belonged to them. For example, coming from Liguria region, De Amicis was surprised to hear Genoese language in the streets; he could understand the dialect/local language so naturally he felt more familiar with the Levantine community.
Church of St. Peter and Paul
In a way, Italian travellers who visited the city reconnected with the Italian presence here?
Yes, they reconnected with their past. They could eat Italian food here, go to a church with an Italian priest, like the St. Pietro Church in Galata. There was also an Italian hospital in Tophane – it’s still operating today. And Italian language was studied in many missionary or state schools. In that sense, their position was a bit different than the other foreigners. Of course, there is always an orientalist image… but the French were, in my opinion, much more visionary. I’m thinking about Pierre Loti or Theophile Gautier.
Any other Italian authors who were overwhelmed by the city?
Antonio Baratta was sent here at the beginning of the 19th century as a member of diplomatic staff by the Kingdom of Savoy – the same kingdom that became Kingdom of Italy later. His perception of the city, customs, and the daily life was so different than the others. He was detached from the orientalist vision. He was one of few authors who tried to defend Turks explaining how good people actually Turks were. In a local newspaper in Genoa, he was publishing his perceptions. He is not so well-known though he wrote a book titled ‘Constantinople in 1831’. There is unfortunately no translation into English or Turkish. There are also a couple of books of images: ‘The Beauty of the Bosphorus’ and ‘Constantinople Depicted and Described’. He compiled these two books using many existing engravings made by other visitors and translating the captions. (1840-41)
Very recently, we started to think of world history as a matter of cultural interaction between civilizations rather than as a monolithic structure. Renaissance should be read through reciprocal influences, not one-way influnce.
Your PhD thesis is on architect Sinan and Ottoman architecture in the Classical period. What made you research into Ottoman architecture?
Up until 10-15 years ago, in Italy little we knew about the Ottoman architecture or Sinan the Architect. Access is easier today; there are many publications. They never taught at school how great Sinan was. The Ottoman Classical period was linked to the Renaissance period but we always categorized it just as ‘Islamic architecture’. Of course, Renaissance was born in Italy, but remember in that period, Mehmet the Conqueror invited Italian painters from Venice for his portraits, like Gentile Bellini and few years later Leonardo Da Vinci was invited to build a bridge on the Golden Horn. Later the Ambassador of Venice, Marcantonio Barbaro, was a close friend of Sokollu Mehmet Pasha, the Grand Vizier and patron of many of Sinan’s building. All those things to mean that in that period, beside wars and trades, there were also a lot of cultural exchanges between Italy and the Ottoman Empire. There were even admirals of the Ottoman Fleet, the famous Kaptan Pashas, like Kılıç Ali Pasha or Sinan Cığalazade Pasha. Both of them were of Italian origins, the former from Calabria and the latter from Genoa. So there was definitely an interaction. I was curious why they told us only one side of the story. Of course, the world history is still very ‘Euro-centric’. Very recently, we started to think of the world history as a matter of cultural interaction between civilizations rather than as a monolithic structure. Renaissance should be read through reciprocal influences, not one-way influence. It made me curious to read more about Sinan. He definitely had a relation with Italian Renaissance because the architectural classical period of Sinan was not far from what was going on in Italy.
Da Vinci’s sketchbook
Mehmet the Conqueror by Gentile Bellini, National Callery London/ Kılıç Ali Pasha Mosque by Sinan the Architect
Sinan the Architect was in Italy with the Janissary army, right?
Probably, he was there as a Janissary soldier. There is no record except his memoirs. The entire archive, including Sinan’s, which was kept in the barracks in Süleymaniye area, was burnt when the Janissaries were defeated in 1826 to establish a more modern and Western oriented army.
As an architect, what do you think about the preservation of historical texture of this city?
I studied architecture and cultural preservation, so I am sensitive about the issue. In practice, the regulation of turbo-capitalism – particularly here – does not allow us to think before we do something. First ‘do’, later ‘think’.
In practice, the regulation of turbo-capitalism does not allow us to think before we do something. First ‘do’, later ‘think’.
Yes, regret… but later. Even the preservation in most cases is not done in the proper way. Something is always missing. There are very good colleagues working on restoration. There is a potential for doing good things. Some restoration projects need much more time. 10-20 years is a good period of time, but a building like Süleymaniye mosque was restored in 2 years’ time. It is so quick, then it means it is not done properly. Few years is not enough even to acquire all the information needed for such a restoration. Also, sometimes they are doing the restoration with a certain ideology: they are restoring a mosque because it is a mosque, not because it’s a historical heritage. For instance, if a building is not related to this ideology – Ottoman or Seljuk culture, most of the time it is ignored.
Sometimes I feel the case is that we do not have the know-how to restore, let’s say, a Byzantine monument. There is no continuation of the culture here.
Yes, true but the thing is they do not know about the Ottoman culture either. There is a lack of basic information. Preservation is not only about restoration but also projecting something into the future. You are preserving a perspective for the future. This is important, too. They call it ‘Historical Peninsula’, but there is no preservation of historical texture – just punctual monuments here and there. Compare it with any historical city in Europe.
The Boukoleon Palace by the Marmara sea
Do you have any Istanbul ritual?
Living on the Asian side and working on the European side, I love to commute by boat. Quite a unique experience.
I really enjoyed reading your article on postmodern postcards. What is ‘the postmodern postcard of Istanbul’ like?
The cards I like are the ones where you see the contradictions of the city. It does not matter if something is old or new but it should be relational. Istanbul has always been a city of passage… a city full of contradictions… a city of bridge, bridging one side to another. These postcards involve a continuously changing city – a Christian capital changing into a Muslim capital. It didn’t happen anywhere else, it happened here. It is the fragmentation that makes this place somehow unique.
* Courtesy of Luca Orlandi
Any specific image that captures the contradictions you’ve just mentioned?
Some foreigners take pictures of ladies with scarf and ladies without scarf. I find these images a kind of ‘orientalist’. I have never been very interested in such stereotypes or approaches to people- but more about the spaces and the use of the space… or seeing the overlapping of history. One place I like in Galata is Rüstem Pasha Han. It is a working place for blacksmiths, which goes back to the images of early industrial city. At the same time, it is located in a historical building but it is not used as a historical building for tourism; it is alive and active and used by the real people. Until the Renaissance period, that place was a Christian church, St Michele. I prefer places being used in such a way rather than being transformed into a museum or worse in a new trendy hotel.
Rüstem Pasha Han/ Galata St Pierre Han/ Church of St Peter and Paul
Do you think transforming historical buildings into museums or hotels is a valid way of preserving a building or is it trending?
It is a trend, true but it could also work… Unfortunately, here it seems like a way for more profit, for touristic reasons. I don’t see a keen interest in preserving history. For instance, they will transform Galata St Pierre Han into a university – a part of Bahçeşehir University. They will probably destroy the traces of its history, just leaving the façade and will make a heavy intervention to adapt the building to contemporary use.
Stay tuned for the second part!
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Part: 2 The Levantine World
The Levantine world, Italian heritage in Istanbul and Edoardo De Nari, “the last great architect of cosmopolitan Istanbul that no longer exists” Read more…