On The 150th Anniversary Of His Birth Ottoman Palace Artist Fausto Zonaro

  • April 12, 2004

Padua, Verona, Rome, Naples, Venice (1854-1891)

Fausto Zonaro was born on 18 September 1854 in Masi, Padua, into a family of moderate means. His father, a building foreman, was proud of his son’s artistic talent as a schoolboy. He rewarded him with small sums of money and carefully saved all his son’s pictures.

At the age of 17 Fausto told his father that he wanted to go to art school, and enrolled at a technical college which taught graphics and art at Lendinara 12 kilometres from Masi. He had to walk there and back every day, but his enthusiasm made him forget all his weariness. So that his shoes did not wear out he walked barefoot, hanging his shoes around his neck, and sometimes fell asleep at the foot of a tree from exhaustion. All this time he dreamed of becoming a famous painter.

Fausto did well at school and with the assistance of his art teacher Cordenons was accepted into the Accademia Cignaroli, run by the famous painter Napoleone Nani, who trained many outstanding painters. At the academy his fellow students included Dall’Oca, Bianca, Alessandro Milesi, Giacomo Favretto and Veneziani, all of whom were to rise to fame in later years.

Just as Fausto Zonaro was developing his talent and beginning to make a name for himself, he was drafted into the army. After his military service was finished, lack of money made it difficult for him to pick up his career as an artist where he had left off. So he went to Venice and tried to make a living selling paintings of the city to the mainly English tourists. In 1878 he moved to Naples in hope of furthering his career, but was still obliged to go back and fro to Venice to sell his work. In later life he said of those years, ‘It was a period of hardship and adversity. Time was passing without leaving a trace. The cities and places where I stopped to paint pictures left no mark on my mind. My experiences of that time are just a confused and indistinct memory, as if I had dreamed rather than lived them. But the impressions I gained during my journeys were like the colours I imagined on my palette.’

It was during those years that Zonaro painted one of his first masterpieces, Il Banditore. The picture depicts the municipal town criers who figured so large in the life of Naples. Known as banditore or pazariello, it was their job to announce what was going on in the city to the public, and for a fee tradesmen could advertise their wares by this means.

During this period Zonaro was always restless. In 1888 he went to Paris with high hopes, and rented a studio at 36 Boulevard de Clichy. At this time the excitement aroused by the impressionist painters was at a height. Zonaro met some French impressionists and espoused the new movement. Although he kept up with every new movement, his own style always predominated, preserving a consistent identity. He never lost sight of his own essence, and the years of his youth spent in poverty.

Zonaro returned to Venice and began to supplement his income by giving art lessons. One of his pupils was Elisa (Elisabetta) Pante, and she and her young teacher fell in love. The couple envisioned a better life together in a place where they could fulfil their artistic aspirations.

Istanbul (1891-1910)

After reading Edmondo de Amicis and Théophile Gautier’s books about Istanbul, Fausto Zonaro and Elisa resolved to go and live and work in that city themselves. Elisa, a young girl of extraordinary initiative, set out for Istanbul before her future husband, to make ready for his arrival. Zonaro followed her two months later, setting sail on 5 November 1891 as a third class passenger on the SS Simeto from Naples. He spent the long journey drawing, and when the ship approached Istanbul, he was so struck by the view of the city that he could not find words to describe it, but only noted, ‘Gautier, Amicis and Loti have already done this in a way that cannot be surpassed.’

When Zonaro disembarked he was met by Elisa, who had rented a room on Yüksek Kaldırım in the district of Pera. A customs officer opened the cases of paintings which made up most of his baggage, and told him he would have to pay customs duties. Zonaro explained that he was a painter and should not have to pay duties on his own paintings—which included such masterpieces as L’infilatrice di Perle (Woman Threading Pearls), Fior di Bosco (Girl Carrying a Pumpkin), Canale Grande alla Salute (The Grand Canal in Venice), Coda Del diavolo (Tail of the Devil) and Festa del Redentore (Fiesta of the Saviour). The customs director was more sympathetic, however, and let Zonaro’s paintings through on payment of only a nominal sum.

Zonaro spent most of his first few days in Istanbul with Elisa, who had already begun making a living teaching Italian and art. The couple married in the Church of St Esprit in Istanbul in 1892, crowning a relationship based on sharing and a love of art. Their first home was a wooden house close to Ayazpaşa Cemetery in Taksim, and it was here that their first child Faustone was born in 1893.

In November 1892 Il Banditore was illustrated on the cover of Illustrierte Zeitung magazine published in Leipzig, and this brought Zonaro recognition in Istanbul, particularly in diplomatic circles. When an article about Zonaro appeared in Stamboul newspaper, which was published in Istanbul in Italian, his name was established in Istanbul society.

From 1893 Zonaro gave art lessons to numerous people, including such eminent figures as Yusuf Bey from the Ottoman Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nadine de Rodevich, Contessa Vitalis, Maikof, daughter of the Belgian ambassador Mademoiselle Dudzeele, Mrs Cropenshi and Baroness Wenspeir. The Italian ambassador Collabiano was an admirer of Zonaro’s work, and introduced him to the Greek ambassador Mavrocordato. Pangury Bey, the brother of a banker, presented Sultan Abdülhamid II with two albums of photographs of Zonaro’s paintings, which were so liked by the sultan that Pangury Bey was rewarded by appointment as counsellor at the embassy in Rome.

In early 1893 Zonaro mainly painted scenes of Valide Sultan Square and its environs, and one day while he was working there he was summoned to the police station at the head of Galata Bridge and asked to identify himself. After showing his card he was asked what he was doing in the streets of Istanbul. He replied that he was a painter doing pictures of their beautiful city, and showed his pictures. The police then asked what acquaintances he had in Istanbul, and he began to reel off names: director of the Imperial Museum Osman Hamdi Bey, Minister of Protocol Münir Paşa, Munir Bey of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and so on, until the policeman exclaimed, ‘Enough, enough! Go and paint pictures were you want, only stay away from Yıldız Palace and Eyüp Cemetery. From now on the police won’t disturb you,’ and let him go.

One day Zonaro was invited to Yıldız Palace by Minister of Palace Protocol Münir Paşa, and afterwards they visited Osman Hamdi Bey at his house in Kuruçeşme. Zonaro described Osman Hamdi Bey as ‘an esteemed scholar, and a charming, easy going man of the world.’ He admired the cultured and refined Osman Hamdi Bey, who at every meeting made him forget his troubles and encouraged him with praise of his work.

In the summer of 1894 the Zonaro family, who were still having difficulty making ends meet, were living in a two-storey wooden house on one of the narrow streets of Cihangir. They could barely pay the rent, and Zonaro was using the living room on the second floor as a studio. One day there was a knock at the door. Elisa was busy in the kitchen on the upper floor, cooking and washing the laundry. She heard the Greek maid admit a visitor, but did not appear herself since she was not dressed appropriately and knew the person must have come to see her husband. She heard the visitor come upstairs and begin to talk about art in fluent French, praising her husband’s work. The visitor was the Turkish painter, musician, writer, artist and statesman Celal Esad Arseven, who was to become one of their closest friends.

The Russian ambassador Alexandre Nelidov was also interested in Zonaro’s work, and his encouragement delighted the couple. Nelidov’s wife was also interested in art, and lent her enthusiastic support to the Zonaros. In 1895 Nelidov equipped an art room at the embassy, and here not only the Nelidovs and members of the embassy staff, but many figures of Istanbul society took art lessons from Zonaro.

Between 1891 and 1894 Zonaro mainly worked in the open-air, painting in watercolour and oil on wooden panels which he prepared in his studio. Measuring 20 by 45 cm, these panels were both stronger than canvas and easier to carry and store. He exhibited these paintings at the Zellich Bookshop on Yüksek Kaldırım, and these were mainly bought by foreign tourists for a low price as souvenirs of Istanbul.

From 1894 Zonaro’s output increased. During these years he visited the most remote corners of Istanbul, observing the life and people of the city, and painting many new subjects.

One Friday in 1896 he was crossing the Galata Bridge when he encountered the Ertuğrul Cavalry Regiment, and was impressed by the splendid sight of the cavalrymen on their white horses passing over the bridge. On subsequent Fridays he went to the bridge again to watch the regimental procession, sketching detailed studies of the riders as they passed. Then he began to paint a composition of the scene in oil. When the Italian ambassador Panza and Russian ambassador Nelidov visited him one day and saw the finished painting, Nelidov suggested that he present it to Sultan Abdülhamid II. Palace painter Luigi Acquarone had died a few months earlier, and there was a good chance that Zonaro might be appointed in his place. ‘A few days later, with the mediation of the Italian embassy, I expressed my wish to present the painting to the palace,’ Zonaro recalled. ‘Münir Paşa sent two porters to help me take the pictures to Yıldız Palace before the Friday selamlık ceremony, and afterwards he showed the painting to Sultan Abdülhamid II. The sultan was very impressed, and said that I should be awarded a second-class Mecidi Order. He gave instructions that I should be appointed as Ressam-ı Hazret-i Şehriyari [palace painter], and charged his second secretary İzzet Bey with carrying out the necessary formalities.’

After becoming palace painter, Fausto Zonaro painted scenes of Yıldız Palace, such as The Road Leading from Ortaköy Gate to the Palace and Burhaneddin Efendi’s Chalet. While he was working in the palace gardens he became friends with the sultan’s eldest son Şehzade Burhaneddin Efendi, who watched him at work. ‘Şehzade Burhaneddin Efendi purchased my painting Concerto in Famiglia [Family Concert], which I had painted in Paris, and I think began his collection with this work,’ Zonaro recollected. ‘He was very interested in my paintings, and wishing to purchase more for his collection came frequently to my studio with his black eunuch Nadir Ağa. He always purchased a painting, including Il Ponte delle Guglie [The Guglie Bridge], Coda del diavolo [Tail of the Devil] which I had brought from Venice, and Altalena [The Swing], which I painted in Istanbul.’

Zonaro was later asked to paint a portrait of Sultan Abdülhamid II’s daughter Refia Sultan. Marshal of the Antechamber Faik Bey accompanied him to the Harem, where he did a pastel portrait of the princess and a portrait in oils based on it. He framed both pictures in gilt frames. The pastel portrait was hung in the room of the valide sultan (mother of the sultan) in the Harem, while the oil portrait was hung in Sultan Abdülhamid II’s private drawing room.

Abdülhamid was interested in porcelain as well as painting, and a royal porcelain factory was established in the grounds of Yıldız Palace for the production of porcelain ornaments and tableware for the palace and as diplomatic gifts. Leading artists of the day were employed as designers and decorators at the factory, including Hüseyin Zekai Paşa, Mustafa Vasfi Paşa, Halid Naci, Osman Nuri Paşa, Hoca Ali Rıza, Ömer Adil Bey, Şeker Ahmed Paşa, Enderunlu Nuri Bey, Enver Bey, Behzad Bey, Mardiros Efendi and Fausto Zonaro, and they produced exquisite pieces. Most of the pieces painted by Zonaro were purchased by the factory’s manager Selim Melhame Paşa, who greatly admired them, and this is why there is only one plate painted by Zonaro in the Yıldız porcelain collection at Topkapı Palace Museum today.

When Abdülhamid asked Zonaro to paint a picture of the Turkish-Greek War of 1897, he could hardly refuse, although he did not like doing battle scenes. In his Memoirs Zonaro relates the story of this painting portraying a charge by the Ottoman army: ‘His Majesty Sultan Abdülhamid II desired that I paint a picture about the Turkish-Greek War of 1897. I wished to visit the battle zone myself, but this request was turned down by the palace. So instead I asked the marshal of the antechamber to allocate me four soldiers to serve as models for a while. The marshal at first viewed this request of mine unfavourably, but a few days later on the orders of Sultan Abdülhamid II, Rahmi Paşa, chief instructor at the military school in Pangaltı sent four lusty Turkish soldiers. In addition, so that I could work in comfortable surroundings, a studio was allocated to me in one of the pavilions in Yıldız Palace Park. I portrayed the soldiers caught up in the spirit of battle, throwing themselves forward in the desire to ensure victory for their country, despite the threat of imminent death, and called the painting Hücum [The Attack].’ Sultan Abdülhamid liked the painting so much that he awarded him a fourth class Osmani Order and sent him the key to 50 Akaretler, one of the houses built to accommodate palace officials.

The same year Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was to pay a state visit to the Ottoman Empire with his wife, staying in the Şale Köşk at Yıldız Palace. Sultan Abdülhamid asked Zonaro to decorate the walls of this building with paintings. The majority of the paintings in the palace collection were by Russian artists, but there were also paintings purchased by Sultan Abdülaziz, such as Zeybeks and Lions by Jean-Léon Gérôme, Spring by Narcisse Diaz De la Pena, paintings by Gustave Boulanger who had taught Osman Hamdi and Şeker Ahmet Paşa, and by Ayvazowski, Cheblowski, Şeker Ahmet Paşa and Sultan Abdülmecit.

‘I hung these paintings on the walls of the rooms where Kaiser Wilhelm would stay and be entertained during his visit,’ Fausto Zonaro relates, ‘but the next morning I found that some of the paintings had been taken down, and unable to discover why, I put them up again. When I found that the same paintings have been taken down the following day, I was astonished. At my insistence Minister of Protocol Münir Paşa told me that Sultan Abdülhamid had not liked some of the paintings, and the others had been taken down because they were the work of Russian painters. The reason for this was that relations between Germany and Russia were unfriendly, and if Kaiser Wilhelm saw paintings by Russian artists on the walls of the Ottoman palace during his visit, he might view this circumstance unfavourably. This incident demonstrates my unfamiliarity with state and political protocol.’

Zonaro records another interesting experience: ‘One day I was occupied arranging paintings on the walls of the corridor leading to Yıldız Palace Theatre, when I noticed that His Majesty Sultan Abdülhamid II was approaching, followed by his favourite black eunuch Nadir Ağa. Sultan Abdülhamid was wearing a jacket and fez, and holding a walking stick. I withdrew to one side and bowed respectfully. The sultan first smiled and asked after me, the life of my family in Istanbul, and whether I had any new paintings. As far as my Turkish allowed I answered with short sentences and thanked him. He then said that it would be a good idea to hang a painting above the entrance door of the theatre, and pointing to one of the paintings which I had put aside, commanded me to hang that one. Looking at the painting and the dimensions of the wall he indicated, I struggled to explain in my poor Turkish that since the painting was taller than it was wide, it would not fit. Pointing with his walking stick at the lower part of the painting, he said, “Cut a bit off like that!” And walked away smiling.’

Early in the new year Zonaro received good news from Italy. His Amore Materno (Maternal Love) which he had submitted to the Alinari Painting Competition in Florence had won first prize, and the Alinari family had purchased it for a high price. He painted the same picture for the palace, and Sultan Abdülhamid II rewarded him with the rank of sani.

In July 1900 Crown Prince Emanuel of Italy and Princess Elena paid a private visit to Istanbul on their yacht the Elena. During their visit to Sultan Abdülhamid II at Yıldız Palace, the sultan proudly showed them the paintings by Zonaro, and the royal couple decided to visit him. ‘On 13 July 1900 Princess Elena arrived at our house. As she entered my son Faustino [DİĞER YERLERDE FAUSTONE DİYE GEÇİYOR] presented a bunch of flowers to her. The prince and princess stayed for around an hour in my gallery. We served them Turkish coffee. When they were leaving my young son asked the princess to give him back the bunch of flowers. The princess smiled at this and kissed Faustino over and over again. The experiences of today will remain engraved on my mind. The prince and princess departed from Istanbul on 15 July 1900. Fourteen days later, upon the death of King Umberto I, the prince acceded to the throne.’

A few months later the celebrations of Sultan Abdülhamid II’s 25th Jubilee began. Many foreign guests participated, including French parliamentary leader Paul Deschanel, who was later to become president. While Sultan Abdülhamid II was showing his guests the works of art at the palace, Deschanel was struck by The Ertuğrul Cavalry Regiment. The sultan presented him with the painting as a gift, and rather than put another painting in its place, commissioned a copy from Zonaro. The painter recorded that this painting was later hung in the French parliamentary building in Paris, the Palais Bourbon. However, it is no longer there today.

Early in 1902 Abdülhamid requested through his gentleman of the antechamber, Emin Bey, that Zonaro paint a portrait of his young son Abdurrahim Efendi. The seven-year-old prince caused Zonaro considerable trouble, behaving capriciously and demanding to paint the canvas himself. After days of work two portraits of the prince were completed, and one was sent to the Harem and the other to the apartment of the sultan.

In its Memoirs Zonaro describes how he opened a painting studio with three students who had left the Academy of Fine Arts. He gave night classes at this studio in Parmakkapı in Beyoğlu, and in time attracted a large numbers of students, among them Mihri Hanım, the daughter of Dr Rasim Paşa, Celile Hanım, the daughter of Enver Bey, and Celal Esat Arseven.

In 1901 Alexandre Vallaury, teacher of architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts, and Régis Delbeuf, editor of La Stamboul newspaper organised an exhibition of painting and sculpture. A mansion in the Passage Oriental in Beyoğlu was rented for the exhibition of 170 works of art. Among the exhibitors was Fausto Zonaro, but it is not specified how many of his paintings were shown. At the 1902 exhibition 325 works by 36 artists were shown, among them 30 paintings by Zonaro.

At the 1903 exhibition 283 works were displayed, but 22 of the exhibitors at the previous exhibition refused to participate, among them Fausto Zonaro. This gesture of protest was discussed in Malûmat magazine: ‘Those who did not want their own outstanding works to be shown together with works by new artists were, according to some, reluctant to participate in this exhibition on the grounds that this event which has degenerated from an exhibition into something resembling a painting market will not enhance esteem for the artists, but on the contrary diminish it. Some people did not condescend to participate in the exhibition for other reasons.’

During these years Zonaro’s house-studio on Akaretler became one of the favourite gathering places for Istanbul’s intellectuals and leading figures of society in the afternoons. People from every sector of society, including foreign visitors and clerics of various faiths and sects came to see his work or just to converse. Famous visitors to Zonaro’s home included Enver Bey, Winston Churchill, Şehzade Abdülmecid Efendi, Monsignor Bonetti, Adolphe Thalasso, Camile Flammarion, Reşit Saffet Atabinen, Osman Hamdi Bey and Marshall Von Bieberstein.

Zonaro writes, ‘Director of the Academy of Fine Arts Osman Hamdi Bey, and Vallaury, president of the Association of Architects were among the notable artists and people of culture with whom we became friends. Outside my world of art I could see that the empire was beginning to be shaken by increasing political turmoil. The names of Enver, Niyazi and Talât were spoken of in association. I was a friend of Enver Bey, and we used to engage in long conversations.’

One of the traditions which interested Zonaro was the annual Surre Procession of gifts for Mecca and Medina during the season of pilgrimage. The procession set out from Istanbul with a magnificent ceremony, joined by more and more pilgrims. The convoy was led by a brilliantly caparisoned camel, on whose back was a litter containing the gifts—known as surre—of the sultan to the Kaaba and to the people of the Hejaz. In 1903 Zonaro observed the departure of the Surre Procession from outside Yıldız Palace and sketched studies. When the painting was completed he presented it to Sultan Abdülhamid II, who asked if he desired anything. Zonaro told Emin Bey of the mabeyn that he wished his son Faustone to be granted a scholarship to study at the Royal School (today Galatasaray High School). This request was granted.

The following year Zonaro requested a month’s leave in order to take his children to visit his elderly mother in Italy. On 12 July 1904 his wages of 34 liras were paid, and on 24 July Sultan Abdülhamid II sent him an additional 60 liras ‘so that they would be able to travel comfortably to Italy.’ Zonaro’s elderly mother and the rest of his family were overjoyed to see them after so long. At every visit to his home Zonaro drew portraits of his mother, knowing that these would be the last he ever did: ‘What a bitter thing is time. First it builds and then demolishes, dragging one into pain and sorrow. As I returned to Istanbul I remembered my mother’s gnarled hands, and how long ago that same hand, delicate and soft, had caressed me so often!’

When Zonaro returned from Italy he became interested in the Rufai dervishes. He planned to do a tryptic like his Turkish Bath of the year before, but then decided that he could fit all the details he wished into a single canvas. Over the next few years he painted many scenes of dervishes.

In 1905 Sultan Abdülhamid II commissioned a new painting from Zonaro. Hikmet Paşa conveyed his wishes to the painter: ‘He desired me to paint not only a picture of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror’s siege of Constantinople, but also allegorical paintings. At this I asked Hikmet Paşa to help secure for me all the engravings and pictures on this subject that he could find. He obtained some engravings from the Military Museum, and making use of these I completed my painting of the memorable siege by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror which buried the Byzantine Empire in the pages of history in 1453. Sultan Abdülhamid greatly admired my painting, and rewarded me with a 5 lira increase in my wages of 40 liras.’

The same year Zonaro was charged by the sultan with establishing a museum of ancient weapons. ‘A committee led by Mahmud Şevket Paşa and myself held a design competition to select the architect for the new museum. Vedat Bey was chosen from among the five architects who submitted designs, but due to the upheavals which occurred after the proclamation of the Second Constitutional Government in 1908 the project was abandoned. On the instructions of the Young Turks the exhibits that had provisionally been put on display were put away in storage.’

Fausto Zonaro relates that Hüseyin Zekâi Paşa, Hoca Ali Rıza, Sami Bey, Kâtip Hüsnü (Tengüz) and Ahmed Ziya Bey ( Akbulut) were engaged in the establishment of the Museum of Ancient Weapons. A pencil portrait dating from that time shows that Zonaro was a close friend of Hüsnü Tengüz.

Meanwhile in May 1906 paintings by Zonaro and photographs by his wife Elisa were shown at the Italians Living Abroad exhibition organised by the Dante Alighieri institution. The photo-engravings by Elisa Zonaro reflecting a woman’s sensitivity made her name as an artist. Immediately after this exhibition Zonaro opened a one-person exhibition of 40 of his works at the Circolo Filarmonico Artistico in Padua. His painting entitled Dervishes attracted the greatest interest at this exhibition.

On 18 July 1906 the French-language Stamboul newspaper published in Istanbul reported a news item under the headline, ‘Sultan Abdülhamid II’s court painter Monsieur Fausto Zonaro has sent many paintings to the Milan Exhibition.’ In this article, based on reports in the Italian newspapers, it wrote, ‘Among the paintings which have attracted the attention of the public and won everyone’s praise are Openair Barbers, part of His Excellency Münir Paşa’s collection, Turkish Bath, which was sold at the London Exhibition in 1984, The Golden Horn, showing a spectacular Istanbul vista in the background, On the Galata Bridge, and others. These canvases vividly portray the exuberance and warmth of oriental scenes, with the marvellous sky reflected in the blue of the sea, and customs and manners are shown with outstanding perception. Our Italian colleagues mention another painting in which tranquil horizons, spreading light, graceful women dressed in white, and colours changing according to the light so beloved of this master painter are featured. The name of this work which inspires a sense of melancholy is the Grave of Selami Ali Efendi (Angelus-Lampada Votiva). This is a striking scene, in which the weak trembling light of a lamp filters through shadows.

The Italian language La Turchia newspaper published in Istanbul wrote on 1 December 1906 that Coda del diavolo (Tail of the Devil), which Zonaro had painted before coming to Istanbul and was one of the pictures which he brought with him was being exhibited at the Hereke Carpet Factory shop in Beyoğlu: ‘Everyone who passes through Beyoğlu and stops to look into the magnificent windows of the palace-owned Hereke Factory shop is entranced by the brilliant painting entitled Tail of the Devil. The painting by court painter Fausto Zonaro portrays Venetian village girls amusing themselves in the green countryside. This work of genius is an example of true refinement and sensitivity. Where the balance of colours is concerned the artist has created such wonders that his subjects seem to be alive.’

Teresita Menzigher, a writer for the Italian La Donna magazine, travelled to Istanbul in October 1906 to interview Elisa Zonaro. ‘As we wandered through the house we were surrounded by paintings brought from Italy. These were enchanting works which truly conveyed our Venice. The light reflected in the water and colours he has used demonstrate the vitality of Venetian life. In Fior di Bosco (Girl Carrying a Pumpkin), Passa La Nina (The Passage of Nina), Infilatrice di Perle (Woman Threading Pearls), Sul Ponte delle Guiglie (On the Guglie Bridge) and Alla Dogana (Customs) it was our soil which made our hearts miss a beat, and the smiling girl children in that old Turkish house whose open window admitted a fragrant breeze were our children. We went around the other rooms. There we saw the colours of pictures of Naples, and the Orient which we have read about and heard travellers describe. In these paintings you see the evening hours and sunset on the Bosphorus, the melancholy attraction of Muslim cemeteries, the splendour of marble palaces and the clearly defined shape of minarets rising into a pastel sky. As we looked at this collection of masterpieces of incredible beauty, we were at the same time profoundly sorrowful, because it would be possible to take only a few of these wonderful paintings to Italy. If it were not for the photographs taken by Elisa they would be completely unknown in Italy.’

One of the esteemed guests who visited Zonaro’s studio was director of the Ottoman Bank, Arthur Nias. In the afternoon of Friday 19 July 1987 Arthur Nias visited Zonaro and purchased four of the paintings which impressed him so greatly: Moonlight from Our House, View of Istanbul, The Armenian Quarter in Üsküdar and View of the Golden Horn from the British Embassy.

Adolphe Thalasso was a well-known writer who lived in Paris but paid frequent visits to Istanbul, about which he wrote articles and books. On 25 February 1907 Stamboul newspaper published an article entitled ‘The Artistic Orient,’ which after giving a general account of Fausto Zonaro’s work, summarised an article by Thalasso: ‘The latest edition of the periodical Figaro Illustré gives us an unexpected and delightful piece of news. On the cover is a picture which the painter Zonaro executed with great exuberance. The name of the picture is Woman Playing an Instrument (Accordi Orientali) and all those who have visited his studio in Beşiktaş know this painting well. In this magazine is a long and interesting essay by the poet Adolphe Thalasso about the works of Zonaro. Adolphe Thalasso writes, “A true and powerful Orientalist painter, he makes us believe that what we see in his paintings is not just possible but true, and that they are not just close to reality but real. The name of this great painter of the Turkish school is Fausto Zonaro.’

Zonaro illustrated Adolphe Thalasso’s book Derii Se’adet ou Stamboul Porte du Bonheur, which was published in a fine limited edition of 300 copies by J. Dumoulin in Paris in 1908. This book contains 49 colour prints portraying daily life in Istanbul, and to each of the first 12 copies was added an original watercolour by the artist.

In the summer of 1907 Winston Churchill, then British home minister, was travelling privately with his family and paid an unofficial visit to Istanbul. He watched the Friday selamlık ceremony, at which the sultan proceeded from Yıldız Palace to Yıldız Mosque to attend Friday prayers, an occasion which had become the most magnificent public display of the Ottoman sultans during the last century of the empire. After his return to the palace Sultan Abdülhamid invited Churchill to the palace and conversed with him for a while. During his stay in Istanbul Churchill visited Zonaro and signed his visitor’s book.

The Ottoman prince Şehzade Abdülmecid, whom Zonaro described as ‘a courteous man filled with love of art,’ was one of his acquaintances, due to their shared passion for art. Since Abdülmecid Efendi was afraid of annoying Sultan Abdülmecid, he generally contacted Zonaro through his secretary Mehmed Abdul Efendi. Abdülmecid Efendi was an artist himself and he and Zonaro exchanged paintings. He purchased Fior di Bosco (Girl Carrying a Pumpkin) from Zonaro, extracting a promise that he would not paint a copy of the same painting. He paid 200 liras for it, a sum much higher than Zonaro had expected. Following the proclamation of the Second Constitution he was able to act with greater freedom, and he sent his secretary with a message requesting to visit Zonaro. During this visit, which lasted for two hours, he presented Zonaro with a small bronze figurine of a horse, and purchased Zonaro’s painting La Sognatrice (Girl Dreaming). At Zonaro’s studio he had seen the artist’s studies for his painting La Liberta (Liberty), and admired them particularly for their subject matter. He told Zonaro that when he began to paint the picture in oil he wished to come again and see the painting.

The last exhibition which Fausto Zonaro held in his house was organised together with the mayor of Beşiktaş Şevket Cenani Bey on 30 November 1908. Visitors were charged an entrance fee, and the proceeds were donated to Hamidiye Sultani School. By means of this exhibition Zonaro intended to raise money from his paintings before leaving Istanbul, and was partly hoping to raise sufficient interest to allow him to remain in the city. The opening of the exhibition was announced in Stamboul on 20 November 1908: ‘Fausto Zonaro’s exhibition will open next Friday under the patronage of Beşiktaş Municipality for the benefit of Hamidiye School. Approximately 300 paintings of all types and sizes will be exhibited. The catalogue has also been published for this new exhibition, which has been prepared with great care. Members of the diplomatic corps are expected to visit the exhibition.’

The catalogue in both Italian and Ottoman Turkish listed all the works according to the rooms in which they were exhibited. Almost all the leading members of the Italian colony in Istanbul attended the opening, and among the Turkish visitors were Osman Hamdi Bey and Hafid Bey, a member of the Committee of Union and Progress, who presented a letter to Zonaro on behalf of the committee. Other visitors were Minister of Education Ekrem Bey, Şehzade Abdülmecid Efendi’s nephew Halid Paşa, Sultan Abdülhamid II’s marshal of the antechamber Ferik Nuri Paşa, Minister of Interior Nuri Bey, Şehzade Reşad Efendi (the future Mehmed V) representing Sultan Abdülhamid II, a former governor of Kütahya Fuat Paşa, general secretary of the Council of State Fuat Bey, Mayor of Beşiktaş Şevket Cenani Bey, and Şehzade Abdülmecid Efendi’s secretary Mehmed Abdul Bey.

Zonaro had never been permitted to paint Sultan Abdülhamid’s portrait, but with the proclamation of the Second Constitution he found the opportunity to fulfil this wish: ‘I wrote a letter to Sultan Abdülhamid II in which I said, “Like the Venetian painter Gentile Bellini, who was invited to the palace by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in the 15th century, Your Majesty invited me to the palace. But I cannot conceal from you an extremely regrettable incident which I witnessed. Your picture which is sold in the streets of Istanbul is in my view a crime against your person, both in artistic terms and in its degree of resemblance to you. I believe that the people desire to see a true likeness of the Caliph of Islam.” At the end of my letter I requested that he grant me the honour of painting his portrait. My letter was translated, and I think that the poet Kâni Bey adorned it with some moving words. My letter must have aroused great excitement. The palace commanded me to make ready to paint the portrait of Sultan Abdülhamid, and a few days later I was in the presence of the sultan for the first sitting. I painted portraits of the sultan in three poses, the sitting for the last being very very brief. Abdülhamid Han was always thoughtful, frowning and subdued. At that time unrest and rebellion were breaking out in every corner of the empire with increasing violence. Throughout the minutes that he posed for me the sultan never talked but seemed deep in thought. He was no longer a ruler in any real sense, and perhaps he was dreaming of a return to those former days of power.’

These portraits by Fausto Zonaro of Sultan Abdülhamid II were completed during the rebellion of 31 March, before Abdülhamid was deposed on 27 April 1909, but there is no record of the one portrait which was delivered in the palace records. The painting may have been destroyed when the sultan was deposed, or removed from the palace when Sultan Mehmed Reşad was enthroned and lost. The other two portraits were taken back to Italy by Zonaro together with his other paintings.

The empire seethed with unrest after the proclamation of the Second Constitution. Fausto Zonaro’s house was very close to the hub of the tumult; the triangle formed by Akaretler, Beşiktaş and Yıldız Palace. Made uneasy by the crowds of soldiers who filled the streets, and afraid of possible molestation, he remained in his house. In his Memoirs he describes those days of rioting: ‘The rebellion of 31 March broke out most dreadfully. Unrest and anxiety prevailed throughout the city. Ali Kabuli Bey, commander of the mutinous ship Âsar-ı Tevfik, which tried to bomb Yıldız Palace, was lynched by his own soldiers in front of Yıldız Palace.’

One tumultous night as they sat fearfully in the house in Akaretler, in the midst of street battles between the Army of Deliverance and groups of rebels, there was an urgent knock at the door. The serving girl hesitantly approach the door and opened it slightly. On the doorstep stood Enver Bey, Zonaro’s close friend and near neighbour, with his father: ‘The tumult was continuing everywhere. Enver Bey said that his life was in danger and that he wished us to take care of his father. His esteemed father remained as our guest that night. At daybreak the following morning we heard that attacks had been carried out in several places. Military living quarters had been damaged, and firing on Yıldız Palace had intensified. Istanbul was in a state of terror because of the street fighting. Towards evening the rebellion was crushed, and the Young Turks regained control. We gave a large reception in our house in honour of Enver Bey, one of the heroes of this victory.’

Zonaro used photographs of Enver Bey when painting La Liberta, which included portraits of the heroes of the Union and Progress movement. Zonaro also painted a portrait of Enver Bey: ‘Enver Bey was an extremely cheerful person, and he became even happier watching his portrait being painted. I tried to complete it as soon as possible, but I was amazed at his calmness in the face of all this unrest. When I completed the portrait on 24 April 1909 he took out his binoculars which he always carried around his neck, and said that he wished to give them to me as a souvenir of our friendship. I was very moved by this and kept the binoculars as a treasured keepsake. On 31 April Enver Bey came to our house again, and in the course of conversation told me that Sultan Abdülhamid II had been put under arrest and was to be exiled to Salonica. That evening I saw a convoy of eight cars approaching Yıldız Palace. They were followed by a cavalry regiment. Some time afterwards the vehicles sounded their horns. I think Sultan Abdülhamid II had left Yıldız Palace, never to return.’

Enver Bey told Zonaro that his country would have great need of people of his worth to carry out the new social development programme for the country, but when he was appointed to Berlin the following week, Zonaro lost his friend and supporter in the new government.

Mahmud Şevket Paşa, commander-in-chief of the Army of Deliverance who had played a major role in deposing Abdülhamid, declared martial law in Istanbul. Order was restored in the city, and the captured rebels were executed in the city squares. Mahmud Şevket Paşa sent his aide with a message expressing his greetings to Fausto Zonaro and asking him to paint a portrait for his office. Over the next few days Mahmud Şevket Paşa sat for Zonaro several times, and Zonaro painted a large portrait of the general.

One of the last paintings which Zonaro did in Istanbul was The Tenth of Muharrem, a painting of documentary as well as artistic value. Zonaro had become interested in the religious festival celebrated on 10 Muharrem years before, and drawn his first studies for the painting at the Rıfaî Tekke in Karacaahmet in March 1899. Sultan Abdülhamid wished to present the painting as a gift to the Shiite leader Razek Han, and so a frame with scrollwork decoration was produced in the royal carpentry shop at Yıldız Palace. When Sultan Abdülhamid was deposed, Zonaro was left with this painting, which was one of his masterpieces. Although the Committee of Union and Progress considered purchasing the painting at the suggestion of Zonaro’s close friend Enver Paşa, the necessary funds could not be found.

Meanwhile Zonaro completed the new painting of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, portraying him on horseback on the shores of the Golden Horn, and Ottoman warships being dragged on runners over the hills into the waterway, behind the Byzantine defences. In the painting the sultan holds his sword into the air, pointing at the Byzantine walls on the opposite shore and encouraging his troops. Zonaro informed the Minister of Palace Protocol that he wished to present this picture to the new sultan Mehmet V Reşad, and a few days later was received by the sultan at Dolmabahçe Palace: ‘Sultan Mehmet V Reşad looked at my painting of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror giving morale to his army. He must have liked it because he said he would pay 40 liras for it. But this sum was only sufficient to cover the cost of the frame!’

Since the new government was determined to get rid of everything, good or bad, associated with Sultan Abdülhamid II, Zonaro became persona non grata. A letter from Dolmabahçe Palace informed him that he was dismissed from his position as court painter, and demanded that he pay rent for his house from now on, and for the six months since the disposal of Sultan Abdülhamid. Zonaro was distressed at this humiliating treatment, which he regarded as an insult, and deciding that he now had no choice but to return to Italy, asked the palace for time to sort out his affairs.

One Sunday morning the family departed from the house on Akaretler where they had lived for so long. Two phaetons were called, and their baggage loaded onto one of them. All their other possessions and paintings had been taken to Galata Wharf the previous day to be sent by ship.

Holding their children by the hand Elisa and Zonaro left the house and close the door. Their maid wept as they boarded the other phaeton and set out. The sound of horses’ hooves echoed on the cobbled street until the phaetons reach the bottom of the hill and turned right. They passed the high walls of Dolmabahçe Palace, crossed Galata Bridge and arrived at Sirkeci Railway Station. All the way the drops of rain fell on their faces, as if crying for them.

Fausto Zonaro and his family left Istanbul on the Simplon-Orient Express on 20 March 1910 and returned to Italy.

Rome and San Remo (1910-1929)

Zonaro harboured feelings of bitterness and resentment for many years: ‘Now when I remember those painful days of sorrow I feel a sense of yearning. But I have not and will not let those sorrowful memories crush me. I continue to work with all my strength, and with the respect and enthusiasm I feel for my art. The mystery of the east still holds me in its grasp.’

Fausto Zonaro was able to start a new life in Rome, a city suffused with history, culture and art. He opened a studio at Milvio on the banks of the River Tevere. Here he painted three large pictures for Villa Giulia, one of the leading art galleries, and these were exhibited in 1911.

In 1911 the Ottoman ambassador to Rome, Hüseyin Kâzım Bey, visited Zonaro and invited him back to Istanbul, but the magic had long since gone: ‘Turkish ambassador Hüseyin Kâzım Bey informed me that new intellectual leaders were now governing the country, and that they regretted the objectionable treatment of me and wished me to return to Istanbul. I merely thanked him. Meanwhile I was thinking that even Rome was not a place where I could live, and eventually I decided to settle in San Remo.’

Zonaro continued to paint Istanbul scenes, but no exhibition would accept them. As relations between the Ottoman Empire and Italy became increasingly tense with the approach of war, public resentment would have been aroused by paintings of Turkish subjects by an Italian artist. The Associazione Nationalistica İtaliana (Italian Nationalistic Association) based in Rome and led by Enrico Corradini blamed Giolitti for not taking a sufficiently harsh stand against Italians who had left their work behind in enemy countries. Zonaro was just such an Italian, and was so disturbed by this unjust and humiliating attitude to artists that he determined to leave Rome and settle in San Remo.

Again he settled down to work, painting many pictures of the distinctive scenery and life of Liguria. His pictures became increasingly sought-after by foreign collectors. His landscapes of San Remo, Bussana, Ospedaletti Ligure, and towns on the French Riviera, of hillsides, distant mountain villages and people, remind us of his work of the Naples period with their impressionist brush strokes.

As his reputation and esteem increased, the mayor of San Remo invited him to hold an exhibition at the casino. This was an excellent opportunity to make his art better known in the city.

Although Zonaro focused mainly on Italian landscapes between 1911 and 1920, it was still his Istanbul paintings which attracted the most interest and sold best. So during these years he continued to paint copies of his Istanbul pictures. Some of these had been damaged in Naples harbour, but fortunately three albums of photographs taken by Elisa that escaped this disaster enabled him to recreate them.

In 1924 he wrote his memoirs of his years in Istanbul, based on his own notes and newspaper cuttings, and entitled them Venti Anni nel Regno di Abdulhamid. Unfortunately the book was published in his lifetime.

Meanwhile the Ottoman Empire had been swept away, and the members of the Ottoman royal family sent into exile by the newly founded Turkish Republic. The last Ottoman sultan Vahdeddin was also living in San Remo at that time, and although he and Zonaro had little in common where their outlook on life and ideas were concerned, their yearning for Istanbul brought them together. When Zonaro received news of Vahdeddin’s death on 15 May 1926, he and his daughter Mafalda went to Villa Magnolia. In the large reception room where princes and princesses, Italian aristocrats and Arab dignitaries were offering their condolences to the family of the last Ottoman sultan, Zonaro stood and prayed by the covered coffin.


Fausto Zonaro was a painter of life and light. He painted pictures in a distinctive style of his own, neither copying nor following anyone else. Everyone knew him as an orientalist, but he was not interested in labels. His most beautiful works were inspired by his love for life in Istanbul, and the scenery of the Italian and French rivieras. He died on Friday,19 July 1929.

Zonaro was one of the foremost Italian painters of his age, and was awarded the Cavaliere della Corona d’Italia in recognition of his work. Yet soon after his death he was forgotten, and remained in oblivion until about a decade ago. Italian art historians had regarded the orientalist painters of the 19th century as second-class artists, but recently they are being reappraised and the period examined with new impartiality.