Sultan Abdülaziz and his statues

November 17, 2011, Thursday/ 15:59:00

The first Ottoman sultan to visit Europe was Sultan Abdülaziz, and upon his return, he ordered a bust of himself as well as 24 different statues to use to decorate the palace. Today, these statues are spread all over İstanbul.

With the arrival of the 19th century, the position occupied by statues in the Ottoman Empire can be more clearly discerned. This is because during the 19th century, statues were actually commissioned by Ottoman palaces, namely Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz. These statues still exist today and architect Emine Atalay Seçen shares their story with us

The topic of statues in Ottoman palaces has triggered much debate in the past, inspiring questions such as “were the statues in the palace for decoration?” and “what did the sultans think of the art of statues?” The answers we get from historical sources on these questions are not very clear. That is, until the Ottoman Empire entered its own era of modernization. Historians don't really mention anything about sultans bringing statues into Ottoman palaces until the end of the 18th century. There is some mention of the high Ottoman statesman Pargalı İbrahim bringing back statues of important figures in Greek mythology such as Hercules, Apollo and Dionysius after an Ottoman expedition to Hungary. However, his bringing back of these statues cannot be confirmed.

With the arrival of the 19th century, things changed. From the start of this era onwards, the position occupied by statues in the Ottoman Empire can be more clearly discerned. This is because during the 19th century, statues were actually commissioned by Ottoman palaces. Those statues still exist today. Emine Atalay Seçen, who works as a landscape architect for Parliament's department of national palaces, researched the fate of these statues. We decided to meet up with her to discuss these first statues from the palace, an especially interesting topic since the whole question of the relationship between the Ottomans and statues never seems to lose its freshness.

She began by noting: "Art historians see the date of 1871 as an important turning point for Turkish statuary art. In fact, this date marks the exact point at which statues joined in societal life under the Ottoman Empire.” Seçen continued: “But I think that if we are really going to talk about the presence of statues in the Ottoman times, we need to talk about them in the context of Sultan Abdülaziz's trip to Europe … because Sultan Abdülaziz was the first Ottoman pasha to go to visit Europe. When he visited Europe, he noted the busts and statues in the palaces of European rulers, and when he returned home, he invited the most famous sculptor of the time, C.F. Fuller, to İstanbul to make a bust of him.” As Seçen tells it, Fuller did come to İstanbul and made a bust of the sultan in all his royal trappings. Thus Sultan Abdülaziz became not only the first Ottoman sultan to go to Europe, but also the first to order a bust of himself.

Seçen added that not only did Sultan Abdülaziz commission a bust of himself, he also had 24 statues of various animals made for the Ottoman Beylerbeyi Palace. These statues became the first officially accepted into Ottoman palaces. After Abdülaziz's time, though, some of these statues were distributed to different places. After Sultan Abdülaziz, there were no more Ottoman pashas who commissioned their own busts or had statues made for the palace.

Kadıköy's distinctive fighting bull statue is one such piece

Seçen noted that during her research she discovered that these first statues were not known to have originated in the era of Sultan Abdülaziz. First, she tried to find out everything she could about the individual statues, and then tried to find where they are being displayed now. She said, “At the time, the thing that made things much easier for me were the statues in the Beylerbeyi Palace.” She focused on the sculptors who made the statues and the particular characteristics that made these statues notable. “The artist who made some of the first statues in the Ottoman palace was also the artist who made some of the objects in the palace -- Pierre Louis Rouillard. Rouillard sculpted his works in 1864 at the Thiebaut atelier. For raw materials, he preferred bronze or marble. And his subject choices were generally lions, nursing deer or bulls. This is generally seen as being related to the desire to represent the strength of the Ottoman Empire through statuary.”

Alright, but where are these statues now? The bust of Sultan Abdülaziz is in the Topkapı Palace Museum. As for the animal statues of the bellowing bull, the listening deer, the hopeless deer, the deer nursing its young, the female lion gathering her young, the various lions hiding behind rocks or bearing down, the walking crocodile, the female tiger and the walking tiger, these are all at Beylerbeyi Palace. Another is at Yıldız Palace, and three more are at Dolmabahçe Palace. Seçen also found that some of these statues are not in any palaces; for example, the famous fighting bull in Kadıköy is one of those commissioned by Sultan Abdülaziz. From 1951 until 1969, this statue could be found in the Sports Exhibition Palace. Later, it was brought to the front of the Kadıköy Provincial Governor's building. In 1990, it was transferred to its current position, thus becoming a symbol of this district of the city. Another of these historical statues, “Freedom Horse,” can be found in the garden of the Sakıp Sabancı Museum.

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