EARLIEST KNOWN PORTRAIT OF SULTAN MEHMED II TO BE SOLD BY AUCTION On the 25th April Baldwin’s will offer for sale one of the most important pieces of Islamic historical documentation. The discovery of the Magnus Princeps Bronze Portrait Medal of Sultan Mehmed II, c.
name a large number of coins had been struck. An early interest in portraiture can be seen by drawings of small heads in one of his school exercise books and they convey a remarkable awareness of ‘medallic’ imagery. A letter sent in 1461 by Sigismondo Malatesta, Lord of Rimini, confirms the Sultan to be an active patron of the arts, with a particular concern for painted and medallic portraits of himself. It constitutes a response to a request that Mehmed had made for the services of Sigismondo’s master medallist, Matteo de Pasti, in order to ‘paint and sculpt’ him. Furthermore, it praises the Sultan for his appreciation of portrait images, realizing that through bronze, the faces and virtues of men become widely known.
Conceived barely fifteen years after the first art medal had been produced in Renaissance Italy, the magnus princeps medal throws additional light on the personal interest that Mehmed II was taking in this new medium. Whether the medal is the result of a formal commission from the Sultan himself is not clear, but the characterful modelling of the profile, and the compelling rendition of its features, are evidence of the realism with which the artist has captured his subject. It is a portrait so lively, and indeed so immediate, that whoever made the preparatory sketches - from sittings given undoubtedly by the Sultan - almost certainly prepared the wax model, prior to the casting of the medal.
The bronze medal shows Mehmed II to be somewhere in his mid-twenties, for which preparatory sketches are likely to have been made in the mid- to late 1450s. The medal is a cast of very fine quality and the softly textured relief reveals skilful and sensitive handling. After more than five hundred years, a surprising amount of detail is still present, with only a small degree of wear over the higher points of the surface.
The noble and heroic portrayal of Mehmed II readily brings to mind his momentous victory at Constantinople in 1453, within just a few years of which this remarkably expressive portrait had been sketched and the medal cast. Re-discovered after more than five centuries, the magnus princeps medal provides an invaluable record of the great Ottoman ruler at the very height of his powers.
Close examination shows it to have been made by the sand casting process, as was standard practice at this time. This is evident from its surface markings, and from the bubbling and granularity of the metal, which is particularly notable on its plain, reverse side. Various elements in the design and lettering on the medal point to the hand of Pietro da Milano, a sculptor and an occasional medallist. The attribution is further supported by the remarkable presence of the letters P M, which have been discretely incised, in the form of a monogram, along two folds of Mehmed’s turban, and situated at the point almost directly above his side-locks.
Pietro da Milano was an established master sculptor, who lived and worked