Views of Constantinople: The Freshfield Album online

black rhino
A young black rhino, from the Freshfield Album (Trinity College Library MS O.17.2)

One of Trinity College Library’s more intriguing manuscripts is an album of sketches of the architectural highlights of Constantinople. Several of the drawings are dated 1574, and it seems that they were produced by a Western artist visiting Constantinople as part of the diplomatic entourage sent to the Levant by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II. The album, a simple gathering of folio sheets sewn into a plain vellum wrapper, was presented to Trinity in 1935 by Edwin Hanson Freshfield, a member of the College with antiquarian interests, whose father (also Edwin) had acquired it in the late-nineteenth century. It has been available to researchers ever since, and has now been made freely available online for the first time as part of the Wren Digital Library. The original manuscript will also be on display in the Wren Library during normal opening hours for the next three months.

Gilles title page
The Column of Arcadius, on the title page of a later edition of Petrus Gyllius, De topographia Constantinopoleos (U.3.14)

The Freshfield Album contains 21 sketches in watercolour and ink. Nine of the pictures are of columns too high to illustrate on the pages of the album and have folded sheets attached to extend them. Several of the illustrations include notes derived from the French topographer Pierre Gilles, whose guide to the antiquities of Constantinople, De topographia Constantinopoleos, had been printed in 1561.

Freshfield, who delivered a lecture to the Society of Antiquaries in 1922 on the subject of his album, proposed that the artist may have been Stefan Gerlach, chaplain to David Ungnad von Zonneck, the Imperial envoy to Constantinople. More recently it has become clear that the volume is in some ways a companion volume to an album of Ottoman costumes compiled in very similar style by Lambert de Vos, a Flemish artist also resident in Istanbul in 1574 as part of the Habsburg embassy. This manuscript is now Ms. or. 9 in the Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek in Bremen. A near-identical manuscript to the Bremen album is available here. The drawings in the Freshfield Album are so detailed that it might be that they were intended for use as copperplate engravings, but no evidence has yet been found of their reproduction elsewhere at the time. In the twentieth century the album become better known as a major source of iconographic information, and several pictures have been reproduced in studies and exhibition catalogues.

view of Istanbul

A panoramic view shows the Hippodrome at Constantinople, with the basilica of Hagia Sophia in the background and the obelisk of Pharaoh Thutmose III, the Bronze Serpent column and the Walled Obelisk of Constantine VII in the foreground. More detailed illustrations of each of these are found earlier in the album, together with a painting of Constantine’s Column.

ColumnThe most important pictures in the Freshfield Album are three depictions of the triumphal Column of Arcadius, completed in 421 as a commemoration of the Roman triumph over the Goths in 400. The column was some fifty metres tall, topped by a statue of Arcadius which had fallen off by the time the drawings were made. The illustrations also show the cracks which had appeared in the column and the metal bands which had secured it, but these were not sufficient to save it from collapse following an earthquake in the early eighteenth century. Only the core of the base section survives today, now surrounded by newer buildings in central Istanbul, with the entry to the spiral staircase that had led to the top. The close attention to detail in the Freshfield Album allows a full understanding of the narrative content of the spiral frieze, and constitutes the major surviving evidence of one of the grandest monuments ever erected in the later Roman Empire.

column detail
Detail of the column

The Album also includes illustrations of the mosque and tomb of Suleiman the Magnificent, who had died in 1566. Another picture on a separate sheet of paper later added to the volume shows a contemporary event. In 1574 Suleiman’s son Sultan Selim II died, sultan tombsand was succeeded by his son Murad, whose first act as Sultan was to prevent the risk of insurrection from within the family by having his five younger brothers strangled. The artist shows the tombs of the deceased family displayed in a tent between the former basilica of Hagia Sophia and the Imperial Harem.

grey rhino

Finally, there are two paintings of young rhinoceroses, reportedly brought to Constantinople from Abyssinia. It is known that there was a menagerie near the Hippodrome, so these smartly-attired beasts were probably among the animals on display. Although somewhat later than Albrecht Dürer’s famous woodcut of 1515, these images still rank among the earliest Western depictions of the rhino.

3 thoughts on “Views of Constantinople: The Freshfield Album online

  1. Pingback: Friday Varia and Quick Hits | The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

  2. I was surprised to find this online! What a wonderful record it is. Do we know what happened to the stone from the column of Arcadius? Was it used to build something else? Perhaps it will be possible to find more fragments from it, including sculpture. Someday I hope there will be a complete inventory made of all of the marble and granite columns in Istanbul that were reused in later buildings. There are also many marble parts reused in Topkapi Palace. I’ll bet all if the columns used in the Hagia Sophia altar screen could be easily located nearby.

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