Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, the aristocrats of Europe took great interest in Turkish arts, fashion, and lifestyle. Living like an Ottoman became a trend that signified sophisticated taste.
By Işıl İlkter
Photo courtesy of SALT Research
Turquerie is a movement that denotes the Ottoman influence in the arts, culture, and fashion of Europe. Always seen as exotic and mysterious, the Ottoman culture and lifestyle were intriguing to Europeans. The operas, theater plays, and travel notes gave insight into Ottoman customs, but most of them would point to a rather fictionalized and exaggerated image of the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, the products of Turquerie, such as Mozart’s opera Abduction from the Seraglio and piano sonata Alla Turca gained unmatched recognition.
The spectacular arrivals of the Ottoman ambassadors to European cities alongside the janissary band added to the public’s fascination and became must-see events. Gifts brought from the Ottoman Empire also made an impression amongst the higher ranking members of society. Soon enough, Ottoman practices and the possession of Turkish items were considered to be a sign of wealth and high taste.
Once seen as brutal and terrifying, Turks became the object of desire for Western aristocrats. As a result of increased political affairs and economic activities with the Ottoman Empire, more Ottoman products became popular amongst the wealthy. From Iznik tiles to carpets and fabrics, aristocrats bought and placed special orders for more items as the Ottoman culture and aesthetic integrated into the high culture of European royal courts.
The Turquerie movement peaked in the eighteenth century, when aristocrats began to fully imitate the Ottoman lifestyle. Being different from the rest of society became extremely appealing for the higher classes. They made Turkish coffee, listened to Turkish music and wore turbans and kaftans. Some of the rulers and aristocrats were painted in pictures wearing Ottoman clothing. Some artists even painted imaginary scenes from life inside the seraglio, which was a big mystery to foreigners.
Many travelers wrote about the Ottoman life and forged theories about the seraglio, but Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, was lucky to have first-hand experience. The wife of the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, was known for her collection of letters about the Ottoman lifestyle, published posthumously as The Turkish Embassy Letters and widely read in the United Kingdom. The letters contained vivid descriptions of her wearing Ottoman garments and trying to adapt to the local culture. She also wrote about the lives of Ottoman women and, in particular, their clothing. Seeing the veil as an instrument of freedom, as it provides anonymity, her writings played a significant role in neutralizing Orientalist and gendered expectations that were heavily repeated under the influence of Turquerie movement.
Letters and memoirs from aristocrats who had spent time in the Ottoman Empire, such as The Turkish Embassy Letters, are emblematic of the Turquerie movement’s influence in Europe and continue to serve as an inspiration for traveler writers today.