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The conquest of Istanbul through the eyes of Zonaro

Chief Palace Painter Fauso Zonaro worked for months at the behest of Abdulhamid II to depict Mehmed II’s conquest of Istanbul from the lowering of the galleons into the Golden Horn to the commander’s victorious entry into the Byzantine capital. 

The 34th of the Ottoman sultans and as a caliph of Islam, Abdulhamid II succeeded in keeping the Ottoman Empire on its feet for 33 years from 1876 to 1908. 

He would be respected and appreciated not only for the successful reconstruction projects on which he embarked upon his accession to the throne, but also for the cultural activities that he patronized. The large visual archive known as ‘The Yıldız Photographs of the Reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II’ is one of the world’s oldest known and most important collections. Abdulhamid II, who took a keen interest in the art of painting, appointed the Italian Orientalist painter Fausto Zonaro his ‘Palace Painter’. 


Born in 1854 to an extremely poor family in a small village in Italy’s Veneto region, Zonaro nevertheless had a very colorful and exciting life. His art reached its zenith in Istanbul, where he came first as a traveler, when he was appointed the Ottoman Palace Painter by Sultan Abdulhamid II early in 1896. 

Zonaro’s acquaintance with Münir Pasha, the Minister of Protocol of Yıldız Palace, would be an important turning point in his life. Following that meeting, he met Osman Hamdi Bey, who made sure that his paintings were seen and appreciated by Abdulhamid II. And in 1896 he was honored with the title and position of Chief Palace Painter.


When the Second Constitution was promulgated in 1908 at the joint instigation of the Young Turks and the Committee of Union and Progress and Sultan Abdulhamid II was deposed, Zonaro’s entire life and livelihood were threatened and he viewed the devel-opment with profound regret. Although he tried to remain politically neutral during this period, like many Palace officials he was shunted aside as an artist and scorned, and in the end was forced to leave the city.

Zonaro left Istanbul and returned to Italy where he spent his remaining years at San Remo. Continuing his work as an artist right up to his death in 1929, he created hundreds more works but he never forgot his beloved Istanbul.


The first painting in the series depicts the Mehmed the Conqueror preparing to take the city. A giant cannon, operated by two hundred cannoneers and pulled by twenty water buffalo, has been installed in front of the city walls, a scene that sufficed to strike fear into the hearts of the Byzantines.

Making drawing after drawing, Zonaro made and ripped up drafts, a process he describes in his memoirs, which were turned into a book, ‘Twenty Years in the Rule of Abdulhamid’: “I had to go to the Istanbul Museum Library to look for reliable evidence in old prints for the period I was supposed to depict. I finished one of those paintings, and the Palace gilding and framing masters simultaneously prepared an opulent frame for the canvas. The day arrived when the painting was to be shown to the Sultan. Arif Bey took on the task. A short while later, I saw him come out breathless and shaking. ‘Where is Mehmed II?” he asked. “What have you done? When our sultan saw Mehmed II’s picture he thought he had seen his own! What should I say?” To which I replied, “Calm down, my good sir. Please tell His Highness that I have examined the lines of Mehmed II’s face in the original portrait made by the Venetian painter, Gentile Bellini, at the Lajard Gallery in Venice. Bellini was invited to Istanbul in person to paint a portrait of Mehmed II, and if the Conqueror happens to resemble His Highness Abdulhamid II there is nothing surprising in that. Is not Mehmed II one of his ancestors?”

The paintings, signed by Zonaro and depicting Mehmed the Conqueror consigning the Byzantine Empire to history, now adorn the walls of Dolmabahçe Palace. And the man who had the idea and the will to gift those matchless paintings to future generations was none other than Sultan Abdulhamid II.