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 nice long talk. In the first part of the interview, we focused on the city of Istanbul and its 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”.
Pera & Galata, Salut de Constantinople postcards
What is your definition of ‘Levantine’?
The 1st Levantine Conference took place last year here in Istanbul and the problem is that there are many people who cannot agree on the precise definition of the word “Levantine”. For instance, we cannot talk about a Levantine world any more. We can only talk about some old people, families descending from the Levantines; some still live here while others left long ago. We can consider them as the heirs of that world. It is strictly related to the cosmopolitan world that was possible only in the Ottoman society because the nature of state nations was just the opposite of the cosmopolitan societies. The Levantine world was not confined to this city; it was present in Thessaloniki, Alexandria, Beirut and many other places around the Eastern Mediterranean. There was a very strong presence of foreigners dating back to very old times. They were not only traders. People arrived here, settled and they became a part of the community. They maintained their own traditions, and cultures. This world disappeared completely with the rise of nationalisms. In the case of Turkey, maybe it survived until the ‘40s or ‘50s. Istanbul has always had an international aspect but even here it is no longer possible to talk about a Levantine presence.
We cannot talk about a Levantine world any more. This world disappeared completely with the rise of nationalism.
How long has the Italian community been here?
There were capitulations in the Middle Ages when merchants from Venice, Florence, Genoa and other Italian cities established commercial relations in this part of the world, even before the rise of the Ottomans. Somehow those relations were maintained and continued throughout the centuries till 20th century. The war in Crimea forced Europeans to help Ottomans. So many Italians arrived in that period too, in the 2nd half of 19th century. They moved from the countryside to colonized places –to establish strong connections with the other Italians who were already here.
The Black sea was once upon a time called ‘the Genoese Sea’, right? That indicates the influence of the Genoese in this part of the world. When was that?
In 13-15th century – the transition between the decline of the Byzantine Empire and the rise of the Ottoman Empire. Somehow Genoa lost his power in that region and the Genoese disappeared after the rise of Ottomans but Venetians maintained their power, privileges and increased their influence.
What happened to those Italian communities during the Ottoman period?
After the Ottoman conquest, the Italians or Frenks were called “The Magnificient Community of Pera”; just to mention another building that belonged to the Italian Community, the Palazzo Venezia – that is the Italian Consulate today, dated back to the 16th century as the residence of the Venetian ambassador. Or the same Beyoğlu Municipality had been named ‘the Son of the Lord’ after Alvise Gritti, the illegitimate son of the Venetian ambassador during the 16th century. Due to the recent history of modern Turkey, there was a sort of amnesia. Still, many tourists arrive in Istanbul and are surprised to see a Genoese tower here. They do not know that Genoa was one of the strongest independent republics during the Middle Ages. It is still a kind of discovery for them.
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Is there any book that could be a good source on the Levantine presence in the city?
The thing is people do not agree on some concepts. Alessandro Pannuti, a scholar who spent several years on Levantine studies, published a book, in which he tried to analyze the Levantine world. However, even if he did a great job, he did not get the consensus from some of the heirs related to the Italian-Levantine community. Levantine is a strange concept. For instance, in Italy, there is always a negative association with the word: it means a traitor, a thief; someone doing something bad behind you. Levantine being someone good or something positive is only a recent acquisition. Even here, sometimes, people of Levantine origins do not want to reveal their origins; instead they claim to be Italian. Racist laws against minorities started in the ’40s and continued in the ’50s with the pogroms against Greeks and other Christian minorities, which made those people very scared to talk about their origins.
Levantine is a strange concept. In Italy, there is always a negative association with the word: it means a traitor, a thief; someone doing something bad behind you. Levantine being someone good or something positive is only a recent acquisition.
During the Tripoli war between the Ottomans and Italians in 1911-1912, a law forced the Italian-Levantines to leave the country? Do you think all of them left the country?
Italian citizens left. There were two groups of Italians, according to the studies made by Rinaldo Marmara, another heir of the Levantine community. The first group had the status of reaya – slaves; many were subjected to it. The second group, thanks to the capitulations, were not considered as slaves. There were, just to give an example, Genoese considered as foreigners and Genoese as members of the Ottoman society. A tricky situation. During the war, all the Italians who did not have any residence permit had to leave. Many left for Rhodes because it was under the control of Italians and many preferred to stay there expecting to go back at one point.
Some of the Levantines switched to another citizenship, as far as I know?
Italy was a young nation, just newborn in 1861. Italian Levantines could not get the Italian citizenship so some like Alexander Vallaury switched to another citizenship. He was an Italian born as Alessandro Vallauri, from the Piedmont region, at that time under the Kingdom of Savoy, where French language and culture were dominant, and he studied in France that’s why he felt connected to French culture. He lived here but he was originally a Levantine with Italian roots. For example, Garibaldi, one of the fathers of Italy, was born in Nice, which was part of the Kingdom of Savoy – an Italian territory back then. It later became a part of France. And while here, Garibaldi established very close relations to the Levantine community. He was the president of the local branch of ‘Società Operaia di Mutuo Soccorso in Costantinopoli’ and one of his sons got married to a Levantine woman from Izmir. And again, Giulio Mongeri, a prominent architect, was originally from here though his descendants reject the idea of his being a Levantine.
Sketches of St Anthony of Padua, Image Courtesy of Sant’Antonio Church Archives
Exhibition Catalogue Cover, Image Courtesy of Istanbul Research Institute Publishing
I rediscovered Edoardo De Nari thanks to an exhibition held at IAE (Istanbul Research Institute) in 2012-13, The Architect of Changing Times- Edoardo De Nari. The exhibition project conducted by the researcher Büke Uras brought De Nari’s life into focus. You were one of the contributors to the exhibition and its catalogue along with Baha Tanman, Uğur Tanyeli, Paolo Girardelli and Cengiz Can. What is his significance for us?
We wanted to emphasize that times have changed. Innovation is not so big in that period. We cannot say he is like Raimondo D’Aronco -the great architect of the Art Nouveau. But he followed his society. Among his customers were Armenians, Jews, and Turks. It was the transition period from the apogee to decadence. He made it possible for us to follow these passages. It was exactly the picture of change in that world. Istanbul lost its bourgeoise, which was replaced by a Muslim society with the arrival of immigrants from Anatolia. It was a different world back then.
I remember seeing the photo of a public beach in Üsküdar at the beginning of the 1900s. Women and men are sunbathing together in their swimming suits. Could you imagine something like that? It is beyond my wildest fantasy.
I saw a photo of Reina taken in the 50s. It is a public bath, too. Amazing how it changed…
Üsküdar Salacak beach/Anonymous
I feel Istanbul is all about nostalgia.
Orhan Pamuk has always had this nostalgic view of the city that reflected the cosmopolitan world. I guess it was during the time of Menderes when the country changed drastically. An Italian anthropologist criticized this vision – “What you don’t have is Paul Auster of Istanbul”, he told me! You know Paul Auster became famous by writing contemporary New York. Here, everyone writes about the city’s past. You can’t read good books about contemporary Istanbul. Not only Orhan Pamuk’s books, but books by other authors like Mario Levi and Elif Şafak, all remind us of old places and old times, but not showing the contradictions of the contemporary city.
In the Ottoman court painter, Fausto Zonaro’s memoirs, I remember him saying that “Istanbul is a memoir”, which holds true for many people. Being nostalgic is a tendency for many of us.
Cities stricken by disasters like Berlin, and Milan, are sometimes nostalgic… But there are no reasons to justify this approach as in the case of Istanbul. The city is canceling its past substituting itself with something without roots. Populations have changed so fast that it is impossible to recognize the city as something that belongs to you. It is more of a matter of identity, not a memoir. There is a lack of identity in Turkish society because it is a young nation, but also because populations are changing and moving so fast that new comers do not have much in common with the previous generations.
The city is canceling its past substituting itself with something without roots. It is more of a matter of identity, not a memoir.
Many people, on the other hand, feel very connected to the Ottoman heritage. Do you think it is on the superficial level?
Yes, just the façade… Building or copying Sinan mosques does not mean revival of the spirit of the classical period, as they think. It is like Disneyland, a void replica without content, just the form.
Edoardo De Nari… How did we discover him?
The entire archive belongs to the architect Büke Uras; I was contacted by him. Italian Cultural Center also asked if I knew anything about him. But I did not. He discovered the archive in an interesting Pamukesque story in Çukurcuma. He is a collector of architectural drawings, and in a depot of an antique shop he found these two suitcases full of photos and drawings. When he started to read into it, in a few years’ time he made sense of the material he found.
It was years of research and dedication on the part of Büke Uras that many buildings rejoined their architect. It was thanks to his archive and research that we now have a better understanding of De Nari’s life, career and his time. Can you give any example of these rediscovered connections?
Surp Agop Apartments, Şark and Glorya movie theaters, the Lion department store, just to name a few. I found it peculiar that nobody studied him, but the city, especially Beyoğlu, is still carrying his traces. There are many buildings that belong to him, which shows us a prolific career of fifty years.
Glorya Movie Theater, Image Courtesy of Yapı Kredi Culture Art Publishing Archives
I remember from his letters that De Nari was not much impressed by the city at first. Despite his first impression, he stayed here. Why?
He was an opportunist in a good way. He sensed that there was a potential to become someone in Constantinople. He had lost everything he had in Italy at a young age. He was born in a small village close to Genoa, then he moved to Venice to attend the Accademia di Belle Arti (Fine Arts Academy). Meanwhile his entire family, mother, father and a sister, died of some diseases, so he had to join the Navy in order to survive. That’s how he ended up here. Once here, he started a new life. Despite his working class background, he got married to the daughter of wealthy Mordtmann family and became really a prominent figure of the Levantine society.
His passionate love affair with Cristel was another reason for him to stay in the city, right? Even though Cristel left for Paris when they separated, he stayed here. One would expect their adopted daughter, Lydia to stay with the mother, but she stayed here with her dad. In the photos, there seems to be a strong connection between the father and the adopted daughter.
Of course, there was! It was rumored that Lydia, their adopted daughter, was his daughter from one of the servants; she was really De Nari’s daughter. He was very attached to the daughter and left everything to him. Until the 80s, she was living with De Nari’s stuff and selling it piece by piece in Çukurcuma. This is how the architect Uras found everything in a depot. We do not know where she was buried because she was very poor when she died.
Edoardo De Nari with his wife, Cristel/ Edoardo De Nari with his daughter, Lydia, Courtesy of Edoardo De Marchi Archives
How come De Nari had good his relations with the new regimes… here and in Italy?
Ambassador Count Sforza from Milan was the link for De Nari to be the mediator between the new Republic and the fascist regime. Both of them were members of the Freemasonry, so it was easy to establish such a connection. During the Tripoli war in Libya, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet Reşat V. allowed De Nari to stay here disregarding the law. I think many among the Young Turks were also masons, so for him it was easy to connect with them and stay here. On the other hand, Italy was also founded by masons, like Garibaldi and Mazzini, so we should not be surprised to find these kind of connections used by De Nari in the late Ottoman time. The Società Operaia has a secular identity and formerly it was an institution against the church. So I learned that not all the Levantines were using Società Operaia, maybe because it was too much associated with the Italian Freemasonry lodge.
De Nari was an opportunist but in a good way. He was capable of understanding the changing times.
Despite being a member of Freemasonry, he was involved into the construction of Sant’Antonio church, and the interior of Santa Maria Draperis. Was he an opportunist?
De Nari was a man without any degree. He was a self-made man who entered this Levantine Mordtmann family. He was an opportunist but in a good way, as I said before. He was capable of understanding the changing of times. He managed to be the right man in the right place. Coming from nothing, he became an influential figure in the society. He met the best Italian architects and artists of the time, like Leonardo De Mango, Raimondo D’Aronco and of course Giulio Mongeri. Members of the Levantine community still remember the parties in his house.
Tekel Building in Ulus, Ankara by Mongeri, Image Courtesy of Doğan Hasol
How about the architect Giulio Mongeri? How was De Nari’s relationship with him?
Mongeri and De Nari were the same age and close friends. They worked closely for 20 years. Then something happened; maybe out of ambition, they split. Mongeri followed Atatürk in Ankara but De Nari continued to work in Istanbul. Atatürk was changing Turkey into a more modern country. Many of the new buildings designed by Mongeri in historical style – for instance Tekel buildings in Ulus, Ankara- became obsolete soon. They were not modern enough. So some modern French and German architects were invited by Atatürk. Mongeri could not succeed anymore. Finally, Mongeri left for Italy whereas De Nari stayed.
Do you think De Nari was in a way more successful than Mongeri?
In a way, yes. He stayed here; he still had his clients. In the ‘30s and ‘40s he continued to build for the Istanbul bourgeoise. For instance, there were two beautiful cinemas in today’s Demirören building. When you look at the pictures, they are like Broadway theaters on the 5th Avenue. Also some drawings made by De Nari show Park Hotel building; but unfortunately, Büke Uras never got to find documents saying it was built by De Nari. Inside the bar, there were some decorations. Those are now in a house in Valikonağı-Vedat Tek’s house; they are decorating the walls of Zihni bar.
Park Hotel, Image Courtesy of Ali Güven Okday Archives
Necdeddin Şerbetçi Villa Details, Image Courtesy of Büke Uras Archives
In his works, is there any significant architectural signature? Anything quintessentially De Nariesque? Can we recognize a De Nari work?
Yes, details…! We start to recognize the details when we have a look at the buildings, or technical drawings. We say this can be a De Nari building. This detail could be a balustrade, for instance. The quality of details is amazing. They are very well done and very well-documented. Sometimes the entrance of a place is enough to say this may be a De Nari work.
Why do you think we have somehow lost his legacy? What is the reason for this collective amnesia? Did we intentionally forget him?
In this transition period, as an architect he was no longer in the foreground. D’Aronco and Zonaro went back to Italy because they were kicked off by the Young Turks. Do you know that Zonaro could not take back most of his paintings because he had to leave very quickly? Many of them were unfortunately lost.
Speaking of amnesia, honestly we don’t know this part of the world very much in Italy. Garibaldi spent some years here between 1827-30. Funny that almost nobody knew he was here. He was even elected as the president of Società Operaia di Mutuo Soccorso (nowadays known as Casa Garibaldi). I think the reason was that he somehow belonged to the Levantine world.
Casa Garibaldi- Società Operaia, Image Courtesy of Società Operaia di Mutuo Soccorso Archives
Casa Botter by Raimondo D’Aronco
When Istanbul was stripped of her title as a capital, she was highly ignored. Maybe punished a bit. Do you think she kind of resisted her fate and maintained her cosmopolitan heritage?
No, less and less. Most of these people were close to the sultan. The richness of the Art Nouveau came with the new bourgeoise, and it was rising because of close contact with the sultan. They had the money to build something like the Botter Building. Botter was Sultan Abdülhamid’s tailor and he could spend extravagantly. A beautiful building with shops was made for him by Raimondo D’Aronco. They fell from the grace. It was not the capital any more so many offices, and banks were closed. Minorities no more built churches. Churches are not only religious building; they are also public buildings for the community. Until the 40s, there were very few state investments. State nation changed everything completely. Everything moved to Ankara. They were building the new capital, so they had to put much more effort.
I think Istanbul has never been so Muslim in its history as it is now; it has become a Muslim city if not a capital. This was not even what Sultan Mehmet II had in mind when he conquered the city. They tried to keep the city as cosmopolitan as they could, right?
Yes, in the Ottoman time there was a combination of different ethnic groups and religions as well: Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and in general Christians, like the Italian Levantine community here were well integrated into the Ottoman society and administration. In the early Republican time they wanted to cut their relationship with the past, with the religion but eventually they lost a multi-cultural society. The end result is a big loss of identity. There was more identity on the cosmopolitan Istanbul than the contemporary one.
LINKS AND FURTHER READING
Interview with Luca Orlandi: part 1 The City and Architecture
Levantine Heritage Foundation web site
Istanbul 1900: Art Nouveau Architecture and Interiors, by Diana Barillari
The architect of changing times, Edoardo De Nari, Exhibition catalogue by Istanbul Research Institute
Istanbul Visions, by Luca Orlandi
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