Ottoman Court Artist Fausto Zonaro

  • May 26, 2003

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.

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.’

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 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.

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 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. The customs director was more sympathetic, however, and let Zonaro’s paintings through on payment of only a nominal sum and treated him with his first turkish coffee. 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

In the summer of 1894 the Zonaro family, who were still having difficulty making ends meet, moved into a two-storey wooden house on one of the narrow streets of Cihangir. During this period he exhibited paintings at the Zellich Bookshop on Yüksek Kaldırım, and these were mainly bought by foreign tourists for a low price as souvenirs of Istanbul. They could barely pay the rent, and Zonaro was using the living room on the second floor as a studio.

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.

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 Izzet Bey with carrying out the necessary formalities.’

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. He 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.

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.

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.’

Teresita menzigher, a writer for the Italian La Donna Magazine after a visit to the Zonaro’s in October 1906 said “…there we saw the colours of 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”.

Adolphe Thalasso was a well-known writer who lived in Paris but paid frequent visits to Istanbul, about which he wrote articles and books. In 1907 in the periodical Figaro Illustré he gives us an unexpected and delightful piece of news on the Artist. 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.’

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. Almost all the leading members of the Italian colony in Istanbul attended the opening, and among numerous Turkish visitors were family members of the Court, ministers, and representatives from the Committee of Union and Progress.

Zonaro after painting the portrait of Enver Bey, his close friend and a leader of the Union and Progress movement, said “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”.

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. Th eartist and his family left Istanbul on the Simplon-Orient Express on 20 March 1910 to Italy .

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.’

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.

Fausto Zonaro was a painter of life and light. His canvases vividly portray the exubarance and warmth of oriental scenes, with the marvellous sky reflected in the blue of the sea, with customs and manners shown in outstanding perception . 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.
He died on Friday,19 July 1929.
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* The author Erol Makzume is born in Aleppo in 1951, he graduated from the American
University of Beirut (Bsc) and thereafter from University of Surrey (Msc). In the 1980’s he started researching the subject of 19th century orientalist traveller painters visiting the Ottoman Empire . In 2000, with Osman Ondes he became co-author of Painter of the Tulip Era- Jean Baptiste Van Mour. In 2003, with Osman Ondes he was the co-author of Ottoman Court Painter – Fausto Zonaro . He is an advisor and exhibition coordinator to the Turkish Grand Assembly- National Palaces Department.