Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 24, 2020
Ünver Rüstem Ottoman Baroque: The Architectural Refashioning of Eighteenth-Century Istanbul Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019. 336 pp.; 204 color ills.; 44 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780691181875)

In this extensive study on eighteenth-century Ottoman Istanbul, Ünver Rüstem examines the evolution of baroque architecture under the patronage of five consecutive sultans, from Ahmed III (r. 1703–30) to Abdülhamid I (r. 1774–89), concluding with the significance of building activity during the reign of Sultan Selim III (r. 1789–1807) at the close of the century. Rüstem’s book thus presents one of the few comprehensive and chronological surveys of an entire century of sultanic patronage in Istanbul. In each chapter, architectural details are relayed in singular specificity and each monument is discussed through the use of numerous primary sources, Ottoman chronicles, and accounts by European visitors and residents.

The book’s first chapter, “Setting the Scene,” portrays changes in the social, political, and cultural context of Sultan Ahmed III’s court while also examining major building activities, such as the construction of Sad’abad Palace, in line with looking for new means of imperial self-representation beyond traditional conventions. In the second chapter,Pleasing Times and Their Pleasing New Style,” Rüstem considers Istanbul’s numerous waterworks that date to the reign of Mahmud I (r. 1730–54), including the Bahçeköy Aqueduct, the Cağaloğlu Bath House, fountains, and sebils (water kiosks), along with smaller-scale additions to the Hagia Sophia complex and renovations to other monuments. “A Tradition Reborn,” the book’s third chapter, discusses the Nuruosmaniye Mosque Complex, which is linked to the revival of the tradition of building imperial mosques during the short-lived period of Osman III (r. 1754–57). Similarly, the fourth chapter, “The Old, the New and the In-Between,” explores imperial mosques commissioned by Mustafa III (r. 1757–74). Chapter 5, “At the Sultan’s Threshold,” examines the expansion of Istanbul beyond the confines of its historical peninsula toward the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn through the imperial commissions of Selim III and Abdülhamid I. This chapter covers noteworthy urban projects, such as the “mosque-less” Hamidiye Complex, with its distinctive relationship to the street; the Beylerbeyi Mosque, with a decorative program that employs the Bosphorus landscape as a backdrop for imperial ceremonials; and the reconstruction of the Eyüp Sultan Mosque, first built in the fifteenth century. Rounding off this chronological examination of eighteenth-century imperial commissions, the book’s conclusion makes the case for an Ottoman Baroque that is concurrently a unique local and “global” architectural style (275).

In addition to providing a significant survey of eighteenth-century imperial structures, which has long been missing from studies of Ottoman architecture, the book also problematizes the term “Ottoman Baroque” via a multifaceted examination. Unlike earlier precedents that described the Ottoman Baroque as a merely decorative “formal borrowing” (17) of default stylistic ornaments from the European Baroque (despite the absence of any association with the Catholic Reformation), Rüstem aspires to discuss the Ottoman Baroque within three themes. First, he locates this concept as a “pronounced concern for self-display” linked to early modern quests (13) exhibiting “visual splendor,” “magnificence and power” (16). Second, he argues that the Ottoman Baroque stands for a “series of connected visual traditions” (16) enabling eclectic references to diverse styles. Third, Rüstem explains that this visual tradition devises a “global perspective” enabled through “an international system of communication” among major European urban centers that Ottoman Istanbul was connected to (16–17). According to Rüstem, these premises constitute a broader context for understanding the concept of an Ottoman Baroque than one that is either limited to a European framework or defined in terms of westernization.

The rise of self-display in the early modern period, in connection to the Ottoman Baroque, is introduced in the book’s first chapter, which considers the imperial gardens of Sultan Ahmed III as spaces of display for imperial pomp and festivity. The subsequent chapter introduces fountains as relatively small-scale interventions across the city that enjoyed “maximum visibility” (63), thus linking this practice to self-display. In the third chapter Rüstem connects the display of imperial magnificence to the architecture of the imperial ramp and the royal pavilion (hünkâr kasrı), since they served as material extensions of the sultan’s visibility and ceremonial progression, connecting the urban space within the imperial mosque.

Elaborating on his second theme of the Ottoman Baroque’s connection to earlier traditions, Rüstem explains that, as a stylistic category, the baroque visual program was “flexible” in its eclectic, layered, and diverse uses of “classical source material” (16). Examining the construction of the Sa’dabad Palace and its gardens outside Istanbul’s walls, the first chapter discusses in detail the “diverse sources of inspiration” (41) that were born out of the blooming connections to the Mughal Empire and Europe. These encounters not only inspired the design of Sa’dabad and its gardens, but also the privy chamber and Ahmed III’s library within the Topkapı Palace and the Fountain of Ahmed III outside the palace walls. The book also argues that such eclecticism was not merely ornamental but part of a deliberate visual program. In the book’s third chapter, the exploration of the Nuruosmaniye Mosque Complex skillfully moves through a reading of the building at various scales, from the columns’ scroll capitals to the complex’s site plan, once again alluding to the diverse sources of inspiration behind these elements.

This theme of eclecticism is closely related to Rüstem’s third point about linking the Ottoman Baroque to a global perspective. In this respect, the book provides key references about various “tastemakers” (104) within Ottoman society who influenced the transfer of knowledge and aesthetic sensibilities from other cultures and enabled cross-cultural interactions. In addition to “trade, travel and diplomacy” (42), one of the book’s central discussions considers the roles of non-Muslim actors (mainly Greeks and Armenians) who had a growing visibility in the Ottoman building trade. Rüstem names numerous building supervisors and master builders who worked on various imperial projects throughout the eighteenth century and portrays the expanding and discernible group of non-Muslim dhimmis as mediators bringing in motifs from Western sources, especially those of the European Baroque. It is also noteworthy to mention that the fourth chapter discusses the impact of a revived Byzantine heritage employed in the Ottoman Baroque, which was linked to classical Greco-Roman architectural styles. Rüstem claims that at a time when the layered and eclectic implications of the baroque had already been dissociated “from any geographical referent,” especially those of European origins (166), the Ottoman Baroque cannot be linked to westernization efforts. Thus, the book claims that the eclecticism found in the Ottoman Baroque is in fact associated with similar international trends.

One important side note: in the first chapter’s conclusion, Rüstem erroneously alludes to “an established misconception” (54) that the Sa’dabad Palace was destroyed. Yet none of the earlier sources on this structure claim that the palace, or its gardens, were ruined; rather, it was the gardens of the Ottoman elite along the Kağıthane River, outside the premises of the royal compound, that were demolished.

Despite this minor point, the book, through its multilayered survey and its diverse material on eighteenth-century Ottoman architecture, successfully creates new challenges and paves the way for further studies in the field. Rüstem makes extensive use of images, maps, and architectural drawings; there are eight architectural plans of the period’s key mosques and complexes. In this respect, it is important to note that the book’s discussions of the Ottoman Baroque would have benefited from the additional inclusion of plans showing larger urban contexts. Plans of smaller-scale interventions, like fountains, would also have been useful in showing how these structures acted as urban “acupuncture” nodes connecting the city to its public through the sultan’s “hand.” Relevant to the discussion on sebils or the Imaret Gate of the Hagia Sophia, both of which became mediators between architectural complexes and the street, detailed drawings would have better demonstrated how these structures transgressed the conventional disciplinary boundaries between architecture, urbanism, and landscape design, which was an important feature of the baroque. Similarly, plans of the Nuruosmaniye complex, an imperial urban regeneration project where the existing urban fabric had been demolished to open up space for the new construction, could have been better presented as part of the wider urban fabric. This mosque complex, with one of its gates leading to the Grand Bazaar, remains connected to a commercial street network linked to the Yeni Cami at Eminönü (an earlier urban regeneration project) and diverse surrounding urban spaces, including the Hamidiye Complex (222–34). Relating monuments to one another and to the surrounding urban fabric through axial connections or urban networks would further provide stronger arguments for thinking about the Ottoman Baroque in global terms. Another note is that while the book briefly alludes to changing social, cultural, philosophical, and economic trends within the Ottoman court and society, some exceptionally captivating mentions are worthy of further inquiry, such as Phanariots (84–85), the prints of İbrahim Müteferrika (206–7), and the imperial choice of sites in parallel to changing roles of mystic groups—namely, the Nakşibendi and Bektashi orders—within imperial circles and society (25–57).

It is imperative to state that Rüstem’s grand project, meticulously examining eighteenth-century imperial mosques along with other contemporaneous royal commissions in terms of their stylistic attributes, decorative program, patronship, and authorship as well as their impact upon local and foreign observers, is a valuable contribution to the scholarship and deserves a prominent place in the study of the history of Ottoman architecture and the urban history of Istanbul.

B. Deniz Çalış Kural
Associate Professor, Istanbul Bilgi University