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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Renaissance Cities--Constantinople

Constantinople's Hagia Sophia dates from 537
Hagia Sophia interior
(now a museum)
There is nothing simple about Constantinople. Even the name presents difficulties. During its pre-Roman days (from around 660 BC until 330 AD) its Greek founders called the place Byzantium. Only in modern times (since the establishment of modern Turkey in 1923) has the Roman name, Constantinople, given way to Istanbul. Indeed much of the art history from this great city has always been referred to as Byzantine. I guess that's better than Constantinoplian or Istanbulian (my spellchecker is having a hissy-fit). Moreover, aside from Turks, what do you call the cities' residents from the two latter eras? (I won't even go there.) Numbers play an important role in the city, the only one in the world situated on two continents, and like Rome, built on seven hills. Where else would you find a provincial capital which occupies the entire province? And with nearly fourteen million people now living within its city limits, it's the second most populous city in the world (after Shanghai, China).

Constantinople during the Reign of Justinian and Theodora, 7th century AD.
Justinian and Theodora, 6th century mosaics,
Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.
In addition to the dates mentioned above, there are five important historic figures to remember, (1) the Emperor Constantine, (2) Justinian and (3) his wife, Theodora, (4) Constantine Palaeologus, and (5) Mehmed II. In Brief, Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople in 330. The Byzantine Emperor, Justinian, and his wife (and backbone) recaptured much of Italy from the Visigoths, briefly reviving the Roman Empire around the middle of the sixth century. During the reign of Justinian and Theodora (right), Constantinople grew to a population of 500,000, of which 40% died during the plague of 541-42. Justinian was also responsible for the building of the Hagia Sophia (top). Finally, There was Constantine Palaeologus, the Byzantine Emperor who was killed defending his city during the siege of Mehmed II and the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Over the centuries, this city separating the Aegean Sea from the Black Sea has been one of the most fought-over chunks of real estate in the history of the world. And the seven-week siege of Constantinople, could be considered one of the bloodiest in that history. It was among the first when gunpowder and very heavy artillery played a major role. Mehmed even went to far as to move his fleet of ships overland to wage his battle (below). He marched his army into the city of about 50,000 on May 29, 1453, and Constantinople was never to be the same again.

Mehmed II "sailing" his supply ships over greased timbers overland, to bypass
a Byzantine blockade in order to bolster his siege of Constantinople.
The painting is by the Italian artist, Fausto Zonaro (1854-1929).
During the period which we normally think of as the Renaissance, Constantinople was Muslim. Following the conqueror, Mehmed II, the city was ruled for the next forty years by his son and grandson. Most of the former Byzantine population was deported. The Hagia Sophia was sacked to became a mosque. Figurative art disappeared in favor of Arab calligraphy, and the architecture, likewise, took on an Arabic flavor. The Topkapi Palace was constructed to replace the ruined "Great Palace" of the Byzantine era. The city flourished as never before. At one point, Michelangelo briefly considered a call to build a bridge across the Bosporus for the Sultan Suleiman I, but then thought better of it and painted a certain chapel ceiling instead.

A modern day artist's depiction of Constantinople's forum during the height of the Justinian era, before the plague brought down the populace and the earthquake of 558 AD. brought down the original dome of the Hagia Sophia.


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