BY MEHMET HASAN BULUT
ARTS JUL 04, 2021
The winged lion of Venice tried to assassinate Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, the great eagle, following his rapid advance towards Italy, seizing the Venetian colonies one by one
Venice, whose name we hear only as a popular tourist destination today, was once one of the richest and most powerful states in history, and it used to be a republic. Don’t let the name republic fool you (it is almost synonymous with democracy in the present day), as the common people had no say in the administration. The government was in the hands of a merchant aristocratic class who retain their power and wealth even today.
The names and the lineages of these aristocrats were kept in a special book called “The Libro d’Oro della Nobilta Italiana” (“The Golden Book of Italian Nobility”), originally published between 1315 and 1797. Only those whose names were recorded in this book could enter the Great Council of Venice, which was originally named the Consilium Sapientium (Latin for “Council of Wise Men”).
The state was similar to a monarchy as it had a chief magistrate and leader called the Doge of Venice, sometimes translated as Duke. However, it was not the Doge that really pulled the strings in Venice; it was the Council of Ten, simply known as the Ten.
The council, to which the intelligence departments reported, was called the Ten because it consisted of 10 aristocrats who were elected annually by the Great Council. The Ten was the brain of the state. Decisions that determined the policy of the country were taken here. They also had the authority to execute without trial. They could even execute aristocrats for the stability and benefit of the state.
The Ten used to send assassins after targets that the Great Council wished to be eliminated silently. Their favorite method of assassination was poisoning their victims. “Let poison do the work of the executioner. It’s less gruesome and more profitable,” they used to say.
Congressional records still contain how they voted for, planned the poisoning and determined the fees that were to be paid to the person who would carry out the act of poisoning. The payment was always made after the job was done. Botanists at the University of Padua, which were affiliated with Venice, were producing many poisons for this purpose. The most commonly used poisons were mercury chloride, white arsenic, arsenic trisulfide and arsenic trichloride.
Venice was Catholic but never religious. It really only thought of its own interests. It embraced everyone that fled from the Inquisition. It had repeatedly come to the brink of war with the Papacy, such as when the sect of the Templars was banned. Therefore, for those who knew Venice, it was not surprising when the Crusaders, led by Doge Enrico Dandolo, captured Istanbul in 1204 and ransacked it in a manner that was unprecedented in history instead of advancing towards Islamic lands. When the Pope objected to Venice’s desire to occupy the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire with France, Venice did not take the Papacy seriously.
After Venice’s occupation, the next and final blow to the Eastern Roman Empire, or the Byzantine Empire, came from a warlike nation that rose from the Orient, namely the Muslim Turks. Constantinople, which could not regain its former glory after the Venetian invasion, surrendered in 1453 to the soldiers of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, who from then on was known as Mehmed the Conqueror. The support of the Venetian soldiers to the Greek Emperor against the Muslims was in the end fruitless. Moreover, after the conquest, the Venetian bale, that is, the Venetian ambassador and his son, were executed by the Turks.
The new owners of Istanbul and their young sultan were now Venice’s biggest rivals. As a matter of fact, in 1463, a great war broke out between Venice and the Ottomans that would last for years. The Turks, who had previously taken Thessaloniki from the Venetians, were advancing rapidly towards Italy by seizing the Venetian colonies one by one. This eagle, which had its eyes on Italy, had to be destroyed by the winged lion Venice immediately.
The Ten immediately rolled up their sleeves and started looking for assassins in order to kill Sultan Mehmed II. A year after the war began, a Spaniard named Manuel Cerda made an offer through his brother. The Ten promised the Spaniard 10,000 ducats, but the assassination attempt did not succeed.
In 1475, a Jewish moneylender named Salomon of Piove offered to send a Jewish doctor named Valchus to Istanbul to kill the sultan. However, Salomon himself suddenly died. His son then repeated the offer. In return, he wanted to establish trade permits and five banks in Venice. We do not know if the offer was accepted, but even though Valchus managed to get into the palace the assassination was still a failure.
Yakub of Gaeta
The most exciting proposal that was presented to the Council of Ten was received in 1471 from Sultan Mehmed II’s own physician, Jacopo of Gaeta, who was known as Hekim Yakub (Physician Yakub in Turkish) after he converted to Islam. Hekim Yakub, who was also called Yakub Pasha or “Maestro Jacopo” in the Venetian records, demanded a one-time payment, tax exemption and citizenship in return for the job.
It is said that Jacopo was born in the city of Gaeta, near Naples, in Italy and studied at the University of Padua in Venice. Having studied medicine, Jacomo came to Edirne at a young age and succeeded in gaining favor with Sultan Mehmed II’s father, Sultan Murad II.
He came to Istanbul with Sultan Mehmed II and became his personal physician and consultant. The effort of Jacopo in favor of Venice in the Ottoman court was appreciated by the Venetian Council.
Yakub Pasha was in contact with David Mavrogonato, a Jewish man that reported to the Council of Ten. Mavrogonato, who was a Venetian citizen, was close to the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire Mahmud Pasha, who was of Greek origin and had a falling out with Sultan Mehmed II. Therefore, when Venice was looking for ways to make peace with the Ottoman Empire, it employed the services of Mavrogonato. However, when Mavrogonato arrived in Istanbul for the fourth time in 1470, he was killed, likely by the Ottoman intelligence. Yakub Pasha made the aforementioned assassination proposal the following year. According to archival records, the Ten relied on Yakub and took his offer seriously. But the sultan continued to live. Moreover, Mahmud Pasha was executed in 1474.
Venice, which had been at war with the Ottoman Empire for years, had lost very strategic lands such as Albania and most of the Aegean islands to the Turks. Ottoman front troops had almost reached the borders of the city of Venice. Seeing the Turks at the door, Venice was in a state of panic. They were making constant attempts to end the war. And they finally achieved their goal.
Sultan Mehmed II, who planned to enter Italy from the south and march on Rome, wanted to end the war with Venice. At the beginning of 1479, he signed a treaty with Venice. Thus, the war between the Ottomans and Venice, which had been ongoing for years, came to an end.
Wanting to attract the Venetians to his side before he went to war with the Kingdom of Naples, the sultan invited the Venetian Doge to Istanbul for his nephew’s circumcision ceremony. He also requested a good painter to decorate the rooms and walls of the newly completed Topkapı Palace.
It is also said that the Venetian minister Giovanni Dario, who signed the peace treaty, might have actually proposed a painter to be sent, to Great Council himself.
This period of peace and the demand for a painter was a great opportunity for the Venetians to complete the job they had not been able to finish for years: to assassinate Sultan Mehmed II. They did not agree to send the Doge to the ceremony but they decided to send their best painter to the Ottoman capital. The Council of Ten chose Gentile Bellini, son of the painter Jacopo Bellini, to decorate the new palace in Istanbul.
Jacopo Bellini was a man who had trained such painters as Giorgione and Titian and in turn had brought a new age to Venetian art. Growing up in his father’s studio, Gentile was not as good a painter as his brother Giovanni, but he had a good diplomatic character, and in his lifetime he had become the most prestigious painter in Venice.
He was knighted by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III, who had visited Venice in 1469. Gentile was painting the walls of the Great Council’s Ducal Palace when he received the news that he would be sent to Istanbul. Bellini left his brother Giovanni to complete the work on the palace, and he was declared the official painter of Venice before his departure. Together with his two assistants, Bellini sailed to Istanbul in September of 1479 among the entourage of the Venetian ambassador who was traveling to present Venice’s tribute to the Ottoman Empire.
Portrait of Sultan Mehmed
Although there are those who try to present Sultan Mehmed II as a humanist Renaissance prince who had taken care of Italian artists by inviting them to his palace, the truth of the matter is not as such. A sincere and devout Muslim, the sultan had never wanted an artist to paint his portrait, contrary to popular belief. It is unclear whether he even met Bellini, as there are no documents in the Ottoman archives about Bellini’s visit to Istanbul.
On the other hand, the claims that Sultan Mehmed II examined Bellini’s paintings depicting mad dervishes and beheaded a slave to show him what a severed head looked like, as told by writers of the era such as Giovanni Maria Angiolello and Carlo Ridolfi, are just funny Italian urban legends.
Moreover, it is inconclusive whether the famous portrait of Sultan Mehmed II, dated Nov. 25, 1480, and placed in the National Gallery in London in 1916, truly belongs to Bellini. The portrait was not known by any until British archaeologist and diplomat Austen Henry Layard claimed that he bought it from an Englishman living in Venice in 1865.
Bellini left Istanbul at the beginning of 1481 after staying for 16 months. The painting task in the palace was over. Although he is not a very credible writer, Giorgio Vasari says that Bellini was sent back to Venice because he attempted to paint a portrait of the sultan when it is forbidden in Islam to paint human faces. Even if he started to paint the sultan, it is understood that Bellini completed the painting after he returned, since he was not allowed to finish. It is rumored that Sultan Mehmed II gave him the armor and sword of Venetian Doge Dandolo, whose grave was in the Hagia Sophia Grande Mosque, when he was leaving.
While Bellini was painting the walls of Topkapı Palace, the Ottomans had conquered Otranto, a part of the Kingdom of Naples, in the summer of 1480 and entered Italy from the south. All of Italy and Europe was in a state of panic. Shortly after Bellini left Istanbul at the end of April, Sultan Mehmed II embarked on a new expedition. He passed over to Üsküdar on the Asian side of today’s Istanbul. Nobody knew where the expedition was headed, as the sultan was very good at keeping secrets. It was said that the destination was Egypt, but there were also rumors that he would pretend to be heading towards the East but actually march towards the Knights Hospitaller, or the Knights of Rhodes occupying the island of Rhodes and guarded by Venice, and he would finish what he started in Italy.
Sultan Mehmed II, who had become ill after setting out on the expedition, had his tent set up in Hünkar Çayırı (Sultan Creek in Turkish) near Gebze, east of today’s Istanbul. He was writhing with a sudden onset of abdominal pain. Blood was coming from his mouth and nose, and he was saying, “They killed me.” The great sultan, who conquered Istanbul and buried the Roman Empire in history, surrendered his soul in pain on May 3. He was just 49 years old. After they received the news the Janissaries, elite infantry units that formed the Ottoman Sultan’s household troops, killed Yakub Pasha of Gaeta by smashing him to pieces.
The Venetian ambassador in Istanbul immediately sent the good news to Venice and Rome. When the messenger arrived in Venice on May 19, the Doge and the Council were in a meeting. The messenger immediately burst into the hall and shouted in delight: “La Grande Aquila e morta!” (“The Great Eagle is dead!”).