An Ottoman Contemporary Of Michelangelo: Matrakçı Nasûh

Melek Cevahiroğlu Ömür May 2014

THIS YEAR, 2014, MARKS THE 450TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE DEATH OF THE CELEBRATED OTTOMAN MINIATURIST, MATRAKÇI NASÛH. WE TURN THE SPOTLIGHT HERE ON THE LIFE AND WORKS OF THIS POLYMATH, WHO PROVED HIMSELF IN SUCH DIVERSE FIELDS AS MATHEMATICS AND THE MINIATURE.

Mikelanj’ın Çağdaşı Bir Osmanlı: Matrakçı Nasûh
Mikelanj’ın Çağdaşı Bir Osmanlı: Matrakçı Nasûh

Born into a Bosnian family in the Balkan lands of the Ottoman Empire, Matrakçı Nasûh was one of the most gifted Ottomans of the 16th century. A graduate of the Palace School, Nasûh, who took part in Süleyman the Magnificent's Iraq campaign in the years when Michelangelo started to paint his “Day of Judgment” on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, proved his worth not only in the miniature but in mathematics, history, geography, cartography and topography, and gained fame among the Ottomans. The works Nasûh produced contemporaneously with the Renaissance, which was just beginning to spread in Europe, brought a breath of fresh air to the classical Ottoman art of painting.

PALACE SCHOOL ALUMNUS
Founded by Murad II (1421-51), the Palace School was transformed by Mehmed the Conqueror (1432-1481) into the Palace Academy, which, like its counterparts in Europe, trained young men with a flair for art and statesmanship. According to the experts, the Palace School was a major factor in the survival of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years from the date of its founding. One of its most extraordinary graduates, Nasûh was educated during the reign of Beyazıd II (1481-1512) and achieved prominence through his invaluable work in mathematics, history, geography, cartography and the miniature during the reigns of Selim I (1512-1520) and Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1556). Nasûh, who produced two books on mathematics, also translated into Ottoman Turkish the History of al-Tabari, the famed Arab scholar, as well as providing detailed information about military tactics and weaponry in his volume, “Gift of Warriors”.

INVENTOR OF THE GAME OF MATRAK
Although his actual name was Nasûh bin Abdullah, we know him as “Matrakçı Nasûh”, a name based on the game of “matrak”.  A combat game with technical standards, it was played with sticks whose ends were wrapped in a soft material. This not only prevented the mortal wounds that could occur if real swords were used but also turned the exercise into an enjoyable pastime.

ISTANBUL’S UNKNOWN DETAILS
The main feature that distinguishes Ottoman miniatures from European painting is that things are depicted from several perspectives at once. Painting the city in this way, Nasûh was able to depict the details, which he believed, the viewer should be able to discern clearly. Painted in the palace workshops, this work, which exists in a single copy, is emblematic of Istanbul in the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent.