A Fantastical European Love Affair with the Turk
Turquerie is the story of the migration and evolution of emotions; of how fear turned first into fascination and then into fantasy. But the truth is that fear always remained, and with it the entrenched prejudices of a continent that was aware of an alien enemy at the gates. How often our fears and fascinations appear to be linked together in an unholy union, whether over gothic horror, aliens… or even Turks. Fear of the ‘dreaded Turk’ began with the latter’s capture of Constantinople, the second Rome, in 1453 – a monumental existential crisis for the West. An alien asiatic culture with their different religion, customs and practices now seemed poised to overwhelm the Christian Greco-Roman civilisation. 200 years later in 1683 the Turks were once again rapping at the gates of Vienna, but were this time successfully repulsed by an alliance of panicked nations. The Ottoman setback at Vienna had big implications: The already 5,200,000 square km empire had failed in its aim to gobble up Europe. This landmark event marked a watershed in Ottoman-European relations, leading to a kind of detente. Trade and travel gradually began to partially dispel suspicions, as the old fault lines in the terrible clash of civilisations became slightly less hazardous.
For their part the Turks were to become more receptive to the West, as they increasingly identified with their former foes. Importing ideas, customs and technologies in wholesale fashion, this was the start of their long drive towards both modernisation and westernisation – which they now identified as synonymous. The threads of this relationship are visible to this day, as the Turks gradually committed themselves to nothing less than switching civilisations. As they patiently await admittance into the Western club of nations, with a long overdue application to join the EU, the West prevaricates and blows hot then cold; but perhaps old suspicions are more deep-rooted than one might suppose.
With the new uneasy peace between civilisations in the early 18th century, the Western response was a hungry fascination with all aspects of this alien culture. A two way dialogue of sorts had begun and manifested itself in different ways. The arrival of the first Ottoman embassies at Western courts attired in turbans and long flowing gowns and brandishing scimitars, was the very epitome of exoticism. The translation of the ever popular One Thousand and One Nights further fuelled this fascination for all things oriental. Artists, diplomats and travellers would return with exaggerated stories and fanciful depictions of these mysterious Muslumans, with their exotic beliefs, dress and practices.
Turquerie – A Very European Fantasy
Turquerie undoubtedly reached its apogee during the 18th century, providing as it did a rich source of material for numerous novels, plays, ballet and opera; not to mention painting, architecture, costume and interiors. Turquerie’s greatest impact was undoubtedly in France and Central Europe. Mozart’s opera The Abduction From The Seraglio for example, fully illustrates this ambivalent Western reaction that simultaneously combines fear and dread, with a titilated fascination for this non-Christian civilisation with its harems, concubines, eunuchs and pashas.
Although Turquerie had a much more profound impact on the continent which was closer to the front line, England was not immune. The eccentric millionaire and social pariah William Beckford conjured up the all the mystery and magic of the orient in his Caliph Vathek, and it was an incident during an Ottoman themed party that was to lead to his disgrace. Architecturally Turquerie which had provided a rich source of imaginings for follies to decorate the landscapes of wealthy landlords all over Europe and Russia at Tsarskoye Selo, had some interesting English examples: Painshill in Surrey saw the erection of a beautiful Ottoman tent – recently restored – and Kew had its mosque folly.
Turquerie To Orientalism
During the course of the 19th century the once dreaded then amorous Turk was now the toothless ‘Sick Man of Europe’, and his fickle lover was already looking elsewhere for stimulation. Like all romantic infatuations and dalliances, Europe’s Turquerie obsession eventually cooled to a more commonplace relationship. The world had grown up, the mystery all but gone. That’s not to say that here and there a flicker of the old passion didn’t resurface. Sex is a powerful driver and the sensual evocations of the harem provided a legitimate outlet for prurience in the morally constrained bourgeois societies of Western Europe. The old fascination emerges beautifully therefore in Ingres’ erotic paintings of voluptuous odalisques, and Verdi’s hugely successful Corsair with its passions, pashas and paramours. The fantasy world of Turquerie gradually morphed into a more mature, though ever prurient ‘Orientalism’; a view of the Near and Middle East and North Africa that was only marginally less fantastical, but every bit as prejudiced as the Turquerie it had replaced.
Just like ‘Chinoiserie’ which represented the West’s fanciful reinterpretation of half understood and largely fabricated notions of Chinese civilisation, Turquerie was a beautiful fiction; a cultural importation that was filtered and mutated beyond recognition into fantastical European reimaginings for an enthusiastic audience and market. It was never quite a complete style or movement in itself to compete with say the Baroque or Rococo; but was more like say 18th century Gothic, aspects of which complemented Rococo, by providing an ever richer vocabulary of decorative whimsy and excess to spice up jaded lives.
Unlike Chinoiserie however – which has had many tomes published on the subject, Haydn Williams new book, ‘Turquerie: An 18th-Century European Fantasy’ is the very first on the subject. An extraordinary omission in Western scholarship that is rectified by this magisterial and sumptuously illustrated survey. The story is told in a scholarly and comprehensive manner, recounting the impact on every aspect of the culture from the applied and fine arts to costume, interior design, and the performing arts. At last thanks to this work, Turquerie – the hitherto poor relation of Chinoiserie – has come in from the cold. Meanwhile now that the love affair is all washed up and Brussels seems as remote a dream as Vienna proved before, the relationship is in danger of coming full circle, as the Turks finally begin to lose patience with the ever whimsical Europe and its values.
Main image: The Cold Drink, one of a set of four panels from the château d’Orgnon-en-Valois, by Christophe Huet, c.1750, oil on canvas © Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL, photos Sean Pathasema
Turquerie: An Eighteenth-Century European Fantasy by Haydn Williams is published by Thames & Hudson at £39.95
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