by Roderick Conway Morris

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Painted on Air


By Roderick Conway Morris
2 September 2011

 

CONSTANTINOPLE

by Edmondo De Amicis, translated by Stephen Parkin

277pp. Oneworld Classics.

Edmondo Da Amicis is chiefly known in Italy today as the author of the children's book Cuore (Heart) first published in 1886. This sentimental, patriotic classic relating the life of a Turin elementary school class during the course of a year was required reading for generations of Italian schoolchildren until the late 1960s, since when it has fallen out of fashion.

A military school graduate, De Amicis (1846-1908) emerged disillusioned from the Third War of Independence and took to journalism, fiction, poetry and travel writing. After producing books about Spain, London and Holland, he visited Istanbul in 1874. His original intention had been to write a short travelogue but, seemingly under pressure from his publisher, this turned into a sprawling, two-volume work that did not come out until three years later.

The book was translated into other languages, but the English version of 1878 dispensed entirely with 25 of the 65 original chapters. Stephen Parkin's translation is, therefore, the first complete one to appear in English. The current most readily available Italian version, published by Einaudi, consists of a minimalist 15 of De Amici's original chapters.

De Amicis was following a path well-trodden by European travellers but 'The Arrival', his cinematic opening chapter - part reality, part vision - describing the awakening city and its surroundings gradually revealed through lifting fog as his steamer slowly makes its way towards the Golden Horn, brings an exuberant freshness to the scene:

'At last patches of white started to emerge through the mist, then the dim outline of a great height, then the scattered and vivid glitter of window panes shining in the sun, and finally Galata and Pera in full light, a hill of many coloured houses, one above the other: a lofty city crowned with minarets, cupolas and cypresses ... neighbourhood after neighbourhood became visible, stretching from the hilltops down to the sea, jostling with houses and dotted with white mosques: rows of ships, little harbours, palaces by the water's edge, pavilions, gardens, kiosks, groves ...'

Presently De Amicis is ashore, installed in his hotel and setting out to explore the terrrain on foot:

'The most incongurous objects are all jumbled together ... You walk along a fine residential street to find it ends in gorge: you come out of a theatre to find yourself surrounded by tombs. You climb to top of a hill and discover a forest under your feet and another city on the opposite slope ...'

On Galata Bridge 'one can see all Constantinople go by in a hour', declares De Amicis, before launching into a tumultuous description of the cosmopolitan tides of humanity traversing it, 'gathering together so many peoples of every country and every race, from a single position in five minutes as could perhaps not be found in all Constantinople in a week', as Remigio Zena, a later Italian visitor to the city, sourly commented.

Zena had a point in that De Amici's Constantinople is often as much a work of historical fantasy as an account of an actual journey. Sharp, humorous and vivid observations of the city's streets, life and sights alternate with elaborate, grandiloquent evocations of past events in such locations as Hagia Sofia and the Old Seraglio, which run on for page after page, the author intoxicated by the flow of his own unstoppable verbosity or at least mindful of his publisher's demands to fill two volumes.

De Amicis's primary model appears to have been Théophile Gautier's Constantinople published 25 years ealier, but the Italian writer attempts to cover more, and approaches his task of describing this 'vast azure city, painted on air' with an unbridled eagerness that the more detached Frenchman might have found bordering on the undignified. In comparison with Gautier's work the structure of De Amicis's book is chaotic, jumping from subject to subject and era to era, but there are striking images and entertaining passages that rise to the surface of the avalanche of prose.

Orhan Pamuk surprisingly once declared De Amicis's work 'the best book on Istanbul', but he rightly cited the chapter on the city's dogs as one of the highlights of the book:

'Constantinople is one vast dog kennel: everyone notices it as soon as he arrives ... They form a great and free vagabond republic, collarless, nameless, without tasks to perform, without a home to go to, without rules to obey ... In Pera and Galata, however, they are less indolent because it is not so easy to find food there. In Stamboul they are on full board, but in Pera and Galata they eat à la carte ... Tails can be said to be a great luxury: it is rare for a Constantinople dog to have its entire tail for more than two months of public life.'

Edmondo De Amici's travelling companion was the artist Enrico Junck, a former student of the French Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. Istanbul's great fires, which regularly swept through the wooden houses of its neighbourhoods, were one of the city's most famous features and when the cry goes up of 'yangin var' (fire!), the companions are at first alarmed. But immediately afterwards, De Amicis confesses, 'Junck and I exchanged a smile that Doré could have used for one of the demons in Dante's Inferno. If someone had opened our bodies up at that moment he'd have found only an inkwell and a palette inside.'

Stephen Parkin's translation is assured and lively, catching well the spirit of the original. There are some small slips in his notes and glossary: for example, krio nero in Greek means 'cold' not 'fresh' water; in Turkish deli mean 'mad' not 'stupid', and çavus, 'sergeant', not 'executioner'. He has been let down by the publishers, who have not only failed to provide a table of contents, let alone an index, but have put on the cover a skyline of Mamluk domes and minarets from Cairo.

The painter Enrico Junck became ill soon after returning from Istanbul and died of tuberculosis. Another artist, Cesare Biseo provided sketches for the first illustrated edition of De Amicis's book in 1882.

But De Amicis's words were to have a more enduring effect on two other talented artists from the Veneto, Fausto Zonaro and his former student Elisa Pante, both of whose work has been the subject of research and rediscovery in recent years. Zonaro had spent time in Paris and many of his works show the influence of the Impressionists and the Italian 'Macchiaioli' ('daubers', blotchers'), whose name, as in the case of the French movement, was originally derived from the dismissive description of a hostile critic.

Enthused by their reading of Constantinopoli, the couple decided to leave Venice and travel to Istanbul to paint the city in 1891. Once there Zonaro seems to have used De Amicis almost as a vademecum, drawing and painting many of the locations and types of scenes described in his pages.

In 1893 Elisa took herself off to Paris to study photography at Eugène Pirou's studio in the Boulevard Saint-Germain, returning with the necessary equipment. One of the main uses Elisa put her skill to was to record her husband's paintings and sell the images to European periodicals, which was both a source of income and helped spread his name.

Zonaro set up an art school in a space provided in the Russian embassy. With the help of the Russian and Italian ambassadors and a large oil painting he made of the Ertugrul Regiment of the Imperial Cavalry crossing the Galata Bridge, he caught the eye of Abdülhamid II and was appointed official Court Painter in 1896, a post he held until 1909, after the sultanate was overthrown by the Young Turks. Apart from a generous stipend, the Sultan also gave the artist a spacious three-storey house on the main avenue of Besiktas, close to the Dolmabahçe and Yildiz royal residences.

Of some 2,400 known works by Fausto Zonaro, over half are of Istanbul and they provide a unique and atmospheric record of the city during this period. Some of these pictures remain in public and private collections in Istanbul, but many are still conserved by Fausto and Elisa's descendants in Florence, along with a considerable archive of documents relating to the Zonaros' years in Turkey.

Elisa's documentary photographs include portaits of leading members of the Ottoman elite, such as Prince Abdülmecid (himself an accomplished artist), Enver Bey and even a rare image of Abdülhamid himself riding in an open carriage in a procession. Elisa had privileged access to the Sultan's harem, where she gave lessons in art. And while Edmondo De Amici's conjures up the eternal harem of Western imaginings, of alluring Oriental dishabille and sensual decadence behind closed doors, Elisa has left us with a corrective group photograph of some ladies of the harem, done up to the nines in the latest French fashions, parasols in hand, perfectly attired to attend the politest of polite tea parties.


First published: Times Literary Supplement

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016