by Roderick Conway Morris

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Sheik Safir Mausoleum, Library and Fountain in Besiktas by Raimondo D'Aronco, 1910

The Sultan and the Architect

By Roderick Conway Morris
ISTANBUL 28 April 1990


As the Prince of Wales does battle with the new brutalists, it is interesting to recall a curious relationship that once flourished between ideological conservatism and architectural modernism. A little less than a hundred years ago, the then modern movement in architecture was eagerly embraced by a highly improbably royal patron - Abdulhamid II of Turkey. In 1896 the Sultan even went so far as to appoint Raimondo D'Aronco, the Italian exponent of Art Nouveau, as Imperial Architect to the Abode of Felicity. D'Aronco was to be the last incumbent of this venerable post.

Abdulhamid was reactionary, reclusive and melancholic. He developed a secret police system such as the world had never seen, and spent hours every day poring over his spies' and informers' reports. His paranoia was legendary. When, during an audience, the British ambassador reached for his handkerchief, he found himself , on looking up, staring down the barrel of the Sultan's heavy black service revolver. The excesses of the latter part of this Ottoman emperor's reign earned him at home the name 'Bloody Abdul' and abroad 'Abdul the Damned'. Yet, like several of his forebears, he combined autocratic ruthlessness with a lively appreciation of the arts. He had, in addition, a passion for carpentry and was a skilled cabinetmaker.

Raimondo D'Aronco was also a trained craftsman. Born in Gemona di Friuli, a small town in the foothills of the Julian Alps, he as apprenticed at 14 to a stonemason in Graz. But he won a place to study architecture at the Accademia in Venice, and in 1887 he was commissioned jointly with an engineer to build an ultra-modern hall for the first International Venice Exhibition of Fine Arts, which became the Venice Biennale. In the early 1890s the Turkish government was seeking a foreign architect to oversee public works in the capital. At the invitation of the Italian ambassador in Istanbul, D'Aronco arrived in Turkey in 1903.

D'Aronco had already gained a reputation as an advocate of Art Nouveau. The new style, which was vigorously attacked by the Neo-Classical architectural establishment, openly declared itself a form of 'aesthetic socialism', committed to the abolition of the old class distinctions and the raising up of the masses. This was unlikely to please an absolute monarch, a determined enemy of innovation who forbade the use of the words 'liberty', 'explosion', 'bomb' and 'regicide', but also 'fatherland' for its implied 'rivalry to dynasty and religion'. Yet Art Nouveau, which had drawn inspiration from Islamic art and lacked the Christian and pagan associations of other Western styles, found such favour with the Sultan that its unsavoury ideological implications were overlooked.

D'Aronco was entrusted with the reconstuction of Istanbul, which had been badly damaged in a violent earthquake in 1894. This brought him into close day-to-day contact with Byzantine and Ottoman architecture and laid the foundations for the felicitous blending of styles that distinguishes his most successful work. As repairs to the city progressed, D'Aronco embarked on new projects. For the government he designed ministries, schools, hospitals, mosques and fountains; for Abduhamid himself, a series of houses and pavilions in the Yildiz Palace park, including a glittering iron-and-glass winter garden; and for his private clients, both Turkish and European, office buildings, apartment blocks, town houses and summer houses on the shores of the Bosphorus (many of these built in traditional style in wood).

In 1908, the Young Turks forced a constitution on Abdulhamid. But the recalcitrant Sultan refused to co-operate with the new arrangements and in the following year they overthrew him. The Young Turks urged D'Aronco to remain and continue his work. But, anxious for the safety of his family amidst the turmoil, he left Turkey in September 1909, never to return.

Today many of D'Aronco's buildings no longer exist - although there are some wonderful surviving examples including the Sheik Safir Mausoleum, Library and Fountain in Besiktas.

A sad loss is the 'Little Mosque' that stood by the Galata Bridge at the mouth of the Golden Horn. Constructed in 1903, with an oak frame, faced with thin slabs of marble held in position by gilded brass bolts, the mosque characteristically employed Ottoman and Art Nouveau elements, a combination in harmony with the surrounding shipping offices, banks and shops of this part-Oriental, part-Western commercial district. In 1959, the mosque was dismantled in a road-widening scheme. The intention was to re-erect it on an island in the Sea of Marmara. But the 1960 military coup intervened, and the components seem to have disappeared.

First published: The Spectator

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023