Eastern Promise

08.30.12

When the Romans Were Turks

The Daily Pic: In Milan, circa 1490, a Byzantine ruler puts on Ottoman robes.

Another picture from the little Accademia Carrara show, closing soon at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. This one was painted by the Milanese artist known as Bergognone in around 1490, and shows a fourth-century encounter between Saint Ambrose of Milan and the (mostly) Byzantine emperor Theodosius I. As much as anything this painting is about its wonderful textiles, but I wonder if we tend to misread them: The emperor’s robes look gloriously Renaissance, and European, to us, but they may in fact derive from (or even be) silks from the Ottoman east. (Experts are only now sorting out who influenced who in the luxury trade between Italy and Turkey.) Bergognone could have deliberately chosen fabrics recently woven in Constantinople, in order to clothe an emperor he knew had once ruled there. Geography, that is, trumped chronology in his notions of accuracy.

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