Istanbul Exchanges in a Global Context

By Mary Roberts, author of Istanbul Exchanges

This guest post is published in advance of The World History Association conference in Savannah, Georgia. UC Press authors share their research and stories that reflect on this year’s two conference themes, Art in World History and Revolutions, Rebellions, and Revolts. Check back often for new posts. 

There has been much talk in recent years about expanding the discipline to create a global history of art, but what precisely are the new methods and protocols for writing these more encompassing transcultural histories? I have long thought that Istanbul and its cross-cultural webs of art patronage in the nineteenth century have much to tell us about what a global history of nineteenth-century art might look like. The capital of the Ottoman Empire had a particularly vibrant art scene in this period. European artists were working alongside Muslim and non-Muslim Ottomans with many artistic initiatives receiving patronage from both foreign diplomatic communities and the Ottoman court. Webs of art patronage connected Istanbul to Western Europe; they operated between the capital and other cities within the empire and also encompassed links between communities in Istanbul and the Russian Empire in the Caucasus. In Istanbul Exchanges I have mapped these networks to gain a better insight into the visual culture produced for such diverse audiences.

Istanbul ExchangesThis is a history of art attuned to patterns of artistic exchange that accounts for the movement of art works in and out of Istanbul and its changing meaning on the move. Art produced in this context was created, apprehended and interpreted within a cross-cultural web of meanings. Sometimes this web was a battlefield of competing representations, at other times it was a negotiated matrix of divergent positions. Such cross-cultural transmission in nineteenth-century Istanbul was also entangled within patterns of misinterpretation, as visual forms were created reshaped, censored or productively misunderstood. By tracking these multi-sited and multidirectional art connections, I wanted to disclose the nodes and vectors that register the particularities of Istanbul as a place of cross-cultural contact while also situating Istanbul’s exchanges within a global history of nineteenth-century art.

Mary Roberts is John Schaeffer Associate Professor in British Art at the University of Sydney and the author of Intimate Outsiders: The Harem in Ottoman and Orientalist Art and Travel Literature.