Reflections on the Süleymaniye Mosque and the Italian Renaissance (Never Say Never)

I never thought I’d write a post connecting my first love, the Italian Renaissance, with my long-time companion, Islamic art and architecture.  Well, as they say, never say never.  Because although I didn’t expect it when I started, this is that post.

I’m starting to daydream about Turkey again, and the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul and its architect, Mimar Sinan, are on my mind.

Suleymaniye Mosque, 1550-58, Istanbul, Turkey; the courtyard, with columns from Pergamon

If I had to sum up the Süleymaniye (soo-luh-MAHN-ee-yay) Mosque in one word, it would be “calm.”  When I was there last summer, we were almost the only people in the building, both in the courtyard (avlu, above) and the prayer hall (musallah, below).

Suleymaniye Mosque, 1550-58, Istanbul, Turkey; interior

Quiet. Serene. Calm.  And oh so beautiful.

Suleymaniye Mosque, 1550-58, Istanbul, Turkey; interior

Suleymaniye Mosque, 1550-58, Istanbul, Turkey; interior

The Suleymaniye Mosque, designed by Mimar Sinan, Süleyman the Magnificent‘s architect, was begun in 1550 and finished eight years later.  With my Western background, I like to think of Sinan (1490-1588) as a contemporary of Michelangelo (1475-1564), Raphael (1583-1520), and Titian (1490-1566), though he lived longer, to the age of 97. (An aside: Sinan designed his own tomb here in the Suleymaniye complex:)

Mimar Sinan’s tomb, Suleymaniye Complex, Istanbul, 1550s

I bring up this comparison because I get tired of looking at art and architecture in a chronological or regional vacuum.  What else was going on in the world at the same time can be instructive, fascinating, or at least horizon-expanding. Andrea Palladio, for example, was also active at this time, designing buildings such as the Palazzo Chiericati in Vicenza (Italy):

Andrea Palladio, Palazzo Chiericati, Vicenza, Italy, 1550

and in France, the Chateau de Fontainebleau was built:

Chateau de Fontainebleaue, France, 16th century

So back to the Süleymaniye.  I’m not sure how I missed this before (studying buildings in a vacuum?), but I learned recently that mosques were actually part of a complex that included more than the mosque and the accompanying school (madrasa).  The complexes also included mausoleums, baths, kitchens, libraries, markets (to help pay for the upkeep of the mosque. In fact, the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul was the market of the New Mosque), orphanages, hospitals, and guesthouses.  The Süleymaniye was no exception, which explains why the area around the mosque is so unified.  The other buildings have been restored, some better than others, and are mostly used for other, though sometimes related, purposes (the hospital is now a maternity clinic).

Suleymaniye Mosque complex, 1550-58, Istanbul, Turkey; aerial view with the mosque rising in the center

Gorgeous. Unified. Harmonious.

Suleymaniye Mosque, 1550-58, Istanbul, Turkey; courtyard

Which leads me to this: What’s the big deal about Sinan?  As you can imagine, much has been written on this topic. But for me, what it boils down to is harmony.  He developed an architectural style that incorporated buildings around him (Hagia Sophia, for example), engineering expertise, and what he saw on his travels (as an Ottoman janissary, he went to Europe in the 1520s and 30s). You walk into his buildings and you can just feel it.  All of the parts work together. The dome, the supports, the interior space and how it relates to the courtyard, the beauty of materials and decoration, all of the parts form a whole.  At my house, we often talk about how some recipes remain the parts and some combine to form a whole dish.  Sinan has succeeded in combining the parts to form one whole.

Suleymaniye Mosque, 1550-58, Istanbul, Turkey; ablutions area

As I’ve been thinking about this mosque in the last couple of days, I’ve also been thinking about placing art and architecture into a wider context.  For this mosque, this context could include Palladio, who I mentioned above.  He was an extremely influential Italian architect whose work was all about simplicity and harmony. And when I think of artists active at the time, just past the height of the Italian Renaissance, it was all about harmony and stability. Take Raphael, who only fifty years earlier had achieved stability itself through the use of a triangular composition:

Raphael, Sistine Madonna, 1514, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany

and at about the same time that the Süleymaniye Mosque was being built, Michelangelo was sculpting this:

Michelangelo (restored by Tiberio Calgagni, especially the figure on our left), Pieta Bandini or the Deposition, 1545-55, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence

Stability, harmony, unification.

I don’t want to say that Sinan was directly influenced by the Italian Renaissance, but I think it’s an interesting comparison to draw. During the Ottoman Empire, there was a lot of travel to and from Europe, and influence moved in both directions.  I’m sure that wiser and more learned people than I have researched and written about this, but I’m not going to look into it yet.  I’ll let it percolate a bit. And try to capture the harmonious calmness of the Süleymaniye in my daydreams.

Suleymaniye Mosque, 1550-58, Istanbul, Turkey; courtyard

Suleymaniye Mosque, 1550-58, Istanbul; grilled windows on the outer courtyard walls

Turkey 0812 1057

Suleymaniye Mosque, 1550-58, Istanbul, interior


5 thoughts on “Reflections on the Süleymaniye Mosque and the Italian Renaissance (Never Say Never)

  1. Karen,
    You have captured the harmony and balance perfectly in your photos. I would like to add that this was the at the heart of Islamic art and architecture. And I LOVE LOVE LOVE!!! that you included it’s contemporaries. We do not think about it usually but they (East and West) were very curios about each other and did have some kind of communication. Did you know that Michelangelo sent a proposal for a bridge over the Golden Horn to Suleiman’s father, Selim I? This is not so widely known as Leonardo’s bridge project for Mehmed II ( Just imagine what it would have been like if Leonardo or Michelangelo had come to Constantinople and Sinan had been exposed to their work!
    I love your post and thank you for your enlightened approach.


    • Hi Sedef! I was thinking about the Ottoman-Venetian connection in the 15th century (and earlier, with the Byzantines), but didn’t know about the bridge projects. It feels almost luxurious to just think rather than research. but I do want to know more, so I’ll be sure to check it out! Thanks for reading and commenting –

  2. Awesome post, especially since I’m studying abroad in Florence right now and looking at so much Italian Renaissance art. It never crossed my mind to look into what others were doing in other regions while the masters were active in Italy so this is a very interesting, new perspective for me.

    • Oh, that’s great! I studied abroad in Florence, too — loved it! A more global perspective can add so much, I think, to our understanding of that world and time. I’m not sure why we think of artists (and architects) of the past as isolated within their time and place (the Italian Renaissance, for example), when of course they were exposed to other cultures and countries. We tend to like order and neat little packages, when it’s really so much more rich and complicated than that. Thanks for reading and commenting – enjoy your time in Florence!

  3. Pingback: Where the mosques are beautiful – Part 2) | Living with Dreams

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