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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Constantinople after 1261

In 1261, the Greeks regained control of Constantinople from the Crusaders, who had assaulted the city in 1204. Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1259–82), hailed as the New Constantine, devoted much of his efforts to rebuilding the capital, restoring damaged churches, monasteries, and public buildings. But however concerted the effort to rebuild, the city was struggling: the expense of reconstruction devalued the Byzantine currency, the territorial base of the empire steadily contracted, and the population dwindled considerably. The Byzantine aristocracy failed to compete with the Genoese and the Venetians, who oversaw increasingly profitable trade routes. Moreover, Constantinople was one of the first cities to lose many of its citizens to the Black Death in 1347. In the fourth to fifth centuries, the population is estimated to have been between 250,000 and 1,000,000. By 1453, when the Turks invaded the city, it had declined to 50,000.

Ottoman rule brought new prosperity to the city, renamed Istanbul by the Ottomans. Under the conqueror Mehmet II (r. 1444–81), the harbor once again became an important center of trade and the population increased. Although a large percentage of the population was Muslim, an estimated three-fifths in 1477, Byzantine and European communities also resided in Istanbul. Mehmet made particular commercial concessions to the Europeans, while the people of Byzantine descent preserved their traditions by transferring manuscripts to prominent citizens and ecclesiastical figures, an example being a late twelfth-century Byzantine psalter (2001.730). Mehmet and his successors were particularly important for supporting major construction campaigns such as the building of the fortress Yediküle, the Süleymaniye Mosque, and repairs to the major aqueduct system.

Manuscripts from this period reveal much about ideology and attitudes in the changed city. An inscription in a twelfth-century Byzantine psalter (folio 83r) (2001.730) describes the execution of a Christian in the Hippodrome, implying tensions between the new inhabitants and those whose ancestors presided in Istanbul before 1453. According to tradition, the Hippodrome was built by Septimius Severus shortly after 196 A.D. and completed by Constantine. This was the locus of public life such as sports competitions and the celebration of imperial triumphs. The Hippodrome is also an important element of another manuscript from the mid-sixteenth century showing the procession of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (28.85.7a,b). The artist, Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502-1550), depicts the splendid entourage of the sultan amidst the ruins of the once magnificent Roman circus. Coecke van Aelst’s view indicates a romantic interest in the monuments of the city and highlights the ancient remains, including Hagia Sophia in the distance. Interestingly, he does not make note of any contemporary artistic contributions. Nor does Pierre Gilles (1490–1555) in his description of Constantinople found in De topographia Constantinopoleos (551 G41). Gilles does not describe the art and architecture of Istanbul, choosing instead to take measurements and make records, as though dissecting a mysterious and archaic relic, not a living city.