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A Maltese Painter Of Istanbul Scenes:
Amadeo Preziosi

The fascination for Istanbul in 19th century Europe made the city a popular destination for western travellers of all descriptions, scholars and writers, musicians and painters, not to mention the merely curious. Many of them later published accounts of what they saw and did, illustrated with sketches or engravings. These books in libraries, museums and private collections are a valuable source of information about the daily life, customs, people and buildings of the time. Nineteenth century Istanbul was still the capital of a huge but diminishing empire, nearing the end of its long life. Among the artists who depicted Istanbul in the last century were such famous names as Melling, Thomas Allom, Eugene Delacroix, Alexandre Decamps and Eugene Fromentin. They stayed sometimes a few months, sometimes a few years, and left a legacy of paintings and engravings illustrating the city’s mosques, palaces, fountains and squares. But there was one who fell in love with the city, settled down and spent the rest of his life there: Count Amadeo Preziosi. As a result, his depictions of people and daily life are full of original detail not to be found in the works of others.

Preziosi was descended from a family which had migrated from Corsica to Malta in the 17th century and been awarded a title by the king of Sicily. Preziosi was born in Valetta on 2 December 1816, and spent his childhood and youth in Malta. His father Count Gio François was an eminent figure in Malta and a wealthy man. Preziosi was educated by private tutors, and his passion for drawing and painting began as a child. Although he studied law in compliance with his parents’ wishes he eventually abandoned this profession to devote himself to painting, first entering the studio of Giuseppe Hyzler, and subsequently going to France to complete his art education at the Paris Academy of Fine Arts. This was a time when European painters were flocking to the Gateway to the East, as Istanbul was known, and under this influence Preziosi packed up his paints and brushes and set out from Malta in 1842, travelling first to Italy and then to Istanbul. He notes in his memoirs that his original intention had been to stay for two years, but so absorbed did he become in the sights and bewitching atmosphere of this city that it held him like a magnet, and he hardly noticed the passing of the years. Sketchbook under arm he wandered its streets, caught up in an increasing love for the city and its people. Istanbul returned Preziosi’s affection, and he was welcomed everywhere, in tiny back street shops, coffee houses, hamams (Turkish baths), and places of worship. In his canvases he immortalised the humdrum sights of daily life: a street seller, a dancing bear, a woman filling her water jar at a street fountain. Through his eyes we also see the blue waters of the Bosphorus with caiques gliding along, pavilions and palaces. His paintings sold well among local and foreign customers alike, who hung them on the walls of their grand houses and palaces.

Despite his father’s entreaties Amadeo Preziosi refused to return to Malta, where the other members of his family followed ‘respectable’ careers as doctors, merchants and lawyers. He remained loyal to the passionate loves of his life: Istanbul and painting.

As well as his mother tongue of Italian, Preziosi spoke French, Greek, English and Turkish. He married an Istanbul Greek woman and the couple had four children, three girls and one boy. For many years they lived in Beyoğlu, at number 14 Hamalbaşı Sokak near the present British Consulate. When he wanted to get away from the bustle of city life he went to Yeşilköy, then an outlying country district on the Marmara coast. Here he had friends among the Levantine families, and spent much time hunting. This area west of Istanbul was famous for its game until engulfed by the growing city during the 20th century, and Preziosi purchased a hunting lodge where he spent much of his time. On 27 September 1882, when he was 65, he was hunting with a party around Yeşilköy when he accidentally dropped his rifle. It went off, causing injuries of which Preziosi died the following day.

Lithographs of Preziosi’s paintings were published in two albums,

Stamboul: Recollections of Eastern Life In 1858, and
Stamboul: Souvenir d’Orient in 1861.

In 1883, the year after his death, a third album was published entitled:

Encyclopedie Des Arts Decoratifs de L’Orient: Stamboul - Moeurs et Costumes

with a foreword by Victor Champier, who wrote of Preziosi and the Istanbul which he depicted: ‘Istanbul... This word sounds to the ear like a battle cry or a song of victory. Istanbul is the name given by the Turks to this glorious city, once known as Byzantium and today also as Constantinople. It is Istanbul, with its winding streets, markets, picturesque excursion places and curious sights, whose life and true substance Monsieur Amadeo Preziosi presents to us in his watercolours. Certainly one rarely encounters an artist who has left his homeland at a young age, and made a home for himself in the bosom of a civilisation little known even in Europe. This is an artist whose eyes have been rinsed in the splendid light of the Orient, enabling him to capture the depth of its meaning and enjoy the happiness of sensing the strength and capacity of its spirit.

Count Preziosi’s paintings were exhibited in Paris and London in 1858, 1863 and 1867. For some years he was court painter to Sultan Abdülhamid II, and today examples can be seen in the Istanbul Museum of Painting and Sculpture, Topkapı Palace, the Naval Museum and several private collections.

Preziosi was buried in the Catholic cemetery in Yeşilköy, where his grave still stands today.

* Turgay Tuna, freelance writer.

A Picnic Scene

The interior of a coffee house

Scene from a harem.

A scribe (above left), a fountain (above right), and a dancing bear (bellow)

Mevlevi dervish

Amadeo Preziosi's tomb in the Catholic cemetery in Yeşilköy

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