Great Museums – Kunsthistorisches

Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches is, essentially, the legacy of the avid collecting of the Habsburgs. The result is one of the finest collections in the world, with a particularly outstanding selection of Old Masters.

The collection is housed in a suitably impressive building in Italian Renaissance style, which is not, perhaps, quite as old as it initially appears, having opened only in 1891. It has an identical twin immediately opposite across Maria-Theresien-Platz in the shape of the Natural History Museum.

Kunsthistorisches

Kunsthistorisches

There is a huge trove of paintings, but much else besides. The numismatic collection alone has more than 700,000 coins and notes from all parts of the world, covering three millennia. Greek and Roman antiquities, another Habsburg obsession, are also abundant, but perhaps the most interesting of the non-paintings is the Egyptian collection, a truly huge mass of treasures. The most charming piece is surely the rather lugubrious blue hippo, whose flanks are decorated with scenes of its surroundings and reminding us that Egypt was once a much more fertile land than it is now.

Blue Hippo

Blue Hippo

The paintings are ordered by place and date largely form the 16th and 17th centuries. The Venetian Renaissance features prominently, with Titian, Veronese, Canaletto and Tintoretto to the fore. Venetian artists tended to be valued a great deal more outside their homeland; it’s quite difficult, for example, to even find a Canaletto painting in Venice.

The Dogana at Venice (Canaletto)

The Dogana at Venice (Canaletto)

The Flemish collection’s highlight is Rubens’ The Fur, an intimate portrait of his wife. The picture is in classical style, the artist’s wife posing as Venus. The gallery also features a generous helping of works by van Dyck.

The Fur (Rubens)

The Fur (Rubens)

Not surprisingly, there is a considerable German collection, with many works by Dürer and a fine selection of portraits by Holbein. Dürer painted many Madonnas and one of the most famous resides in Vienna, a depiction of Mary with a child holding a pear.

Madonna and child with pear (Durer)

Madonna and child with pear (Durer)

A Rembrandt self-portrait stands out among the Dutch collection. It is one of his later works and depicts the artist looking just a little down-at-heel, but defiantly staring front-on to the world.

Self portrait (Rembrandt)

Self portrait (Rembrandt)

A personal favourite among the Dutch works is The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, painted by Pieter Bruegel in 1559. It is a wonderfully eventful painting – there is just so much happening. By a happy and strange coincidence, a detail from the painting graces the Penguin edition of the cover of another personal favourite, the Rabelais masterpiece, Gargantua and Pantagruel. There is a substantial collection of Bruegel’s works – the largest in the world – at the museum.

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (Bruegel)

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (Bruegel)

The Kunsthistorisches has a catalogue that reads like a history of art: Rubens, Rembrandt, Dürer, Titian, Tintoretto, Canaletto, Vermeer, Raphael, Velazquez and a host of others. Set aside a few hours; you can punctuate the visit with a break (or two) for a leisurely cup of coffee and perhaps even a little slice of cake at the museum’s decorative and appealing café. Coffee, like art, should never be rushed.

Footnote: the museum has an excellent website at http://www.khm.at/en/

Istanbul’s Great Buildings – Fatih Mosque

The Fatih Mosque was built soon after the capture of Constantinople and named after the conquering sultan, Mehmed II (faith meaning ‘conqueror’ in Turkish). Building was completed in 1470, 17 years after the fall of the Byzantine capital.

It was built on the site of the Church of the Holy Apostles, Constantinople’s second largest and second most significant church after Hagia Sophia. A church had been built on the site by Constantine the Great and a second – and naturally, larger – version built on the same site by Justinian.

Fatih Mosque

Fatih Mosque

Mehmed allowed the Greek Orthodox Church to retain the church as its administrative centre, but the agreement was unlikely to last and the church, now in an advanced state of disrepair, was demolished in 1461-2 to make way for the new mosque.

The architect was Atik Sinan, who is not to be confused with Mimar Sinan, a later and even greater architect who was responsible for many of Istanbul’s mosques, including the Süleymaniye.

The present building differs somewhat from the original. Like many buildings in Istanbul, the Fatih Mosque suffered damage from a number of earthquakes and the current building owes its style to a 1771 rebuilding.

Like so many of Istanbul’s mosques, the design of the Fatih Mosque is redolent of Hagia Sophia, with a large central dome with outlying smaller domes. The building also displays that decidedly Istanbul Ottoman-Baroque style.

Courtyard

Courtyard

While the exterior may be different to the original, the interior closely resembles the initial décor designed by Atik Sinan.

All of Istanbul’s imperial mosques were built as complexes, designed not simply as places of worship. The Fatih is no exception and the Hospice has a particularly fine courtyard with an array of columns that are believed to have been part of the Church of the Holy Apostles.

The site also contains the tomb (türbe in Turkish) of Sultan Mehmet II. This is a particularly baroque affair with intricately ornate decoration. It is, perhaps fittingly, the most lavish tomb of all the Ottoman sultans.

Istanbul’s Great Buildings – Rumeli Hisari

By 1451, Constantinople was surrounded by Ottoman forces. The city, however, obdurately refused to fall and Sultan Mehmed II was getting impatient. The result was Rumeli Hisari, a fortress built on the European side of the Bosphorus, at its narrowest point.

The Ottomans could now control the sea and particularly traffic arriving from the Black Sea, from where aid and supplies could be delivered to the besieged city. The fortress was completed in 1452 (within four months) and the end came in the following year.

Rumeli Hisari

Rumeli Hisari

In truth, Constantinople was all but finished after the sack by the so-called Fourth Crusade in 1204. Although it was to struggle on for almost another 250 years, it was economically impoverished and close to being politically irrelevant. A city that had boasted a population of around half a million people had about 50,000 inhabitants by the time of the fall. With grim irony, it was the destructive greed of a Christian army that effectively made Constantinople an easy target for the Muslim Ottomans.

Rumeli Hisari may not be an architectural masterpiece in the manner of Istanbul’s great churches and mosques – after all, it was built in quick time for very pragmatic reasons – but it is still impressive and for anyone with an interest in history, it is one of the most significant buildings in Europe. This was where the life was strangled out of the remnants of the Byzantine Empire, which by then effectively meant the city of Constantinople.

View across the Bosphorus

View across the Bosphorus

The fortress offers modern day visitors wonderful views over the Bosphorus, which of course was one of the primary reasons for its existence, though its defenders were not there to admire the scenery. It was subsequently used as a customs house and prison. These days, the place functions as a museum and outdoor concert hall.

The site is open daily with the exception of Wednesdays. For anyone with a sense of history, it is a genuinely evocative place.

Istanbul’s Great Buildings – Süleymaniye Mosque

The vast Süleymaniye Mosque was built in the 1550s and like the later Sultan Ahmed Mosque, lifts its hat in acknowledgement to Hagia Sophia. The three buildings have a similar appearance, all being dominated by a large dome. It was, as its name suggests, ordered by Sultan Süleyman (‘the Magnificent’) and completed some eight years before his death.

Süleymaniye Mosque

Süleymaniye Mosque

The Süleymaniye is, perhaps, the most impressive of Istanbul’s mosques. The courtyard is particularly splendid, with its elegant colonnaded arches. Inside, the space feels huge, the area (almost) a square with light flooding in. The interior does not have the abundance of ceramic tiles of the Sultan Ahmed, with rather more subtle decorations being the order of the day.

Courtyard

Courtyard

The lovely gardens house two mausoleums, one containing the tomb of Sultan Süleyman. Also here is the tomb of Mimar Sinan, the architect charged with designing the mosque. Fittingly, Sinan designed his own tomb, a triangular affair that is modest in appearance, suggesting that his deserved reputation as the greatest of Ottoman architects did not go to his head.

Sinan tomb

Sinan tomb

The architect of the Blue Mosque, Sedefkar Mehmed Agha, was a pupil of Sinan and the influence is clearly visible. It’s a pretty safe bet that any sizeable mosque with a domed roof that you encounter in Istanbul was either designed by Sinan or one of his protégés.

As with most large mosques, the Süleymaniye is a complex of buildings and includes a hamam (bath-house). It is open to the public for use, though there is something faintly disturbing in that free life insurance is offered during a bath.

Something to recommend the Süleymaniye is that you don’t get the hordes of tourists that frequent Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. A visit feels much more leisurely here, and there is a row of pleasant little cafés and restaurants next to the mosque, where you can sit with a cup of coffee and admire the architecture and watch the activity.

Interior

Interior

If you find that your visit coincides with a time for prayer, the mosque is next door to the University’s Botanic Gardens, which is a pleasant place to stroll around for a while until the worshippers have gone.

Istanbul’s Great Buildings – Sultan Ahmed Mosque

Built in the early 17th century, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is more commonly known as the Blue Mosque. The reason is not apparent from outside, but on entering the building, the blue ceramic tiles of the interior give the game away.

The mosque sits alongside Hagia Sophia and one can immediately see the similarities, particularly in the style of the domed roof. Like the great basilica, the structure is about awe-inspiring size. With its vast dome, a further eight smaller domes and six minarets, it’s not a building to be overlooked. The six minarets also make a statement – no mosque had ever had so many.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque

Sultan Ahmed Mosque

Local legend says that the sultan had asked for a minaret in altin (gold), but the architect misheard and thought he’d asked for alti (six) minarets. No harm was done, as the sultan was delighted that the mosque now had more minarets than any previous structure.

If the exterior is impressive, the inside is stunning. With more than 20,000 handmade tiles, the Nicaean ceramic industry was kept in business for a few years. The theme is mainly flowers and only a trained botanist would realise that there were so many different varieties of tulip.

Like Hagia Sophia, the building is afforded plenty of natural light by a plethora of windows, in this case 260 of them. Disappointingly, the original coloured windows have largely been replaced by something more prosaic. At least they do the job of allowing light into the mosque and there are also low-level chandeliers, though these look a little tacky.

Inside the Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque looks pretty stunning at any time, but it makes for an especially impressive view at night, when it is lit up. The domes and minarets, floodlit against the night sky, make for an unforgettable sight.

Istanbul’s Great Buildings – Hagia Sophia

The first church on the site of Hagia Sophia was inaugurated in 360 CE during the reign of Constantius II. Historians continue to debate whether it was Constantius or the earlier emperor, Constantine the Great, who ordered the building of the church. Either way, the largely wooden structure burned down in 404.

The church was rebuilt under Emperor Theodosius II in 405 and was to last a bit longer than its predecessor. It was also, however, destroyed by fire in 532. A few marble blocks remain from the structure and can be seen in the courtyard of the present building.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

The third incarnation is essentially the one that stands in today’s Istanbul. Justinian’s grand design was far beyond what had gone before, though astonishingly, the huge new church was completed within six years. The building has been damaged by a combination of earthquakes (a common event), fires and the ravages of the so-called Fourth Crusade, when Latin ‘Christians’ looted and ransacked their way through Constantinople.

After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque, which it remained until the founder of the present Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, decreed that it be turned into a museum.

Other than the sheer size of the building, it’s probably the dome that takes the breath away. The dome was the world’s largest until the construction of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which is around ten metres bigger. The effect in Hagia Sophia is magnified by the windows around the dome, providing a huge amount of natural light into the building. You can spend a considerable amount of time simply staring in wonderment at the dome.

The dome

The dome

It’s hard to imagine what the mosaics would have looked like before the various depredations of the Crusaders and the coverings that took place after the conversion to a mosque (where religious iconography is not permitted). Earthquakes have taken their toll as well, but there are still some impressive examples, notably above the Imperial Door and in the upper galleries. A little glimpse of the church’s origins can be seen in the mosaic depicting the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus receiving gifts from the emperors Justinian and Constantine the Great. The mosaic is in the doorway above the south-western vestibule.

Justinian mosaic

Justinian mosaic

A look at the biggest mosques in Istanbul suggests that the Ottomans were as impressed as everyone else by Hagia Sophia. Just a glimpse of the mosques of Sultan Ahmed (popularly known as the Blue Mosque), Süleymaniye and Rüstem Pasha calls Justinian’s great cathedral to mind. The resemblance is quite striking.

Considering the events that Hagia Sophia has witnessed over more than 1500 years, its condition is remarkable. The building requires almost constant maintenance, but the cost of losing such a wonderful structure cannot be quantified. One of the supreme ironies, of course, is that the great seat of the Eastern Christian Church was treated with a great deal more respect by its Muslim curators than it was by the Crusaders who hypocritically travelled under the Cross. For that, we should all be grateful.

The Buildings of the Emperor Justinian

During any trip around the south-eastern corner of Europe, there is a reasonable chance that you will encounter something that was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Among Roman emperors – and Byzantium essentially was Rome moved to the east – perhaps only Hadrian matched the zeal of Justinian for building things.

Hagia Sophia is, of course, the most famous of all Justinian’s projects, but travel around the Balkans in particular and somewhere there will be a church, a castle, an aqueduct, a bridge or a fragment of something that owes its existence to the Emperor.

The great basilica in Constantinople was, in fact, the third such built on the site. The first two were burned down and within weeks of the second catastrophe, Justinian had ordered a replacement, but on a scale never seen before. Almost unbelievably, the construction of the enormous church had been completed within six years (just think how long it took to build Wembley Stadium nearly 1500 years later). True, there was still artwork and mosaics to be added internally, but the achievement was truly phenomenal.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

The model for the great building was the Church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus, better known as Little Hagia Sophia and completed in the year before the super-sized version. Eventually, the smaller church was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans, but lives on in the form of Küçük Ayasofya.

Little Hagia Sophia

Little Hagia Sophia

Some of the constructions are no longer with us. Another reconstructed church in Constantinople, the Church of the Holy Apostles is now the site of the magnificent Fatih Mosque. The triumphal Column of Justinian was demolished by the Ottomans in the 16th century. Justinian also rebuilt the Great Palace, little of which building survives, although happily many of its beautiful mosaics are preserved at the Great Palace Mosaic Museum in Istanbul.

Justinian wasn’t just about vanity projects, though. Something that lives on in modern Istanbul is the extraordinary Basilica Cistern, built during his reign to provide water to the Great Palace and other nearby buildings. Even today, the Topkapi Palace is served by the cistern. The cistern is almost a cathedral in itself, containing huge Greek and Roman style columns, two of which portray carved Medusa heads. Justinian also restored the Cistern of Philoxenos (or Binbirdirek in Turkish), which features 224 marble columns.

Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern

Another basilica built under Justinian’s auspices is the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. Among this church’s glorious collection of mosaics is the famous depiction of Justinian that seems to appear on just about any book devoted to the Byzantine Empire. Another mosaic features Justinian’s wife, the Empress Theodora.

Justinian mosaic at San Vitale

Justinian mosaic at San Vitale

Remnants of Justinian’s era are dotted around the Balkans. Tirana is a curious place, with its mixture of Chinese and Soviet style architecture interspersed with the odd Ottoman building, but near the centre of the city, you catch a tantalising glimpse of Kalaja Fortress, yet another of the Emperor’s projects. There is little left to see, but a few walls remain and possibly some archaeological remains, though it is impossible to be sure as the area is not open to the public.

Justinian was born near the present Macedonian capital Skopje, so it’s no great surprise to know that the imposing Kale Fortress that overlooks the city was built during the reign of that emperor. Like so many fortresses, castles and citadels, this particular edifice has been rebuilt and reconstructed many times, so the current building is rather different to the original, but its existence is once again due to Justinian.

Kale Fortress

Kale Fortress

With a touch of irony, while ancient statues and monuments to Justinian have gone, modern-day Skopje remembers the great emperor among the myriad statues that have sprung up in Macedonia Square in the past few years. In an even more ironical twist, the Justinian monument is of identical style to the nearby one of Tsar Samuel of Bulgaria, who spent much of his life engaged in almost constant warfare against a later Byzantine leader, Emperor Basil II.

It's that man again

It’s that man again

This leads us tidily to Sofia, where the St Sofia Church is the city’s second oldest. The church was built, at Justinian’s behest, at a similar time to Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) and ultimately – though not until the 14th century – was to give its name to the present Bulgarian capital.

St Sofia

St Sofia

Any Byzantine Emperor with aspirations of greatness (and Justinian was not a man riddled by self-doubt) desired to leave their mark in the Holy Land and Justinian’s contribution was the Nea Ekklesia of the Theotokos, perched on top of Jerusalem’s Mount Zion. As a statement, this was pretty unequivocal, although a church so precariously situated was unlikely to have a huge life span and it duly crumbled under an earthquake some 200 years after its construction.

Across in Syria, however, there are remains of yet another Justinian construction. Qasr ibn Wardan was a defensive complex built in the Syrian desert and substantial parts of the palace and church are still beautifully preserved. The style of the building stands out almost incongruously against the desert, a building completely out of keeping with its surroundings.

Qasr ibn Wardan

Qasr ibn Wardan

Continuing into Egypt, one of the most famous buildings in the Middle East, St Catherine’s Monastery, is a further example. The basilica attached to the monastery bears an inscription dedicated to the memory of the Empress Theodora, who died shortly before the construction of the complex.

St Catherine's

St Catherine’s

Back in Istanbul, you may be told by guides (human or written) that the Galata Tower was one of Justinian’s buildings. This is quite simply wrong. The tower was built by the Genoese is 1348. There had been an old Byzantine tower at a different site, but the present Galata Tower has nothing to do with it or Justinian.

All emperors liked to leave their mark, whether their intentions were megalomaniac, dynastic or altruistic (or a combination thereof) and some did so more spectacularly than others. Justinian certainly did and his legacy can be seen all over the south east of Europe and sometimes beyond.