WHEN in your caique upon the Bosphorus you have passed the * Tower of Leander, [* The Maiden's Tower] you see opposite Scutari an immense, unfinished palace that bathes its white feet in the blue and rapid waters. There is a superstition in the East, supported by the architects, that no one dies while the house he is having built is uncompleted; therefore the Sultans always take care to have some palace on hand.
As a rare instance among the Turks, who consecrate solid and precious materials to the house of God and erect for the transitory habitation of man only wooden kiosks hardly more enduring than himself, this palace is all of marble and built for eternity. It is composed of one great body and two wings. To say to what order of architecture it belongs would be difficult; it is not Greek, nor Roman, nor Gothic, nor Renaissance, nor Saracen, nor Arab, nor Turkish; it approaches that style which the Spaniards call plateresco and which makes the façade of a building resemble a great piece of goldsmith's work owing to the complicated wealth of its ornaments and the maddening mass of the details.
Windows with open-work balconies, small enwreathed columns, ribbed trefoils, festooned frames, and intervening spaces crowded with sculpture and arabesques, recall the Lombard style and make you think of the ancient palaces of Venice; only there is the same difference between the Palace Dario or Casa d'oro and the Sultan's Palace as between the Grand Canal and the Bosphorus.
This enormous building of Marmora marble, of a bluish white that seems a little cold owing to the sharp glitter from its newness, produces a very majestic effect between the blue of the sky and the blue of the sea; it will produce a better one when the warm sun of Asia shall have gilded it with its rays which are received direct and at first-hand. Vignola, doubtless, would not know what to make of this hybrid facade where the styles of all periods and all countries form a composite order which he did not foresee. But one cannot deny that this multitude of flowers, foliage, and rose-work, carved like jewels of precious material possesses a tufted and complicated appearance, gorgeous and delightful to the eye. It is a palace that might have been made by an ornament-worker who was not an architect, and who spared neither the work of his hands, nor time, nor money. Such as it is, I prefer it to those horrid, classic reproductions, so beastly, so flat, so cold and so tiresome, such as are built by pedants and those who like to be conventional, and I greatly prefer these gay, ornamental masses of foliage interlacing with fantastic elegance, to a triangular pediment or a horizontal attic, resting on six or eight lean columns.
This native ignorance displayed upon so gigantic a scale has its charm; it is probable that the bold builders of our cathedrals knew little more, and their works are not the less admirable for that.
Along the whole length of the palace, there runs a platform, bordered on the side of the Bosphorus with monumental pillars linked together by grilles of beautiful and charming wrought-iron, where the iron curves in a thousand flowered arabesques, resembling the flourishes of a bold pen sweeping the paper. These gilded grilles form an extremely rich balustrade.
The two wings, built at a different period, are very much too low for the body of the principal dwelling, with which they have, moreover, no harmony of style or form. Imagine a double row of Odeons or Chambers of Deputies in miniature, following each other in wearisome alternation and presenting to the eye a line of slender little columns that seem to be of wood, although they are of marble.
In passing and repassing before this palace, the desire to visit it had come to me many times. In Italy nothing would have been simpler; but to bring your caique to an imperial landing-place in Turkey, would be a grave performance that might bring serious consequences. Happily, through the agency of a friend, I was put into communication with the architect, M. Balyan, a young Armenian of great intelligence, and who spoke French.
M. Balyan had the kindness to take me in his boat of three pairs of oars, and made me enter first an old kiosk, a remnant of the former palace, where we were served with pipes, coffee, and sherbet flavoured with rose, then he conducted me himself through the apartments with a kindness and charming politeness for which I thank him here, hoping that one day his eye will fall upon these lines.
The interior has not been entirely finished yet, but, nevertheless, you can get an idea of the future splendour of the whole. The religious ideas of the Turks debar from their ornamentation a host of happy motives and restrict considerably the fancy of the artist, who must carefully abstain from mingling with his arabesques the representation of any living objects: thus, there are no statues, no bas-reliefs, no masks, no chimaeras, no griffins, no dolphins, no birds, no sphinxes, no serpents, no butterflies, no little figures half-woman and half-flower, no heraldic monsters, and none of those strange creatures that compose the fabulous zoology of ornamentation, and of which Raphael has made such marvellous use in the galleries of the Vatican.
The Arabian style, with its interruptions, distortions and its broken lines, its lace of stucco cut out with a punch, its ceilings of stalactites, its bee-hive niches, its marble perforated like the lid of a perfume-box, its mottos in florid Cufic, and its colourings of green, white and red, discretely enhanced with gold, would have afforded natural resources for the decoration of an oriental palace; but the Sultan, with the same caprice that makes us build Alhambras in Paris, wished to have a palace in the modern taste. One is astonished at first at his caprice, but, upon reflection, nothing is more natural. Having so few motives at his disposition, M. Balyan has needed a rare fertility of imagination in order to decorate in different ways more than three hundred halls or chambers.
The general arrangement is very simple: the rooms follow each other in succession, or open upon a large corridor; the harem, among others, is so arranged. The apartment of each woman opens by a single door into a vast passage, like the cells of nuns in a cloister. At each end, a guard of eunuchs, or bostangis, can be posted. From the threshold, I threw a glance over this retreat of secret pleasure, which resembles a convent or a boarding-school much more than one would imagine. Here are extinguished, without having shone upon the outside world, the stars of beauty unknown, but the eye of the master has rested upon them, for one minute perhaps, and that is enough.
The apartment of the Sultana Valide, composed of lofty rooms looking upon the Bosphorus, is remarkable for its ceilings painted in fresco with an incomparable elegance and freshness. I do not know who are the workmen that made these marvels, but Diaz would not find upon his palette finer, more vaporous, more tender and, at the same time, richer tones. Sometimes they are skies of turquoise sown with light clouds floating in incredible depths, sometimes immense lace veils of marvellous figures, then a great shell of mother-of-pearl irised with all the hues of the prism, or still again of imaginary flowers hanging their corollas and leaves upon golden trellises; other chambers are similarly ornamented; sometimes a casket whose jewels arc scattered about in playful disorder, necklaces whose pearls have broken from their strings and roll about like rain-drops, a rillet of diamonds, sapphires and rubies forming the motif of the decoration; golden boxes painted upon the cornices allow the bluish smoke of perfumes to escape and compose a ceiling with their transparent haze. Here Phingari through a rift in the cloud shows his silver crescent, so dear to the Mussulman; there modest Aurora colours a morning sky with rose, like the cheeks of virgin; farther away a large piece of brocade streaked with light glittering like cloth of gold, and held up by a clasp of carbuncles, reveals a corner of blue. Arabesques with infinite interlacings, sculptured compartments, golden rose-work, and bouquets of imaginary or real flowers, blue lilies of Iran, or roses of Schiraz, come to vary these themes, the chief of which I have cited, without attempting to enter into impossible details, and which the imagination of the reader must supplement.
The Sultan's apartments are in the style of Louis XIV. Orientalized, where one feels an intentional imitation of the splendours of Versailles, the doors, the windows, and their frames are of cedar, mahogany, massive violet-ebony, exquisitely carved, and fastening by rich bolts gilded in ormoulu. From the windows you have the most marvellous view in the world: a panorama without a rival, and such as never sovereign had before in front of his palace. The coast of Asia, where upon an immense curtain of black cypress Scutari stands out, with its picturesque landing-place crowded with vessels, its pink houses, its white mosques among which are distinguished Buyuck-Djami and Sultan Selim; and the Bosphorus with its rapid and transparent waters furrowed with the perpetual going and coming of the sailing-vessels, steam-boats, feluccas, prames, boats from Ismid and Trebizond, with antique shapes, peculiar sails, canoes, and caiques, above which fly the familiar swarms of sea-mews and gulls. If you lean out a little, you can discern upon the two shores a succession of summer homes and kiosks, painted in flesh colours that form a double key of palaces for this marvellous marine river. Add to this the thousand accidents of lights, the effects of sun and moon, and you will have a spectacle which imagination could not surpass.
One of the peculiarities of the palace is a large hall roofed with a dome of red glass. When the sun shines through this dome of rubies, everything assumes strange hues; the air seems to be in flames, and you seem to breathe fire; the columns seem like torch-lights, the marble pavement reddens into a floor of lava; a pink fire devours the walls; you fancy yourself in the reception-hall of a palace of salamanders built of metal in fusion; your eyes glitter like red spangles and your clothes become vestments of purple. An operatic hell, lighted with Bengal fire, can alone give an idea of this peculiar effect, of a questionable taste, perhaps, but very striking, nevertheless.
A little marvel which would not mar the most fairy-like architecture of the Thousand and One Nights, is the Sultan's hall of baths. It is in the Moorish style, of veined Egyptian alabaster, and seems to have been cut out of one block of precious stone, with its columns, its splayed capitals, its heart-shaped arcades, and its ceiling constellated with crystal eyes that shine like diamonds. To what luxury might the body abandon itself upon these flags, transparent as agates, surrendering its flexible limbs to the skilful manipulations of the tellacks in the midst of a cloud of perfumed vapour and under a shower of rose-water and balsam!
Tired of these marvels and fatigued with admiration, I thanked M. Balyan, who made me come out through the court of honour, the gate of which is a kind of triumphal arch of white marble of a very rich and florid ornamentation, and which forms on the land side an entrance quite worthy of this sumptuous palace. Then, as I was dying of hunger, I went into a fruiterer's shop and was served with two brochettes of kabobs, wrapped in a thick pancake, which I moistened with a glass of sherbet, a very sober and entirely local repast.
Romantic Castles and Palaces, As Seen and Described by Famous Writers, Edited and Translated by Esther Singleton. 1901.
The Palacee of the Bosphorus by Théophile Gautier . Note: From original text; may contain OCR errors.