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Fausto Zonaro’s life in Istanbul
2003 / March

'Elisa, my beloved wife, it is thanks to you that I found the strength to live in Istanbul. If you had not come earlier and made a circle of friends, and if you had not given me courage, perhaps Istanbul would have continued to be the dream of mysterious colours of which I read in Edmondo d'Amicis' book. I am thinking of the early years when we made a living by painting watercolours, repairing frames and printing photographs... I will never forget Signor Zellich, the owner of Zellich bookshop on Yüksekkaldirim, and his sons, who were so kind in their attentions. We placed my paintings in his large window and priced them at one lira each. Four paintings were sold and he paid me the sums immediately. That was the first money I earned in Istanbul.' When Fausto Zonaro first arrived in Istanbul he could not find words to describe the city's beauty, saying that the descriptions by Gautier, Amicis and Loti could not be surpassed. Zonaro was born on 18 September 1854, the son of a middle-class family in Masi in the district of Padua.

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Fausto Zonaro’s life in Istanbul
2003 / March

He studied drawing and painting as a young man, and worked in Italy and France before coming to Istanbul in 1891. In 1896 he was appointed painter to the Ottoman sultan. A magnificent book about this Italian painter by Erol Makzume and Osman Öndes has now been published on the occasion of a retrospective exhibition of his work. One of Zonaro's first friends in Istanbul was Director of Customs Mahmud Bey, who helped him when he was having difficulty at the Customs on his arrival in the city, invited him to his office and offered him coffee. This first acquaintance turned into a lasting friendship, and Zonaro was a frequent visitor at Mahmud Bey's house in Salacak. When Illustrierte Zeitung magazine published in Leipzig featured Zonaro's masterpiece Il Banditore, illustrating a scene from the Napoleonic period, on the cover in November 1892, Zonaro became sought after in Istanbul's diplomatic circles and high society.

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Fausto Zonaro’s life in Istanbul
2003 / March
He began to give art lessons to Yusuf Bey of the Ottoman Foreign Ministry, Nadine de Rodevich, Countess Vitalis, Maikof, daughter of the Belgian ambassador Mademoiselle Dudzeele, Madame Cropenshi, Baroness Wenspeir and other illustrious figures of the time. In later years his students included such notable Turkish artists as Celal Esad Arseven, Hoca Ali Riza, Sehzade Abdülmecid, Mihri Müsfik and Celile Hanim. He was introduced to Osman Hamdi Bey, founder of Istanbul Archaeological Museum, and was impressed by his kindness, courtesy and culture. The two men became friends and used to go fishing together on the Bosphorus, as Zonaro relates: 'Our boat filled with fish, each weighing three kilos. When Hamdi Bey asked if that was sufficient, I said that I could feed my entire neighbourhood in Taksim with so many fish. That day, after eating our fill with Hamdi Bey, I took the remainder home in a basket and we ate fish for the next week. The Bosphorus had begun to feast me not only with its blue hues, but also with its delicious fish.'
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Fausto Zonaro’s life in Istanbul
2003 / March

One Friday in 1896 Zonaro watched the Ertugrul cavalry regiment passing over Galata Bridge, and began to visit the same spot every week to sketch the procession. After completing his oil painting based on these sketches, friends suggested that he present it to Sultan Abdülhamid II. The sultan admired the painting so much that he awarded Zonaro the Mecidi Order and appointed him court painter. A year later Zonaro was rewarded for his painting of the Battle of Dömeke in the Turkish-Greek War by being allocated one of the houses for palace officials in Besiktas. Zonaro lived and worked at No 50 Akaretler for the next 12 years, and the house became a gathering place for intellectuals, eminent members of Istanbul society, leaders of its different religious communities and foreign visitors, who came to watch Zonaro at work and converse with him. His visitors included Enver Pasa, Winston Churchill, Ali Sami, Adolphe Thalasso, Sehzade Burhaneddin, Sehzade Abdülmecid, Sevket Cenani, Max Olaf Heckmann, Dr Fritz Fraumberger, Mario Perrone, Attilio Centelli, Emilie Helferich, Dr A Kampf,

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Fausto Zonaro’s life in Istanbul
2003 / March

Recaizade Ekrem and Osman Hamdi Bey. Zonaro often used to paint in the gardens of Yildiz Palace: 'Yildiz Park always enchanted me with its exquisite beauty, tranquillity and birdsong. I loved to paint there. First I did sketches based on drawings, and then began to paint. Usually Sehzade Burhaneddin Efendi would join me, and we would converse in French as he shyly watched me from a corner beneath his sunshade.' Zonaro was friends with another of the Ottoman princes, Sehzade Abdülmecid, whom he described as 'a gracious man, filled with love of art.' Sehzade Abdülmecid purchased Zonaro's painting entitled The Wildflower for the unprecedented sum of 200 liras, after extracting from him a promise that he would not paint another similar composition. From the time he was appointed court painter, Zonaro desired to paint a portrait of Sultan Abdülhamid II, and the sultan finally agreed to this in 1908. After Abdülhamid was deposed in 1909 Zonaro's close association with the sultan made him persona non grata with the new regime.

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Fausto Zonaro’s life in Istanbul
2003 / March

In November that year he was called to the palace and told that his position as court painter and his salary were revoked, and that he could only remain in the house on Akaretler on condition he paid rent. Early in the morning on 20 March 1910 two phaetons drew up outside the house. Zonaro, his wife Elisa and their children left the house where they had lived for over 12 years for the last time. Until his death in 1929 Zonaro's love of Istanbul was perhaps accompanied by feelings of bitterness. In his memoirs he wrote, 'Now I yearn for those sorrowful days that pain me to remember. But I was not crushed by those times of sadness, and nor shall I be. I continue to work with all my strength, and with respect and passion for my art. The mystery of the East still holds me in its grasp.

* Ömer Faruk Serifoglu is an art historian.

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