Melchior Lorck 
edited by Erik Fischer, Ernst Jonas Bencard and Mikael Bøgh Rasmussen.
Royal Library Vandkunsten, 808 pp., €300, August 2009, 978 87 91393 61 7
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Melchior Lorck went to Turkey in 1555 at the height of Suleiman the Magnificent’s power, when the Ottoman Empire stretched from Algeria to the west, Mecca to the south, Baghdad to the east and the River Don to the north, adjoining – and often aggressing – the Habsburgs’ own colossal empire. Suleiman had besieged Vienna twice and, though he had retreated, the threat remained. No artist captured the awesome majesty of the Ottoman sultan as Lorck did in his portraits of Suleiman, while his panorama of the city of Constantinople, more than 11 metres long, remains a wonder of High Renaissance art, for its architectural detail, delicate graphic patterning and the graceful play of wind-filled sails in the Golden Horn.

Until the publication of this huge catalogue raisonné (there is a fifth and final volume to come), Lorck’s work remained in the drawers and cabinets of museum collections. There are very few surviving paintings and they are widely scattered; there has never been a major exhibition of or monograph about his work until now, and his own efforts to bring his graphic work into print failed and failed again. Few original drawings survive; instead they are reproduced in woodcuts for which Lorck did not do all the cutting or engraving. His work is wildly uneven, and so varied in manner that Erik Fischer, who has looked at it more assiduously than anyone alive, believes that nothing can be confidently attributed to Lorck unless it is signed. This doesn’t quite convince: whatever he looked at, Lorck looked at in a peculiar way.

One bundle of drawings, which the diarist John Evelyn owned, was split up and sold at auction in 1966 – the compilers of this catalogue have been advertising rather forlornly in the art trade press for news of their whereabouts. The catalogue is Fischer’s life’s work. Many have worried about what seemed to be a Casaubon-like operation, and tried to hurry him along – Fischer was born in 1920 – but finally, with the help of two younger art historians, Ernst Jonas Bencard and Mikael Bøgh Rasmussen, the work of this eclectic and eccentric artist can now be explored. These handsome volumes comprise every known print and every extant document related to Lorck’s wandering life. But there are some problems: the English renderings are often awkward, with bizarre choices of terminology throughout, and the documents are presented in ‘paraphrase’ rather than translated from the original languages. One crucial piece of evidence, Lorck’s so-called ‘autobiographical letter’, was much better translated 20 years ago by Fischer for a small booklet.

Tortoise above the Venetian lagoon, 1555

Tortoise above the Venetian lagoon, 1555

Lorck was born in Flensburg in Schleswig-Holstein, which was then under Danish control, in 1526 or 1527. Named by his well-to-do family after one of the Magi (his brothers were called Casper and Balthasar), Melchior was slender and angelic looking (if his self-portrait is accurate), well educated, peripatetic and versatile. He trained as a goldsmith in Lübeck, and was polished in Italy on a Grand Tour subsidised by the Danish king. He liked to turn his hand to all kinds of art: portraits, maps, prospects, engineering charts, medals, triumphal arches, emblems, calligraphy, heraldry, bestiaries, religious caricature and propaganda. In demand all over Europe, patronised by kings and emperors, he was a footloose cosmopolitan, anxious to advance: he enjoyed adding exquisite curlicues to his family coat of arms.

Born just before Dürer died, Lorck drew a severe portrait of his great predecessor. He emulated Dürer’s close scrutiny of his subjects, but he also had a quirky, even comic imagination and a taste for odd juxtapositions and discrepancies of scale. In a superb sketch in chalk on blue paper, held in the prints and drawings collection of the British Museum, a large tortoise is placed on the sheet as if paddling through the air above the Venetian lagoon. Lorck added the sly inscription, ‘Made in Venice from Life’, as if daring the viewer to see the colossal creature flying overhead, a reptilian version of the Rukh, the huge raptor from The Arabian Nights who lifts Sinbad, but is also capable of carrying off an elephant.

Gothic, baroque, Kafkaesque, surrealist: the terms are tied to certain makers and writers and apply to specific epochs and styles, making it possible to place their characteristic works – whether a rose window or a razored eye – within definite historical bounds. But the terms have also come to designate something far less chronologically precise; like other aesthetic categories – grotesque, macabre, carnivalesque, magical realist – they denote a mood, an approach to form and content. Sometimes an artist or writer will materialise out of the forgettings of the past and, like a figure walking towards us in a haze, begin to gain definition, subtly altering what seemed an established category. Once Kafka had appeared, his precursors fell into a recognisable family group across time and geography – as Borges proposes in his marvellous essay. Lorck is one of these oddities, with elective affinities to a Gothic sensibility like Henry Fuseli’s and to the shadowed empty spaces of de Chirico, and even the eerie objectivity of photographers like Atget and Sander.

In a rare essay on Lorck’s drawings from 1955, Peter Ward-Jackson noticed ‘the hallucinatory quality’ of his work, ‘the morbid trend of his imagination’ and ‘his predilection for the weird and the sinister’. Lorck practised bizarre conjunctions and often communicates a cold absorption in his subjects – they are accurate in every detail but rigid and puppet-like. Breton could well have installed him in Surrealism’s pantheon alongside the wild talents, child poets, Enlightenment libertines, Boschian drolleries and classical grotesques.

The first work by Lorck that caught my eye was a small print that shows an Oriental scene, with a tall young man seen in profile wrapped in a cloak and with a steepling turban on his head; behind him, drawn in such a way as to flatten depth and perspective, stands a ziggurat with curls of smoke billowing out, positioned to make a sly rhyme with the man’s towering headgear. He’s probably a Zoroastrian, like the dark magicians vilified for their worship of fire in The Arabian Nights, whose characteristic turbans may be an origin of the wizard’s hat in children’s books. Lorck likes treating the human subject as a form equal in interest to a building or some other inanimate object, and such juxtapositions run throughout his work. When I saw the print I found the unusual subject striking enough, but the proto-Surrealist joke was a real surprise.

One or two European artists had preceded Lorck into the Ottoman Empire during the mid-16th century period of intermittently ferocious hostility between Venice, Vienna, Budapest and Istanbul. Gentile Bellini visited the Sublime Porte in 1479-81, and may have painted the beautiful if faded portrait of the Sultan Mehmet II in the National Gallery. A Flemish artist, Pieter Coecke van Aelst, went on a trading mission with tapestry weavers from Brussels in 1533-34, 22 years before Lorck’s journey, and his wife, Mayken Verhulst, later made a remarkable album of woodcuts from the drawings he brought back, known as Les Moeurs et fachons de faire des Turçz, depicting busy scenes, packed with down-to-earth details of Turkish table manners and toilette. These prints come closest to Lorck’s enterprise.

Lorck was attached to the embassy of Archduke Ferdinand I, led by the Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, the driven, illegitimate son of a Flemish nobleman, a humanist scholar with many interests, many languages and great patience. His mission aimed to reduce the tensions caused by Suleiman’s huge empire and to claim Hungary for his own master. Suleiman was a formidable adversary, however, and an earlier embassy had languished in his prison cells. Indeed, on arrival, Busbecq’s party was put under house arrest in the caravanserai of Elci Hani in Istanbul. This lasted for a year and a half, but Busbecq eventually succeeded in procuring a treaty (the English didn’t risk a mission until 1583).

In the first week of their confinement, Lorck drew the view from his room in the eaves. A detailed pen and ink drawing shows some of the landmarks of the great city: the Column of Arcadius in the distance (a monument from the Byzantine era, now lost) and the Sea of Marmara on the horizon, where Busbecq reported he could ‘see the dolphins leaping and sporting in the water’. It is one of the very few drawings to survive from Lorck’s stay in Turkey, and it is a very fine, unshowy act of meditative attention by a new arrival in a foreign country. The drawing isn’t composed to conform with notions of a pastoral landscape or a structured urban view: Lorck committed to paper exactly what he saw – the mortared stonework on the wall facing him, blank except for one small window, and a brick chimney stack almost in the middle of the scene. His admiration for Dürer is evident in the penmanship and the detailed attention to masonry, woodwork, rendering; in the curve and irregular tiling of rooftops and the shallow domes of the adjoining mosque’s madrasa; in the shuttered mansard windows (built to face the prevailing wind from the sea and freshen upper floors in hot weather). He recorded the many palings and fences and screens erected between buildings, some even bristling fanwise from the top of a fence which has been raised on top of another. It is a view of a view that is turning away from the viewer.

Busbecq reported wearily that the embassy building was

open to all the breezes and is therefore regarded as a healthy place of residence; the Turks, however, grudging such amenities to foreigners, not content with having blocked the view with iron bars on the windows, have added parapets, which impede both the view and the free enjoyment of fresh air. This appears to have been done in deference to the complaints of the neighbours, who declared that they had no privacy from the gaze of the Christians.

Lorck was probably trying to overcome these constraints when he looked out of the window, or perhaps his curiosity was aroused by them, because, in spite of all the attempts to prevent the gaze of Christians, he captures a tiny vignette of a couple making love on a terrace screened by rushes.

If I hadn’t gone to Copenhagen to look at Lorck’s work, I wouldn’t have noticed these figures, squirming like a sea anemone. (The editors do point them out but my trip took place before the catalogue came out, and discovering them for myself in the original work was beyond words more exciting.) Lorck doesn’t draw attention to the lovers’ presence in his roofscape, he doesn’t show or refer to erotic couplings from the Renaissance repertory. He simply sets down what he saw. His sepia ink records one tile as being as interesting as the next, in the manner of a surveyor measuring and recording. This mode was very radical for its time, and it would be hard to date the work accurately without further context. Apart from Rembrandt’s tender intimacies – and occasional frank scatology – I can’t think of another artist who makes so little fuss about looking at sex.

It isn’t possible to read into this scene a vision of the Orient as a place of ‘luxe, calme et volupté’. However fanciful or occasionally surrealist in character, Lorck’s drawings constitute an awed tribute to Ottoman wealth and efficiency: there isn’t a trace of those Orientalist preconceptions about languor, effeminacy and debauch emphasised in the commentaries excoriated by Edward Said – that tendency doesn’t emerge until a good two hundred years later. But Lorck was certainly set on finding out what he could, even if he avoids voyeurism, and voyeurism’s Orientalist obverse, condescension. His Turkish drawings include a remarkable set of studies showing women in domestic interiors – one group at prayer, another sitting down to a meal. In both cases they are pictured in their own quarters – so how did Lorck gain access? These rapid sketches look so convincing: could they be inventions? Or the result of something more clandestine? Disguise? Bribery?

Essentially Lorck was a spy; he was in Turkey to gather information about the Ottoman enemy, especially about their military organisation, armour and matériel. His work, however, provides a startling record of sights and customs, architecture and technology, people and trades, and above all costumes and caparisons. Significantly, the first publication of his Turkish work didn’t place one of his more exotic studies on the title page, but an image of a water tower, a well and a trough – three ways the Turks controlled the water supply. As a Northern European with experience of the Netherlands as well as his native Denmark, Lorck knew the importance of hydraulic engineering, and later in his life worked on projects to build dikes and wells, as well as designing fountains flowing with wine for the grand entrance of Maximilian II into Vienna in 1563.

In 1555 The Arabian Nights had not yet been translated. Other wonders, more down to earth, captured visitors’ attention. Busbecq wrote lively and informative letters from Turkey, which reveal, for example, his delight in the menagerie he collected (exotic animals as well as a herd of she-camels). As Donna Landry points out in Noble Brutes: How Eastern Horses Transformed English Culture (2009), he remarked enviously on Turkish grooms’ gentle ways with horses, compared to the crops and bits used by Europeans. He sent all kinds of plants, seeds and bulbs back to Ferdinand I, including the first tulips and lilac to reach Europe. Anna Pavord, in The Tulip, thinks the first bulbs might have arrived in Venice and the botanical gardens of Renaissance princes before Busbecq’s journey; but he gave the flower its name. In spring, Turks would tuck a single stem into a fold of their turbans, and it’s said that when Busbecq asked what this fashionable flourish was, his dragoman thought he was asking about the turban: tulband means ‘turban’ in Turkish, not ‘tulip’ (the word for that is lale, a Persian word which remembers the flower’s origins).

When Suleiman rode out of the capital in 1559 in full battle array to join his son Selim’s forces on the other side of the Bosphorus (Selim was fighting his brother Bayazid for the succession), Busbecq smuggled himself into a synagogue to watch the magnificent cavalcade file past. Later, following the army to the battlefield in Chalcedon in Anatolia, he took the opportunity, during the holy days when fighting was suspended, of entering the Ottoman camp incognito. It’s likely Lorck went with him: many of his prints show war tents, various military supplies and transports, with pack mules and dromedaries; one has a drummer boy gleefully banging away. The group of prints known as The Turkish Publication, which eventually appeared in 1626, around 40 years after Lorck’s death, gives an inventory of rank and file soldiers and officers: janissaries, archers, cavalry, standard-bearers, blacksmiths. Lorck obsessively tracks the degrees and variations of insignia and armour: the wearers and bearers are often completely concealed under huge curving bucklers embossed with monsters, their faces hidden inside vast edifices crested with bunches of exotic feathers or trailing lyre birds’ tails. The uniforms of the Turkish army had evolved according to intricate sumptuary laws. The Ottoman Empire, unlike the Habsburgs’, wasn’t built on networks of blood ties and aristocratic elites. More of a meritocracy, Ottoman society arranged individuals in groups according to rank and occupation, belief and ethnicity, with a fantastic dress code and a panoply of gear. Lorck lingers, apparently mesmerised by the elaborate battle standards, flowing with horsetails – ‘one of the most coveted booties from the combat’, the editors comment.

Lorck had a brief audience with the sultan, which he re-created afterwards in two different prints, both extraordinarily impressive, revealing his underused capacity for psychological insight: a head and shoulders portrait, and a full-length figure positioned in front of the Suleimaniye mosque, completed in 1557 (Lorck was in Istanbul for its opening). In the full-length portrait, Suleiman is standing with his right hand extended in a gesture that admonishes all those who are present to remain alert; everything about him is grave, imposing; he appears to be 12 feet tall, erect and majestic, with a curved sword reaching down to the floor, his frame flowing with gleaming silk, dwarfing an elephant which is entering the palace through the archway behind him. The painted version, which Lorck sent to the Emperor Maximilian II, has vanished.

Lorck stayed in Ottoman territory till 1559, apparently given permission to travel around; it is not quite certain where he went. The Prospect of Constantinople, signed and dated 1559, is his most ambitious achievement and the first eyewitness view of the city from a real viewpoint, as if anticipating widescreen cinemascope. It was originally made up of 21 sheets of paper glued together, and although they have now been separated for conservation purposes, the whole astonishing work is reproduced in facsimile in Vol. IV of the catalogue, with a commentary that transcribes the inscriptions Lorck entered in his spiky and lovely handwriting. He identified the palaces and mosques, classical antiquities, churches, aqueducts and schools, and the teeming shipping of the Golden Horn. The Prospect was given to the library in Leiden soon after it was completed, and used to hang in the reading room there, but was eventually rolled up and left in an attic from which it was salvaged in the 19th century; the extensive damage it had suffered looks like the work of rats as well as damp, but what remains is still a wonder.

Istanbul is magically and microscopically rendered from the heights of the fortifications in Galata, on the European side of the Bosphorus, overlooking the Golden Horn. The channel is thronged with the graceful cross-rigged dhows of the Turkish merchants, with fishing boats, naval vessels, ferries and skiffs plying the waters in a breeze that fills their sails. Lorck couldn’t really have grasped all this from a single spot, and, in one of the best contributions to the catalogue, Marco Iuliano analyses the eight vantage points he telescoped into one. But the illusory single perspective gives Lorck a chance to play wonderfully with the swollen shapes of the sails against the stacked forms of the city in all its architectural splendour. In the foreground Lorck shows himself at work; the scroll and a chalice for his ink and paint – there are washes of green and pink on the drawing – are being held for him by a seated Ottoman grandee who is wearing the huge rolled turban that marked a mufti or emir, both important definers and upholders of the law.

The self-portrait shows Lorck, then in his early thirties, as a Renaissance courtier, a graceful and youthful figure with elongated fingers as in a painting by his contemporary Parmigianino, and in every way a suitable recipient of a king’s bursary. He is operating under the benevolent supervision of a highly placed protector, so it would appear, but there are tensions: the Ottoman official is being helpful, even admiring, but he remains present and vigilant. The visiting artist is able to record the city, its layout, its dwellings, its fortifications, its trade and shipping, but only because he has been given permission, and that permission was granted because the Ottoman Empire has nothing to fear from being revealed to foreigners, so confident are its citizens, the official proclaims, in what they have achieved and what they are. So The Prospect is triple-faced: an act of intelligence-gathering by a visitor from a hostile power, a reverent homage to a munificent and enthralling country, and a message to the neighbouring European empire about what it has to reckon with.

Iuliano also provides the sources Lorck drew on: Bellini had made comparable vedute on his return from Istanbul, and the genre was further developed in Venice. A very fine Venetian woodcut of c.1520 gave Lorck his title, Byzantium sive Constantineopolis; the Turks’ own name for their city, Istanbul, is pointedly avoided. In this print by Giovanni Vavassore, Christian interests dominate and the Muslim presence – especially the conversion of churches into mosques – has been fudged, even effaced (only two religious buildings of non-Christian origin are included). Lorck doesn’t follow Vavassore’s tendency to propaganda, however. Religious monuments of all denominations are included in his panorama, with Hagia Sophia, Justinian’s great basilica, and its brand new offspring, the Suleimaniye mosque, dominating the skyline.

His depiction of what he saw rather than what European interests wanted to see bears on contemporary religious struggles and on the position of his birthplace in Reformation Europe; but it also has relevance to current approaches to religion and politics. Among the styles Lorck adopts, two can be picked out: his Mannerist drawings, on the one hand, aesthetically elegant in their elongation and ornament and, on the other, a large body of work which represents information in more unvarnished form. The first, Italianate style derives from what Lorck saw on his Grand Tour; the second, a late Gothic manner, is closer to German art: both modes resist naturalism in favour of artifice, to curious, almost uncanny effect. Before leaving Northern Europe Lorck had made a portrait of Luther, as well as some ferocious cartoons; The Pope as a Savage, for example, shows a diabolical wild man standing in the flames of hell, where monks and nuns and bishops are burning. Lorck’s two modes can be divided along religious lines, the first Roman Catholic, the second Protestant. The ensuing tensions are evident when he comes to look at Muslim culture. The portraits of Suleiman have a hieratic stiffness and an almost unearthly majesty that resembles the style cultivated by the Safavid Persian Empire, and perfected by the Mughals in India – Akbar came to the throne there in 1556. These were Ottoman Turkey’s rivals to the east, and the cross-cultural conversations between the two great Muslim courts would prove very lively, shaping the human image in the East for centuries (as shown by the current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, The Indian Portrait, which opens with works made the year after Lorck left Turkey).

It was only natural that Lorck would absorb some aesthetic lessons from his hosts, and borrow local visual material, from styles in portraiture to mapping and calligraphic ornament. But the influence went further: his Turkish work, with its often faceless human subjects, its empty urban spaces, its graphic and formal patterning, is ultimately anti-realist and aniconic. When he draws interiors, scenes of dancing and music-making, he seems to revert to a Mannerist style; but when he records the customs and costumes of the people around him, he seems to bow to the Islamic prohibition on lifelike representation. Only God can make life, according to Muslim precept, so artists must refrain from making any image that looks real. During the time Lorck was travelling, Reformation wrangling about the Second Commandment continued and iconoclastic passions rose and fell in Germany, Switzerland and England: Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon and Zwingli had all argued about the permitted limits to artistic deception, for the devil is the ape of God and counterfeiting is his strong suit. Luther recommended that artists condense images into signs and symbols rather than adopt the impassioned illusionism of Catholic art. He abhorred the highly wrought verismo perfected by Spanish sculptors of the Counter-Reformation, although he allowed cheap holy pictures because they were ‘images of memory’, prompts to devotion. ‘In other words,’ the art historian Hanne Kolind Poulsen writes,

you do not believe in these rough reproductions … but they remind you of something; something that you already know. This was precisely what an image should do. The correct function of an image was not primarily to represent something in a visually convincing way but rather to refer to something – the Word or the dogma – as a sign to remind one of it.

She suggests that Lorck was following Lutheran precepts when he made his human figures so toy-like and unreal, and compares his work to Cranach’s ‘sign-like’ portraits, pointing out how close Cranach was to Luther. Lorck’s impersonality, the equivalence he makes between a pyramid and a person, his eye for a plumed helmet rather than the face of the soldier wearing it, could also result from a constraint he felt – or had learned to observe – that arose not only from Protestant precepts, but Muslim strictures against image-making.

When he returned home, the status of images was still an important issue: iconoclasm swept through the Netherlands in 1566. But, at the same time, no Reformer in Europe could make common ground with Islam or invoke its principles, even though the churches of Germany and Holland hung blazons of scripture on their walls instead of saints, not unlike the magnificent panels of the Names of God and Koranic suras that decorate mosques. Lorck’s subsequent activities, as he tried to publish his work from Turkey and rather desperately petitioned royal patrons to help him, reveal someone who felt he had to prove he has not, absolutely not, ‘turned Turk’. His work, which had begun to share qualities with eastern ways of seeing, had to be reframed to look convincingly uncontaminated and Christian.

The strain shows in the plans he kept making to publish the engravings of his drawings. The first publication (which did not appear until 1626) begins with the sheet showing three different kinds of water management, but other versions give pride of place to a mosque with storm clouds gathering above it, and a hand of God appearing through thunder clouds and lightning. He also wrote a poem ominously called ‘A Song of the Turk and the Antichrist’. The facsimile is included here: a blackletter Gothick opuscule, with a trumpeting angel of doom on the cover, it laments the plight of Christian prisoners under the Ottomans. Fischer points out that no prisoners fared well at that time, and calls the work ‘larmoyant’ (elsewhere he describes it as ‘slightly hypocritical’). Lorck also complains of the hardships he endured in a ‘barbaric country’. To an image of the sanctuary of Mecca, he adds a capriccio of buildings, including a Christian church. In a new commentary to his portrait of Suleiman, published in 1574, he condemned the sultan’s features, describing them (the editors tell us) as ‘gruesome and evil’. But this edition, known only in a single copy, went up in flames during the Allied bombing of Hamburg, known as Operation Gomorrah.

Two conclusions can be drawn from this publishing history and from Lorck’s shifts: first, religion was introduced to provide a motive for his narrative, although it had originally been concerned with power, both financial and military; second, the more an individual artist might owe to cross-cultural inspiration, the less it could be acknowledged in a climate of fear and antagonism. Lorck’s attempt to persuade a patron to subsidise his Turkish project failed, and after working briefly for Rudolf II, a collector of curiosities and a kindred spirit for the Danish artist, he disappears from view around 1583; the last known drawings by him depict, in his Italianate/Catholic style, two African figures, A Woman of Nigeria and A Woman of the Gambia. So he seems to have continued his travels.

In a letter to the new Danish king, Frederik II, written when he was hunting for a patron, he said: ‘I do not bring home gold, pearls and treasures, for they were not the cause of my travels … therefore I present what I have.’ He then searched for a metaphor for his motives: ‘For (to speak what is already on my tongue) if it were possible for me to move freely about in the sea, then I would rather imitate the fish – especially the large ones – than begin groping for pearls and precious stones.’ He tries to persuade his prospective protector of his good faith, and switches to another metaphor: ‘Indeed,’ he continues, ‘could I bodily step in and out of heaven, neither effort nor danger would restrain me.’ Lorck’s images move from the freedom of the fish in the sea to another kind of freedom of movement, an angelic mobility between earth and sky. These two points of identification are embodied in the tortoise he drew flying over the Venetian lagoon. The creature, so far from being a natural candidate for flight, was an ideal alter ego for a struggling artist-traveller, a lumbering grounded animal who wanted to find a different vantage point.

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