Five hundred years after his death, Leonardo da Vinci’s interaction with the Ottomans is memorialised in his designs for a bridge and his overtures to the Ottoman Sultans of the time.

The Renaissance genius Leonardo Da Vinci passed away in May 1519, and on the 500-year commemoration of his death, museums and media have reflected on his life’s legacy. At the same time, Da Vinci is also making the news as the painting Salvator Mundi, drawn by him or one of his assistants, has allegedly been installed in the yacht of Saudi crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, instead of its planned destination, Abu Dhabi’s branch of the Louvre. 

While attention has focused on the Mona Lisa or the Last Supper, and now the Salvator Mundi, one of his many unrealised projects was a proposed bridge in Istanbul. 

His life’s legacy demonstrates that even while the physical bridge was never built, his overtures to the Sultan symbolise his construction of a cultural bridge between Renaissance Italy and the Ottoman Empire.

A bridge for the Sultan

In his lifetime Da Vinci had numerous, powerful patrons, from the Duke of Milan to the King of France. But he had also sought the patronage of Sultan Bayezid II in 1502.

Either during Da Vinci’s sojourn in Venice or Rome, he submitted designs to the Ottoman Sultan for a bridge to span the Golden Horn inlet of the Bosphorus, in order to link the districts of Eminonu to Karakoy.

I, your faithful servant, understand that it has been your intention to erect a bridge from Galata to Stambul, but that this has not been done because there were no experts available. I, your faithful servant, know how to do it.

Leonardo Da Vinci's letter to Sultan Bayezid II - 1502 (Topkapi Archives)

As specified by Ludwig H. Heydenreich in his book, Leonardo the Inventor, the Sultan was exasperated by Da Vinci’s project and rejected as it was too advanced for its time. DaVinci’s plans included a parabolic curve, keystone arch, and a pressed bow, a method that would not be developed until 300 years later.

Da Vinci’s rival, Michelangelo, was invited to design the bridge, as well as paint and sculpt for Ottoman Selim I, but he was already committed to another project. In 1506 Pope Julius II had commissioned Michelangelo to work on Saint Peter’s Basilica. If history had gone in a different direction, art history would have had a portrait of Selim I instead of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. 

If Da Vinci’s first bridge plan was not ambitious enough, he even proposed building a bridge across continents: “I plan to build a suspension bridge across the Bosphorus to allow people to travel between Europe and Asia. By the power of God, I hope you will believe my words.” That project was not realised until 1973, which was then the fourth largest suspension bridge in the world. 

The design for the smaller bridge did serve as an inspiration to Norwegian artist Vebjorn Sand, who used Da Vinci’s design for the construction of a pedestrian walkway in As, Norway, the first civil-engineering project based on a Leonardo sketch.

“Da Vinci’s Demons”

While Da Vinci’s bridge may be a forgotten footnote of history, his relationship with the Ottomans served as the basis for the plot of a historical fantasy series on the Starz TV network based loosely on his life, “Da Vinci’s Demons,” which aired from 2013 to 2015.

The series, focusing on the life of a young Leonardo, places him in the southern Italian town of Otranto before the 1480 Ottoman incursion into the Italian peninsula – even though there is no historical evidence of him ever being there at this time.

The question remains as to why the writers of this show invented a role for Leonardo witnessing an Ottoman amphibious invasion of the Italian peninsula, instead of focusing on his attempts to work for the Empire.

On one level, an invasion is more entertaining than building bridges. But the series’ decision is also a reflection of our times when volatile relations between the West and the Middle East are reflected in pop culture.

This phenomenon is witnessed in another 2014 historical fantasy film, “Dracula Untold.” One headline reviewing the film reads “Dracula Gets a Makeover for the ISIS Age in Dracula Untold,”  revealing how these media are a reflection of our contemporary zeitgeist.

Both the Starz TV series and Dracula Untold went into production before Daesh’s dramatic seizure of Mosul in 2014, but nonetheless, both artefacts of Hollywood culture serve as a reflection of widespread anxiety over groups such as Al Qaeda or Daesh.

Bram Stoker's original novel was a reflection of Victorian-era fears of Eastern European immigrants. While the historical figure Vlad Tepes from modern-day Romania did fight Ottoman forces, this aspect of history was never a factor in the original novel or the many Hollywood remakes throughout the twentieth century.

In the post-9/11 era, the anti-Muslim sentiment is resurrected for the gothic protagonist who resurrected himself to combat the Ottomans, a stand-in for militant Islam in the 21st century.

 Leonardo’s bridge across cultures

The entertainment mentioned above are cultural artefacts of a clash of civilisations ethos that has filtered into mass media. However, the overture by Leonardo to the Sultan breaks down binaries of the West versus Islam, where despite religious differences, culture flowed, and aesthetics and beauty mattered was not suppressed in favour of religion or geopolitics of the time.

The Ottoman court actively courted renaissance artists. Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople (and also Otranto), also employed Italian humanists who read to the Sultan daily from Livy and the Venetian painter Gentile Bellini came to Istanbul to paint the Sultan’s portrait which today hangs in the National Gallery in London.

While the Renaissance is viewed as a phenomenon that serves as the basis of “Western civilisation,” the interaction between the Italian peninsula and the Ottoman Empire demonstrates it was a greater Mediterranean process, a product of hybridity rather than dichotomies between East and West. 

Da Vinci’s artistic legacy never made it to the region during his lifetime. Ideally, if the Salvator Mundi were to be placed in a public museum, instead of a private yacht, the bridge between Renaissance Italy and the region might finally be fulfilled. 

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