Ottoman Baroque

The Architectural Refashioning of Eighteenth-Century Istanbul

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Ünver Rüstem
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , April
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ottoman Baroque, an insightful study of an architectural style that flourished during a period that has until recently been relatively neglected in Islamic art history, presents a clear, compelling case for the revision of dominant views of Islamic cultural production in the 18th century. Supported by an impressive combination of color photographs, historic images, and architectural floor plans, Ünver Rüstem argues especially against established readings of the appearance of the Baroque stylistic turn in the Ottoman Empire. His reinterpretation of this style refutes the dominant tone of much earlier literature on the subject with its dismissive tropes of the “superficial” nature of surface elaboration and the decadence with which it had been associated by earlier generations of critics. In contrast, Rüstem reminds us that “the rich surface effect that is so much a feature of Ottoman Baroque was . . . a boon rather than a shortcoming, even if modern scholars have treated it as mere applied ornament” (226).

In this reading, Rüstem calls for critical consideration of the possibility of “ornament transcending itself” (76) to new levels of engagement with the cosmic resonance and political implications of this new style. He characterizes Ottoman Baroque as both “an emerging elite model . . . tied to state interests” (68), and a “triumphalist statement” (70) by a state in what has often been regarded by modern historians as being in decline. This critical revisionist view is built upon a thoughtful set of investigations into how baroque “worked” in the Ottoman context—framing this operation in terms of processes of “assimilation”—and not simply the “transmission” of foreign models (94). Key roles were played by minority actors, and Christians in particular, who rose to “greater prominence as patrons and tastemakers” (108) during the period of the ascendance of the Ottoman Baroque.

At the same time, however, Rüstem encourages us to look beyond any simplistic view of “dhimmi influence” (157) to consider a more complex conception of cross-cultural aesthetics, in which this much-maligned style is appreciated as demonstrating not only an extensive knowledge of Western models, but also a willingness to reshape them in light of local concerns and aesthetic preferences (66, 88).

Rüstem then presents a view of grand public monuments of the period as reflecting ways in which Baroque elements were “thoroughly localized” (146) by Ottoman patrons and builders. He takes as his prime example the Nuruosmaniye mosque complex in Istanbul. He presents the Nuruosmaniye here as both a “tour de force of Ottoman Baroque design and decoration” (115), and an audacious departure from the Ottoman tradition which “held that only a sultan who had earned the title of ghazi by vanquishing an ‘infidel’ enemy was eligible to found a great mosque complex in his own honor, particularly in the capital” (117).

Furthermore, Rüstem’s reappreciation of this Ottoman Baroque monument reflects a striking revival of the culture of sultanic mosque construction in the capital, which had languished for nearly a century. He strengthens this art-historical argument by paying particular attention to the ritual and ceremonial dimensions of the new architectural spaces of Ottoman Baroque buildings as prominent sites of both display and cross-cultural interaction. Structures in this style evoked a new sense of imperial power and distinction in which the Ottomans could assert their own claim in a share of the heritage of antiquity in the refashioning of the metropolis of Istanbul.

At the same time, Rüstem highlights the ways in which the Ottoman Baroque resonated well beyond the borders of the empire as a testament to participation in a thriving “international” culture style as Baroque provided an idiom of cross-cultural intelligibility (43) in the 18th century. Far from being an example the decadent architecture of a period of decline, then, we see are able to view monuments in this style as expression of a vibrant new vision for the empire.   

Recent revisionist historiographies of Sufism, hadith studies, and theology have served to overturn much of the standing of earlier assumptions about the 18th century as a period of intellectual stagnation or decline in Islamic history. In contrast to orientalist appreciations of the 16th-century as the “Golden Age” of Sinan, the aesthetic production of the 18th century has however until now remained all too often characterized as “an index of insecurity” or as a representation of a “loosening of architectural decorum” (2). Rüstem’s work in this stimulating new book provides a striking corrective to this. His new interpretive approach to the visual culture of the period, moreover, engages with broader contexts of religious, political, and social change in ways that reflect the Ottoman’s looking toward European political and military innovations of the period “with a pragmatic and resourceful eye, importing models only insofar as they served, and could be modified to suit, the empire’s own tradition and needs” (9).

This point is vividly reinforced by Rüstem’s judicious comparative attention to the broader global history of Baroque, from Latin America to East Asia, and with particularly insightful comparisons to the Romanov Russian grand design of St. Petersburg. As Rüstem effectively argues, “the Russian case proves that the Baroque had ceased by the eighteenth century to be a European monopoly, and that its global spread was not dependent on colonial transplantation” (161). This pushes us to move beyond what he characterizes as “the limiting context of East-West alterity to the more fruitful realm of global modernity” (11), and toward a model of globalization that presents a fresh alternative to the long-established debates about “westernization” during the period of Islamic history discussed in this work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

R. Michael Feener is Professor of Humanities at the Kyoto University Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and an Associate Member of the History Faculty at the University of Oxford.

Date of Review: 
July 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ünver Rüstem is Assistant Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at Johns Hopkins University.


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