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Ottoman Princes at the Court of Versailles

Topkapi at Versailles

By Patricia Boccadoro

VERSAILLES, 28 July 1999
- Blurred memories of a disappointing visit to the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey's most famous museum, over a quarter of a century ago did not induce me to hurry to see "Topkapi à Versailles".

While recalling the stunning setting high on the hills overlooking the Bosphorus, I also remembered the building's odd architecture, which, begun in 1462, was a curious mixture of antique, medieval, and Byzantine. The dark interior was stuffed haphazardly with what undoubtedly were precious objects amassed by the descendants of Soliman the Magnificent, but which had lost all attraction in the murky gloom.

However, the dramatic staging of the Turkish treasures inside the Château of Versailles finally brought to life the Oriental Princes of my imagination.

The exhibition was held to commemorate the seven hundredth anniversary of the Ottoman Empire, one of France's oldest allies, which officially dates back to 1290.

"Among the diplomatic presents sent to France over the years were a horse and harness, carpets, semi-precious stones and two tents", Corinne Thépaut, documentalist of the show at Versailles told me.

"The original tents offered to Louis XV in 1742 had disappeared, so Topkapi sent us one which we used to give an atmosphere to the exhibition. A sumptuous eighteenth century summer tent in silken shades of red, royal blue and turquoise, hand-embroidered with golden thread billowed at the top of a grandiose staircase, inviting the visitor to step back in time.

"Our idea has been to present the exhibits in a setting which demonstrates their usage; the Turks were essentially a nomad civilisation and much of their treasure was taken as trophies, so the exhibition logically begins with a display of their military greatness."

Sixteenth and seventeenth century weapons, armour, including ornately decorated helmets and shields, and intricately carved spurs are theatrically presented, inspired by a Ucello painting of "The Battle of San Romano" in the Louvre.(one of a trilogy - the two others are in Florence and London).

A sixteenth century painting of a Sultan sitting upon the golden ceremonial throne of Bairam sets the scene for the next part of the exhibition; twelve magnificent caftans line a central aisle leading to the majestic throne portrayed in the painting and which has been allowed out of Turkey for the first time. Made out of walnut and covered in gold encrusted with peridots, it is one of the masterpieces of the collection.


"Everything here is a masterpiece", Jean-Paul Desroches, curator of the musée Guimet, told me. "The Turks lent us all their most beautiful works."

Desroches, who worked with Versailles curator, Béatrice Saule, and Swiss architect Roberto Ostinelli to stage the show recounted how the French President, Jacques Chirac spent almost half an hour out of a forty-five minute visit admiring the porcelains. "They are the most stunning things you have", he commented to a surprised Monsieur Suleyman Demirel, President of the Republic of Turkey. He knew what he was talking about, for the unique collection of Chinese porcelain dating back to the middle of the fourteenth century constitutes a treasure in itself.

"Topkapi probably possesses the largest and most important collection of Yuan china in the world", said Desroches. "I chose the fifty pieces on display because they are exceptional for their size, quality and condition, and thus extremely rare. Some of the earlier plates, in blue and white,(131) have abstract Muslim designs and were made to order for an Islamic clientele, whereas later ones are more Chinese in design.

"We wanted to show all these elegant pieces in their rightful setting, and so we laid the plates out on a long table. Drinks were often kept in locked vases to reduce the risk of poison and were served after the meal; so they appear on another table. Small bowls for fruit and yoghurt are displayed at the end."

Sultan's egret

After so much refinement, the vulgarity of the jewels came as a bit of a shock. Certainly the sultan's egrets, one of them containing the largest ruby in the world were magnificent, but they were also very dirty. The ruby, uncut and unpolished glowered rather than glowed atop two emeralds whose only virtue seemed to be their size. The surrounding diamonds, yellow and white were of every shape and size.

More beautiful by far were the women's jewels, the earrings of rubies, diamonds and emeralds, hand mirrors inlaid with precious stones, shining golden necklaces, and exquisite tinkling ankle bracelets. But to be sure, the wives, concubines, favourites, and the pretty young girls, bought at slave markets, or carried off as war trophies, who also constituted an important part of the Sultan's treasure were locked up more securely in the harem than any stone in their Master's safe.

Without a doubt, the French have a particular chic to present things at their best. Let's hope the exhibition, an hour or two's enchantment, gives some new ideas to Istanbul!

Topkapi à Versailles - Trésors de la Cour ottomane
Château de Versailles, Versailles, France
Untill 15 August 1999
Tel: 33 (0) 1 30 84 74 00

Photos : Château de Versailles

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