On April 6, 1453, Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (1431-81) besieged Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine, or Eastern Roman, Empire, and the most populous city in the European world. Less than two months later, Ottoman forces conquered and sacked the city, claiming many lives, and remaking the city as an Islamic capital, converting its ancient churches into mosques. The fall of the Eastern Christian capital before the ever-expanding Ottoman Empire prompted apprehension and antipathy throughout Europe. This devastating defeat also felt like a threat to classical learning and culture, since the conquest cut off access to Greek libraries which had been invaluable destinations for humanists seeking ancient texts. Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (1405-64), a poet, orator, and diplomat at the court of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III (1415-93)—and the future Pope Pius II—composed this impassioned lament addressed to Pope Nicholas V (1397-1455), who had himself funded humanist expeditions to Constantinople:
“I grieve that Santa Sophia, the most famous church in all the world, has been ruined or polluted. I grieve that saints’ basilicas without number, built with wondrous skill, should lie beneath the desolation or defilement of Mohammed. What shall I say of the countless books, as yet unknown to the Latins, which were there in Constantinople? ...Here is a second death for Homer and a second destruction of Plato. Where are we now to seek the philosophers’ and the poets’ works of genius? The fount of the Muses has been destroyed!”
In reality Sultan Mehmet II himself supported humanism, gathering Italian scholars and artists at his court, and he also allowed considerable religious freedom to conquered Christian subjects, but these realities were dwarfed in Europe’s imagination by the shock of Constantinople’s destruction. In representing the city, artists struggled to reconcile its Byzantine past with its Ottoman present, producing images that both celebrated and contested the Turkish capital.
The Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center