The voice is that of a court painter, a miniaturist, in the Ottoman world of the sixteenth century. “Two years ago,” he says, “I traveled once again to Venice as the Sultan’s ambassador,” where he studied the portraits made by the Venetian masters. “More than anything,” he continues, “the image was of an individual, somebody like myself. It was an infidel, of course, not one of us. As I stared at him, though, I felt as if I resembled him. Yet he didn’t resemble me at all. He had a full round face that seemed to lack cheekbones, and moreover, he had no trace of my marvelous chin. Though he didn’t look anything like me, as I gazed upon the picture, for some reason, my heart fluttered as if it were my own portrait.”
Describing the painting’s setting, and its inclusion of still-life objects associated with both the sitter’s way of life and allegorical themes like the passing of time, the miniaturist recalls how his mind seized upon a mystery. “What was the narrative that this representation was meant to embellish and complete? As I regarded the work, I slowly sensed that the underlying tale was the picture itself. The painting wasn’t the extension of a story at all, it was something in its own right.” Somehow, he seems to believe, this kind of autonomous, self-contained pictorial invention was no longer a thread in a pre-existing narrative but the secret ingredient of communicating individuality in art. “If you’d never seen that man, if they told you to pick him out of a crowd of a thousand others, you’d be able to select the correct man with the help of that portrait. The Venetian masters had discovered painting techniques with which they could distinguish any one man from another,” the miniaturist marvels, “without relying on his outfit or medals, just by the distinctive shape of his face. This was the essence of ‘portraiture.’”
The author I’ve been quoting is Orhan Pamuk, and the passage in question falls near the beginning of My Name Is Red. Though set in the sixteenth century, the novel and its theme of the seductive and threatening moment of encounter between cultures—or, one might say, a moment of cultural contamination—are urgently contemporary, so much so that it’s reasonable to think Pamuk wants his readers to keep several questions in the back of their minds. Could a man of the sixteenth century have articulated the specificity and difference of another culture with such clarity? To what extent could he have recognized himself in the other, or anyway admitted as much to himself with such frankness? Or are we expected to notice the contemporary author throwing his voice, to observe Pamuk’s own lips moving as the words tumble out of the mouth of his character Enishte Effendi?
It is possible to hear still other voices in Pamuk’s words (or Enishte’s, if you will), among them a singular one from the nineteenth century. The idea of the individual as the great discovery of the Italian Renaissance, and of painting as one of the primary mediums of its transmission, inevitably bears the stamp of Jacob Burckhardt, whose Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy was published in 1860. Don’t for a minute think that this old book is out of date. One can say of it what Burckhardt said of Machiavelli’s Florentine Histories: “we might find something to say against every line…and yet the great and unique value of the whole would remain unaffected.” The Swiss historian’s thesis that the Italian Renaissance, and especially its occurrence in Florence, was “the most important workshop of the Italian and, indeed of the modern European spirit,” evokes the historical process by which “an objective treatment and consideration of the state and of all the things of this world became possible.” By the same token, Burckhardt argues that the “subjective side…asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such,” a belief that presides over our sense of the meaning of “the West.” That Pamuk—who hails from Istanbul, where Europe and the Islamic world converge—would be drawn to the theme is hardly a surprise.