Seated Scribe

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Gentile Bellini, Seated Scribe, 1480



By EMMA SHAPIRO 

In 1479, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II requested an artist to paint portraits of him and his court. The Venetian government sent Gentile Bellini to Constantinople to fulfill the request. Gentile Bellini painted countless portraits of the Sultan during his year in Constantinople. He brought Orientalist tradition to Western painting and became well known throughout Europe. His painting Seated Scribe is characteristic of his meticulous attention to detail, and typically dry portraiture.

In Seated Scribe Bellini paints a young member of the Ottoman court while he bends over a writing pad. His caftan, traditional cultural robe, is embellished with gold, and red velvet decorates his arms and neck. His turban beautifully wraps around his head, and holds in place with use of a red taj, a conical cap worn by the Sultan's court.

The painting above does not show purely original work done by Bellini, but has required several restorations over centuries. The painting dimensions have been trimmed and the framing and mounting has been restored to better conserve and historicize the work. A crease near the youth's elbow suggests that prior to the recent mounting, Seated Scribe had been presented as a loose leaf. Giuseppe Molteni is supposed to have repainted the work to an extent which may have even minorly altered the original composition of the painting. Repainting has become increasingly discredited among art historians, for being a practice which changes the pigments and materials employed by the artist. Unlike repainting, mounting practices conservation, modernly a more promoted method than restoration.

Many of Gentile Bellini's works of art have deteriorated, become unidentifiable, or been lost completely. In the late 15th century, Bellini received his most significant commission, the redecoration of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio of the Doge's palace. He replaced deteriorated frescos with 22 oil paintings on canvas, but all 22 paintings were lost in a fire in 1577. Additionally, few paintings from his time in Constantinople have been properly identified. One noteworthy painting of the Sultan remains but immense retouching makes it look like a copy. The lack of evidence from Bellini's career makes it nearly impossible to map his life or construct his development as an artist. 

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