Mementos from Habsburg Life in Ottoman Istanbul

Episode 465

What was it like to be a foreigner living in Ottoman Istanbul? In this episode, our guest Robyn Dora Radway answers this question by providing an in-depth look at an unusual type of document: alba amicorum, or friendship albums, which were essentially the social media of the sixteenth century. Produced in the Habsburg embassy (aka the “German House"), these albums functioned like yearbooks in that the owners residing in the embassy would strive to collect all manner of mementos from their time abroad, including signatures, poems, short anecdotes, and even drawings and paintings. At the German House, men from all walks of life would end up assembling their own album amicorum, from the Habsburg ambassador to the cook (who was quite popular and had the largest album by far). We discuss how these albums can thus serve as a valuable resource for historians, as they offer a full picture of the social makeup of these kinds of diplomatic spaces—information that does not often turn up in more traditional archives.

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Contributor Bios

Robyn Dora Radway is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Central European University, Budapest/Vienna. She specializes in Habsburg Central Europe and its imperial entanglements across internal and external borders. She has recently published articles in Austrian History Yearbook, Journal of Early Modern History, and Archivum Ottomanicum. Her current book project, “Paper Portraits of Empire: Habsburg Albums from the German House in Constantinople,” examines what it meant to be a “Habsburg subject” through archival materials and a set of manuscripts containing painted images, decorated papers, and friendship albums from the Habsburg ambassador’s residence in Constantinople.
Emily Neumeier is Assistant Professor of Art History at Temple University. Her research concerns the art and architecture of the Islamic world, particularly of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. She is co-curator of our series on The Visual Past.


Episode No. 465
Release Date: 5 July 2020
Recording Location: Budapest, Hungary
Audio editing by Emily Neumeier
Music: "Fast Csardas from Bonchida" by MetroFolk (2008)
Bibliography and links courtesy of Robyn Dora Radway


Figure 1. Habsburg Ambassador’s procession to the Topkapı Palace, 1573, Album Amicorum and Travel Log of Lambert Wyts, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 3325 Han, fol. 163r. This image of the Habsburg resident ambassador’s procession into the Sultan’s palace for an audience captures the energy and spectacle leading up to the main event in an embassy: the face-to-face encounter between the ambassador and the reigning Sultan. Here a sea of turbaned Ottoman officials leads the ambassador and his retinue through the first courtyard towards the gates of the imperial palace.

Figure 2. Signature of Ali Bey (born Melchior von Tierberg) with image of himself (?) holding a chalice, dated 1591 May 9, Album Amicorum of Helmhart Hayden von Dorf, Linz, Oberösterreichisches Landesarchiv, Schlüsselbergerarchiv, Hs. 138, fol. 63r. This evocative image of a turbaned man in black robes holding a chalice is individualized enough to suggest it may in fact be a portrait of the man who signed above it, the Ottoman dragoman Ali Bey. Ali Bey, who was born in Friedberg in der Wetterau as Melchior von Tierberg, was captured in 1566 during the Siege of Szigetvar and became a translator in the Ottoman administration as early as 1571. His signature here, dated to 1591 May 9, comes from shortly after his appointment as the German House’s official translator (Hausdragoman).

Figure 3. Sketch of a soldier on horseback, c. 1575, Album Amicorum of Stephan Haymb, Copenhagen, Royal Library, Thott 1279 kvart, fol. 198r. The two superimposed sketches of a soldier on horseback on this folio reveal clues about the process of creating costume-book images in the German House. This soldier on horseback with his winged-hussar targe (shield) and animal skin as well as 26 other incomplete sketches from the same manuscript are closely connected in style and content to four albums of Lambert de Vos, the official painter of resident ambassador Karl Rijm. De Vos and his patron departed exactly one year prior to first signature collected by Stephan Haymb in this album (1575 November). This suggests that de Vos left behind a series of preparatory drawings which were incorporated into Haymb’s album. Several of these designs were then adapted by new resident artists.

Figure 4. Soldier on horseback painted on silhouette paper, c. 1591-2, Album Amicorum of Johann Reichart von Steinbach, Gotha, Forschungsbibliothek, Signatur: Chart. B 1039, fol. 306v. Here we see an example of one of these later adaptations. This is one of a set of finely executed costume-book images bound into one of the last surviving albums from the late 16th century. The soldier bears stylistic resemblance to the works of another artist who passed through the German House, Georg Wickgram. With several details enhanced with gold, image forms part of one of the richest set of decorated papers and costume images from the German House.

Figure 5. Murad III, 1573, Album Amicorum of Christoph Pfister, Stuttgart, Württembergische Landesbibliothek, 888-21, fol. 100r. According to a note on the back, this portrait of the reigning Ottoman Sultan Murad III was painted from life (ad vivum) for Christoph Pfister. Pfister, a patrician from Augsburg, began collecting signatures in 1559 during his years studying in Padua and Venice. Between 1573 and 1575, Pfister joined David Ungnad’s embassy in Constantinople, where he likely commissioned the outgoing resident ambassador’s artist, Lambert de Vos, to paint this portrait. 

Figure 6. Signature of Hans Bernhard von Manning, 1590 October 25, Album Amicorum of Johann Joachim Prack von Asch, Getty Research Institute, 2013.M.24, fol. 122r. This is the only signature of a man named Hans Bernhard von Manning from the German House in Constantinople, appearing alongside an image of a covered woman on horseback with an attendant carrying a saddlecloth. Above the image in a different hand from the signature, someone wrote the motto: “Bedenckh dich, Umbsich dich, nicht versprich dich” (“Be reflexive, act with caution, do not misspeak”). Hans Bernhard is one of dozens of individuals for whom the only record of their presence in the house is their signature.

Figure 7. Signature of dragoman Augerio Zeffi, 1588 June, Album Amicorum of Johann Joachim Prack von Asch, Getty Research Institute, 2013.M.24, fol. 189v. One of the most popular men signing albums in the German House was Augerio Zeffi, a native of Galata who followed his father’s footsteps in working for the Habsburg ambassadors as a translator. His signature appears on an artfully marbled folio that may have been a collaboration between Ottoman paper makers and residents of the German House who were great decorated paper enthusiasts.


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