Less than a century ago, the Levantine districts of Beyoğlu and Galata reflected the Ottoman Empire’s cultural diversity. The streets were full of the sounds, smells, people, and buildings from around the world, making Istanbul one of the most vibrant and cosmopolitan cities of the time. One of the most significant communities were Italians, and examples of their architecture can be found to this day.
By Jane Akatay
Sultanahmet, which lines on the shore of Halıç (the Golden Horn), was once the hub of the Ottoman Empire. Across the water were the neighborhoods of Beyoğlu and Galata, where Istanbul’s Levantine communities once lived. Rather than mosques, these districts were full of churches, synagogues, and the mainly Christian and Jewish Frenk communities lived, worked, and worshiped there.
Although the Ottomans and Frenk communities were geographically, culturally, and religiously distinct, there was a synergy between the Ottoman and Levantine communities, notably the Italians. Italian Levantines added their own cultural identities to the landscape with their emblematic architecture. Additionally, throughout this period many Italian artists and architects came to Istanbul. During the Renaissance, Mehmet the Conqueror invited Italian painters from Venice for his portrait and later Leonardo Da Vinci was invited to design a bridge over the Golden Horn.
The Italian Levantines
The countries that surrounded the eastern Mediterranean and formed part of the Ottoman Empire were once collectively known as the Levant. Taken from the French term for “rising sun,” it refers to lands to the east of Italy. During the Byzantine era and in the first decades of Ottoman rule, “Levantine” was used to describe settlers from the Western Mediterranean, such as the French and Italians, who settled in the Levant. By the nineteenth century, the expression was used for settlers from other parts of Europe as well.
Originally Genoese and Venetian colonists, the Italian Levantine community contributed much to these neighborhoods. The heyday of Levantine Istanbul was between 1880 and 1930, when they turned these areas into a vibrant, cosmopolitan quarter of the Ottoman empire. By the 1970s, however, most Italian Levantine families left, although several families remain to this day.
The presence of Italian Levantines in Istanbul has become a focus for Italian academics who come to Istanbul to investigate the architectural and cultural associations. One such academic is Assistant Professor Luca Orlandi, who came to Turkey 15 years ago to study and now teaches at Istanbul Technical University. As an Italian, Orlandi feels emotionally and spiritually connected with Beyoğlu and Galata.
“The Genoese colonized the area from 1273 to 1453 and although there is little Genoese heritage left in Galata, when I wander the streets I do not feel so distant from the people who once lived there even though this is memory rather than reality,” Orlandi told The Guide Istanbul. “Galata has been rebuilt so many times. There are very few original landmarks but somehow being there makes you feel close to old Genoa.”
He also explained how Italian traveller and writer De Amicis visited Galata in 1877 and was taken aback by the Italian influence. “He was delighted to hear his own Genoese dialect being spoken in the streets,” Orlandi said. “This immediately made him feel at home in Galata’s Levantine community, where he could have eaten Italian food and gone to a church with an Italian priest. There was even an Italian hospital and an Italian school for the community–both of which are still in operation today.”
Born and raised in Istanbul, professional tour guide Arzu Atınay sees how Italian heritage is deeply connected to the districts’ past. “Even the name Beyoğlu allegedly has a connection to the Italian community,” she explained. “It is said to be the informal title given by the Ottoman Turks to the son of Andrea Gritti,” referring to the Venetian Bailo to Constantinople, similar to an ambassador. He was later elected as Doge of Venice in 1523 during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. His son, Lodovico, was said to be know as Bey Oğlu (son of the Bey), she continued.
Atınay understands the compact districts well and said that the narrow, often steep streets are best explored on foot. The best way to start, she said, is with a visit to the Galata Tower. Not only does it provide an excellent rooftop panorama of the district, it also contextualises the area. “For me, the 360-degree view from the gallery at the top of the tower clearly shows the district’s layout, but also its proximity to the Bosphorus, the waterway linking Istanbul with the Mediterranean, which has always made the city so geopolitically significant,” she told The Guide Istanbul
Even the tower has Italian roots. According to Atınay, the original Galata Tower was built by Genoese settlers in the fourteenth century. For centuries it was the tallest structure in the area and is still a visible landmark. Called Christea Turris (Tower of Christ) by the Genoese, the original was probably replaced by one built by the Byzantines, which used it to control the Golden Horn and guard against invaders. Later, the tower would be used by the Ottomans as a lookout. While it has suffered multiple disasters over the centuries, such as earthquakes and fires, much of has been restored, such as the Romanesque roof.
After viewing the neighborhoods from Galata Tower, a walk around the neighborhood will give you a good opportunity to see Istanbul’s Italian architectural heritage.
A short walk from the Galata Tower on İstiklal Caddesi is the Church of St. Anthony of Padua. Together with the churches of St. Mary Draperis also on Istiklal Caddesi and of Saints Peter and Paul in Galata, it was one of the three Levantine parishes in Beyoğlu. Built between 1906 and 1912 in the Venetian neo-gothic style, the Church of St. Anthony was designed by the Italian Levantine architects Giulio Mongeri and Edoardo De Nari. Mongeri designed the Maçka Palas (Armani Café and Gucci) in Nişantaşı and the Neo-Byzantine style Karaköy Palas bank building in Karaköy. Still run by Italian priests, mass is held there in Italian on Saturdays.
Located on Tomtom Kaptan Sokak in Beyoğlu, the Palazzo di Venezia (Venetian Palace), which dates from the seventeenth century, is the oldest surviving diplomatic building in Beyoğlu. Once used as the residence of the Venetian balios, it has a complex history. Following the surrender of Venice to Austria in 1797, the palace was used by the Austro-Hungarian empire before passing to the French in 1806. With the Vienna Treaty of 1815 it passed again to the Austrians for a century. During this period there was large-scale restoration work but the facade remained intact. The palace remained in Austrian hands through the unification of Italy in 1971 and was further restored between 1914 and 1918.
Also located in Beyoğlu, the Italian Hospital, the former Universal Italian Giovanni Alberto Agnelli Hospital, was originally built in 1820 to serve Italian sailors and the current building was built in 1876. The hospital served Istanbul’s Italian community and later the general public. In 1998 an agreement was made between the Italian government and the Vehbi Koç Foundation, which assumed responsibility for the hospital and gave the buildings a major makeover. Paid for with a donation from the Italian company Fiat, the hospital was named after Giovanni Alberto Agnelli, heir apparent to the Fiat empire, who died from cancer in 1997 at the age of 33.
The Italian School in Beyoğlu opened in 1870 by the royal decree of Sultan Abdülaziz. A kindergarten and elementary school run with the support of the Italian government, it provided education for Italian, Turkish, and foreign female students. The school was temporarily closed during the Turko-Italian war of 1911 and again from 1915-1918 because of World War I but was re-opened in 1919.
Originally called Villa Tarabya, this quaint wooden building was designed in 1905 by the Italian architect Raimondo D’Aronco. The main influences are Palladian but there are also elements reflecting the local style.
A changing world
The Italian Levantine community of Istanbul had a long and colorful association with the city. It was only when World War I finally tore the Ottoman Empire apart and the Republic of Turkey rose under the leadership of Atatürk that things began to change. Today, the Levantine community of Istanbul has largely disappeared, with only few families remaining. The torch of Italian heritage, however, is carried by the Italian expats who have decided to choose Istanbul as their second home.
“I left Italy when I was 20,” Gian Carlo Talerico, owner and chef at Antica Locanda in Arnavutköy, told The Guide Istanbul. “Home is where you are, not where you used to live. With time my mother also got used to it. If someone asked her where I was, she would answer, ‘I don’t know, somewhere in the world.’”
The city in which he settled reminds him of home. “When I walk down our little street in Arnavutköy and see people sitting outside the cafes, playing cards, I feel like I am in Italy,” Talerico explains. “I fell in love with that and said this is the perfect place to open an Italian restaurant. The concept of the restaurant and the street outside, the church behind us, the garden—all of it is perfect.”
The modern Italian lifestyle
Italy’s influence is evident not only in the architecture but through the presence of lifestyle brands across the city. Italian fashion, which is synonymous with luxury, is readily available throughout Istanbul. The maisons of Prada, Dolce Gabbana, Gucci, Versace, Fendi, and Valentino can be found in various neighborhoods, allowing Istanbulites to achieve the Italian look without leaving the city. To browse through inspirational designs, visit IstinyePark, Zorlu Center or Emaar Square shopping malls in Istanbul.
Best Italian restaurants in Istanbul
There are many Italian restaurants in Istanbul but nothing guarantees authenticity as much as an Italian chef in the kitchen. Our recommendations below vary from haute cuisine to casual dining, yet each carries the signature touch of a true expert:
- Gian Carlo Talerico’s Antica Locanda guarantees the highest quality of dishes, receiving additional points for its nostalgic location.
- In Eataly’s food halls overseen by Claudio Chinali, one can try anything the Italian megamarket has on offer or take them home for later.
- Mezzaluna’s Fabio Brambilla likes to challenge diners with new ideas, moving away from popular demand and toward Italian authenticity.
- Trattoria La Scarpetta’s menu, overseen by Chef Carlo Bernardini, manages to stand out since the restaurant’s opening in 2014.
- Kanyon’s classic Gina surprises the diners with seasonal options offered alongside the usual menu by Coordinating Chef Moreno Polverini.
- Papermoon’s menu, filled with classic Italian dishes by Chef Giuseppe Pressani, changes twice a year to highlight seasonal ingredients.