Monday, February 15, 2016

A Bellini Painting of a Sultan Stirs Intrigue from Venice to Istanbul (no. 24)

 by Larry Witham


AH, BEAUTIFUL VENICE! Actually, in 1840, it was not beautiful at all, according to the setting for Jason Goodwin’s exotic detective novel, The Bellini Card (2008). Under Austrian Hapsburg rule, the city’s palaces are dilapidated, the canals muddy green, and the political intrigues nastier than ever.
            All the treasures, in fact, are hidden away.
            To begin this story, the new and young sultan in Istanbul hears rumors that an Italian Renaissance painting of a past sultan, the “Great Conqueror” Mahumet II, is for sale in Venice. It’s been missing for a few generations. “If the picture exists, I wish for it,” says Sultan Abdulmecid, just taking office. “Send for Yashim.”
            Yashim is author Goodwin’s unique creation, a highly-educated court eunuch and investigator, a chief fixer for the sultans. The Bellini Card is Yashim’s third adventure. In this case, however, a court bureaucrat, Resid Pasha (a pasha being a high-ranking Turkish official) intervenes. When the conniving Resid tells Yashim that it’s not necessary to go to Venice, Yashim secretly sends his friend Stanislaw Palewski, a former Polish ambassador. He arrives in Venice posing as an American art buyer named Mr. Brett.
            Eventually, two Venetian dealers with information about the painting are killed. So Yashim himself glides into Venice, arriving in the disguise of a pasha (ensconced on a barge and wearing an Ottoman turban and so much else that no one can really recognize him).
            One theme of the novel is that “Venice is theater,” and there’s a good many ploys taking place behind disguises and masks. Indeed, a key mystery to the novel is based on a misunderstanding because of the disguises. Back during one of the annual Venice Carnivals (famous for the use of masks), it was rumored that the new young sultan had sneaked into sinful Venice, played cards and drank—and who knows what else—and then returned to Istanbul.
            The Austrian Hapsburgs, who control Venice, believe they can use this scandalous information as possible blackmail, giving them a political upper hand over the inexperienced sultan. However, the true fact is that it was Resid Pasha—yes, wearing a mask—who had come to Venice to satiate his carnal appetites. To hide this guilty fact, Resid Pasha has sent a Tatar assassin to Venice. The assassin is to kill anyone who saw Resid Pasha at a Carnival card game. He’s also to kill the art dealers and get the Bellini painting for Resid’s own purposes.
            The painting is a historical fact (as Goodwin explains in the back-of-the-book notes).
            In the year 1480, the great Venetian painter Gentile Bellini had gone to Istanbul as unofficial ambassador from his republic. After meeting Sultan Mahumet II, he painted his portrait (which now hangs in the National Gallery, London). In the novel, Goodwin has the Tatar die in a storm-flooded Venetian canal, and the Bellini canvas goes down with him.
            Cleverly enough, this can still jibe with true art history, however, since conceivably someone could have found the floating canvas, repainted the extensive damage—which is the real case with the painting—and mounted it on a panel. Such a repair history roughly matches the real painting’s legacy.
            Goodwin is a scholar of the Byzantine Empire. A strength of the novel is the backdrop of political relations between Venice and the East and the atmospheric descriptions of both Istanbul and Venice. To add some intellectual heft, Goodwin also inserts references to an ancient Greek mathematical principle that had been recovered by the Muslims and transmitted back to Europe. It is one of the famous mathematical calculations of the Greek geometer Archimedes, a calculus known as “The Sand Reckoner.”
            Archimedes wanted to estimate the size of the universe by asking, How many grains of sand would it take to fill the cosmic space? First he calculated how many grains are in, say, a square mile—he spoke of “myriad” instead of our modern mile—then extended that to a thousand square miles, and so on. He extrapolated up to cosmic proportions.
            One visualized result of Archimedes’ principle of repetitive expansion would be a diagram, an eight-pointed star inside a square. The design was used in Ottoman mosaics and later in Western art. It’s also a topic the philosophical Yashim reflects upon: the diagram represents myriad connections, just like all the connections he finds in discovering who killed whom, who was really in Venice, and who has had the painting all these years.
            “Nothing is still,” Yashim says. “Nothing remains the same except that pattern that lies beneath.” Back during Bellini’s visit with the sultan, in fact, the pattern stood for diplomatic amity because “the pattern reconciles . . . east with west.”
            The possessor of the Bellini painting is Clara, an Italian countess (“the contessa”), who as it turns out, was also host to the Venice Carnival card game at which Resid Pasha had participated, wearing his mask, of course. Problem is, Resid got into terrible debt with his losing hands. This was another reason Resid had sent the Tatar assassin to seize the painting: the contessa had hidden the debt note on the back of the painting. The Austrians, meanwhile, also wanted to get their hands on the debt note, a key element if they ever wanted to blackmail the sultan (again, whom they thought was the man at the card game). Remember, Venice is theater.
            One would do well to read some history about Venice and the Ottoman Turks in the nineteenth century before delving into a Goodwin novel. A lot of motives can be difficult to ferret out, for the author is not explicit: He knows it would bog down the narrative to give too much political history and explain all the social positions (pashas, dukes, contessas, courtesans, Tatars, Moors—and more).
            A bit of Venetian art history passes through easily enough. The contessa’s long-lost son, a kind of idiot savant, surfaces as a forger of paintings by Canaletto, Venice’s preeminent urban landscape artist. While Bellini paintings are “not in fashion,” Titians are very upmarket. All three are famed Venetian painters.
            The masked motives and masked people in The Bellini Card lend to a very complex plot. But if one can appreciate the theory—a novel about disguises—a certain satisfaction is guaranteed when, at the end, Yashim and Resid summarize what had really happened. As the narrator has warned us more than once, “Venice was theater in so many ways.”

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