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Medals of Turkish Sultans

George F. Hill
in: The Numismatic Chronicle 1926, pp.287-298 & pl.XIV.


Until recently the medallic portraits of Mohammad II known to us were but four in number (not counting minor varieties), viz. those by Gentile Bellini, Bertoldo di Giovanni, and Costanzo da Ferrara, and what is known as the Tricaudet medal. The number has now increased to seven, although the new pieces cannot be said to have the same interest as the old, and none of them can be assigned to any known medallist.

It is not necessary here to describe in detail the medals by the three masters above mentioned. Bellini's medal is a work of surprising feebleness; evidently the painter had no capacity for modeling or medallic design. The obverse inscription on the earlier specimen is MAGNI SŎLTANI MOHAMETI IMPERATORIS (the monogram in the second word being the Greek monogram of OY). Some later castings read F after SOLTANI and II after MOHAMETI, or have a crescent instead of vine-leaf at the beginning of the legend. On the reverse are three crowns in pale (of Constantinople, Iconium, and Trebizond, according to some, or of Asia, Greece, and Trebizond, according to others). The inscription is CENTILIS BELLINVS VENETVS EQVES AVRATVS COMESQ. PALATINVS F. The artist's name on some specimens has been read BELENVS, but this is probably a mere blunder, the I being small and placed above the foot of the second L.

There exists also, in the Naples and Bologna collections, a reduction of the obverse of this medal to less than half-scala (40 mm. as against 96 mm.).

The date of the larger medal is fixed by the fact that Bellini went to Constantinople at the end of September 1479, and returned thence to Venice at the end of November 1480. The medal must have been made during this time or soon after. The obverse is closely related to the Layard portrait in the National Gallery.

The medal by Costanzo - by far the finest of all the portraits of the Sultan - is dated 1481 on the obverse, with the inscription "Sultani Mohammeth Octhomani Uguli Bizantii Inperatoris". On the reverse, which has a fine equestrian figure of the Sultan riding through a rocky landscape, is the inscription "Mohameth Asie et Gretie Inperatoris ymago equestris in exercitus" (to which we may supply "proficiscentis"), and the artist's signature "Opus Constantii". Some specimens read "Eretie" instead of "Gretie". There is also a later version with the inscription "Suitanus (sic) Mohameth Othomanus Turcorum Imperator" on the obverse, and on the reverse "Hic belli fulmen populos prostravit et urbes", with the signature "Collstantius f.". This version appears to have beell made by casting from the original, with alteration of the legends and loss of certain details. "Uguli" is a latinizatiou of "oghal", "son", in the sense of descendant (Mohammad's own father was Murad II).

Costanzo of Ferrara, who worked chiefly at Naples, was summoned thence at an unknown date to paint the portrait of Mohammad. The painting has unfortunately not survived. He stayed at Constantinople a tong time, and returned to Italy only after the Sultan's deeth (3 May 1481).

On the ground that Mohammad on this medal looks of powerful physique, whereas early in 1481 he was already suffering from the disease which carried him off on 3 May (not 2 July, as some hava stated), Karabacek maintains that the medal must have been designed at an earlier date than the year it bears. He takes the leafless trees on the reverse (which are, however, merely a feature borrowed from the Pisanellesque tradition) to indicate a winter scene, viz. that in the plain of Dāud Pasha, where early in 1478 the Sultan assembled his army before moving on to Sofia. This date he supports further by the fact that an embassy from Ferdinand reached Constantinople in the spring of that year, and Costanzo might have accompanied it. The Sultan, apart from occasional fits of gout, was then still in good health, but owing to corpulence rode with difficulty; hence the high stirrups, contrary to the usage of the time. Sines we know that Costanzo stayed at Constantinople some years, an earlier date than 1481 for the first design of the medal ia not impossible, though the identification of landscape proposed by Karabacek has little to be said for it, in view of the conventions of medallic design at the time.

The medal by Bertoldo di Giovanni is not dated. There is no evidence that Bertoldo ever went to Constantinople, and it is generally agreed that the portrait is not from life. It is usually assumed that it is derived from Bellini's medal. I can see no reason for this assumption. The two renderings are not very similar. Bertoldo's is the better of the two, though that is not saying much for it. It also shows the Sultan wearing a crescent pendant, which Bellini's medal does not. But there is no reason to dispute Geh. von Bode's date of 1480-1 for the work, though his reasons may not be very convincing. Apart from the supposed derivation from Bellini's medal, one of these reasons is that, by the tenor of the inscription, the Sultan is supposed to be still alive. Now the legend on the obverse is "Maumhet Asie ac Trapesunzis Magneque Gretie Imperat". If imperare could govern the genitive case, there would be same excuse for taking the last word as the present indicative of the verb; but it is, of course, an abbreviation for imperator. More to the point is the fact that about the date mentioned Lorenzo de' Medici was in close touch with the Sultan.

The Tricaudet medal ia represented by a single silver specimen in the Paris cabinet. On this the Sultan appears younger, with slight beard and whiskers and moustache (?). He wears a soft cap covered with loosely wound cloth, leaving the shaven back of his head bare, and adorned with two feathers. His caftan shows an incised pattern and is buttoned down the front. The inscription, on a stippled field, is "Magnus Princeps et Magnus Amiras Sultanus Dns. Mehomet". In the centre of the reverse, on a circular field, are three eagles heads to l., two and one. On a broad sunk stippled margin is engraved the inscription "Jehan Trieaudet (sic) de Selongey a feyt faire ceste piece", in a gothicizing script.

The whole medal has been ruthlessly and unintelligently tooled by order of the person who had this, the only known specimen, altered from whatever it originally was. He was doubtless the Jean Tricaudet who is known to have been living at Selongey (Cōte-d'Or) in 1460. The two feathers substituted for the usual point of the head-dress are presumably the restorer's work. The piece is now worthless iconographically, but there can be no doubt that Mohammad II, at a comparatively early age, is intended. "Magnus Amiras" is the translation of al-Amīr al-'Azam. "Sultanus", according to Karabacek. is the equivalent of Sultan in the sense not of Emperor, but of Lord, Dominus; for Karabacek holds that Sultan was not used in the former sense by Mohammad until 1474. One would like more evidence of this than he gives, and, in any case, too much stress must not be laid on the early coins, which had no space for long titles. Karabacek, who would date the original medal about 1454-5 (Mohammad having been born on 31 March 1430), explains the three eagles' heads not as corresponding to the three crowns in Bellini's painting and medal (which would not suit his date, since Trebizond was not taken until 1461), but as symbols of Brusa, Adrianople, and Constantinople. No serious deductions can be drawn from so severely restored a portrait as this, and there is really no reason against conjecturing a date between 1460 and 1470, The connexion with Matteo de' Pasti suggested by Armand, who has been followed by others, is ruled out by the fact that Matteo never went to Constantinople, though he started and got as far as Candia. Until an unaltered specimen is found it is idle to speculate on the authorship of the original.

We now come to the recently discovered medals.


additional picture from: The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Obv. -(Four-petalled rose on stalk with two leaves) MAGNVS·7·ADMIRATVS·SO LDANVS·MACOMET·BEI _ Bust l. of the young Sultan, with small moustache, wearing conical cap, with cloth wound round in threefold spiral; dolman buttoned down front, with standing collar; and figured caftan with falling collar lightly trimmed with fur.
Rev. - No inscr. _ Nude male bearded figure reclining r. on rocks, holding in outstretched r. a twisted flaming torch; in r. background a tower with large sphere surmounting top story; rocky ground rising on l. (with small ruin?) and r. (with leafless tree). Oxford, Ashmolean, 61 mm; Vienna, 61 mm; J. von Karabacek, op. cit., p.13f.

The reverse, according to Karabacek, alludes to the destructive conquests of Mohammad; the tower is a minaret of the old square form. The figure is a clumsy copy of that on one of Pisanello's medals of Leonello d'Este. Karabacek connects the medal with the capture of Constantinople in 1453, when Mohammad was twenty-three years old. The portrait, he holds, is done from the life, the dress being correctly rendered, whereas later artists frequently misunderstand the details of costume. The 7 = et in the obverse inscription is, on the other hand, an error; the title should be as in the Tricaudet medal, Magnus Admiratus (for Amiras), i.e. al-Amīr al-'Azam. The title Bey is paralleled by documents of the earlier part of the reign, e.g. the capitulation of Zaganos Pasha for the Genoese of Galata of 1453 (...), and the letter of Sigismondo Malatesta (before 1463), "ad illustrissimum et excellentissimum Dominum Mahomet Bei Magnum Admiratum et Sultanum Turchorum".

It does not seem possible to attribute the medal to any known artist, but it is probably Venetian or Ferrarese work of some year after 1453. Karabacek's attempt to fix the date by the sitter's apparent age errs by too great precision. Some of the letter forms, such as B, C, and 7 for ET, are used by Baldassare d' Este, but he is not heard of before 1461.

The motive of the reverse suggests that this is the medal of Mohammad mentioned by Paolo Giovio as the work of Pisanello in a letter to Cosimo de'Medici, quoted by Vasari.

The following two medals have not been described before:


med.1 (pl.XIV.2.)
Obv. - MAHEMET HOTVMANI FILIVS _ Bust r., with short beard, wearing turban and caftan.
Rev. - ·ET THEVCRORVM PRINCEPS _ Pegasus springing r.
Oval, + 49x41 mm. Pesaro, Museo Oliveriano. [pl.XIV.2.]

"Filius" is here the translation of "oghul" in the sense of descendant. Thus we have OCTHOMANI VGVLI on the medal of Costanzo, above. This medal represents Mohammad as older in years than the two last described, and may perhaps be dated in the seventies, or even be posthumous. I can make no suggestion as to the authorship, or as to the meaning of the Pegasus.


med. 2 (pl. XIV.1.)
Obv. - Bust of Mohammad r., with beard and moustache, wearing turban and robe drawn across bis breast. No inscription.
Rev. - Incised inscription in two lines TEROR | CHRISTIANORVM 74 mm. Vatican. [pl.XIV.1.]

The inscription on the reverse looks to me later than the medal itself, and hardly earlier than the sixteenth century. The portrait is powerful, though the work is rough. Here again I can suggest no author.

These medals help us to realize the fascination which the "Terror of the Christians" exercised over the Italians. There must have been a number of other paintings of him besides the one by Bellini that has come down to us; Costanzo, for instance, was a painter, and it was to paint Mohammad's portrait that he went to Constantinople. One may mention here the interesting picture in Capt. E. G. Spencer-Churchill's gallery at Northwick Park, which bears the signature G. BELLINVS, and shows a man, with elegantly-pointed beard, got up in Turkish costume. It has long been recognized that the signature is false, and that the tradition (recorded by Ridolfi) identifying the picture with Gentile Bellini's portrait of Mohammad II is unfounded. It has been suggested that the man is Cesare Borgia.

Another portrait which has wrongly been supposed to represent the Sultan is a drawing in the Louvre, which shows the Emperor John Palaeologus on horseback, and which has, I believe wrongly, been attributed to Pisanello.

Mohammad was followed in 1481 by Bayazid II, of whom we have no medals. Of Selim I (1512-20) I believe we have a medal in the following unique piece, permission to publish which I owe to the kindness of its possessor, M. Claudius Cōte.


med. 3 (pl. XIV.3.)
Obv. - SOLTANSALI HA TEMAN _ Bust l., with moustache, wearing turban, and gown with collar. No reverse. 49 mm. M. Claudius Cōte, Lyon. [pl. XIV.3.]

"Sali" is more probably meant for Salim or Selim than for Soliman. "Hateman", in spite of the gap between the A and the T, I take to be one word, and intended for "Othman"; possibly the gap was once filled by a. C (as in " Octhomani " on Costanzo's medal above described) which was removed as incorrect.

Some of the engraved portraits of Selim I represent him with a beard, e. g, that in Knolles's General History, 1608, p.498. In a genealogical tree with medallions of Sultans down to Selim II (1566-74) he is more or less as on this medal. But little reliance can be placed on these later portraits. At the same time it must be admitted that the present medal is not necessarily from the life, or based on an authentic portrait; it may quite well be due to the medallist's fancy.

The medals of Suleiman II are two in number. There is, first, the well-known large piece without. reverse (max. diam. 130 mm.), with his turbaned head to left, inscribed SOLYMAN IMP. TVR. (or SOLIMANVS TVR. IMP. or SOLIM. TVRC. IMP.). Secondly, there is the curious piece in which he is represented with Charles V.


additional picture from: M. Bernhart, Die Bildnismedaillen Karls des Fünften, Tf.XV, Nr.189
The bust of the Western Emperor is placed in the middle, his head turned threequarters r.; to the right, behind Charles, appears the profile of the Sultan; and on the left is the head of an angel, who appears to be whispering to Charles the words of the elegiac couplet which is incised in two circles around the composition: "Te decet O felix ultra plus pergere Cesar; Cesareo presens decidet ense caput." "Presens caput" is evidently the head of the Sultan, which is to be cut off by the Emperor's victorious sward. The medal must have been designed at same time when Charles was preparing, or when it was desired that he should prepare, to oppose his rival; for instance, in 1532 when, Suleiman having invaded Hungary, Charles (appearing for the first time at the head of his troops) took command of a great army at Vienna - though little was done on either side except marching and countermarching. The hortatory tone of the inscription would well express the impatience of the militant party on this occasion.

On both these medals Suleiman is represented beardless, as in the engraving in Knolles's General History, p. 566, and in the majority of other engravings. According to another tradition, represented by certain engravings, one of which at least, the genealogical tree above mentioned, goes back to the end of the sixteenth century, he wore a beard. The remark made above about the engraved portraits of Selim I applies here also.


Fig. 2

For completeness' sake I reproduce in fig. 2, with the kind permission of M. Carle Dreyfus, and from a photograph supplied by him, the cut-out plaquette of a Mohammadan in the collection formed by M. Gustave Dreyfus. It may be of the sixteenth century, and represents some high military or naval officer rather than a Sultan. The present reproduction is on the scale of the original; an illustration formerly published, on a smaller scale, is labelled "Courtisan de Mahomet II".



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