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Imagining the Turk in Seventeenth-century France:
Grelot's Version
© 2000
Michèle Longino
Duke University

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       Cultural meaning often comes to be assigned to geography, transforming actual place into gendered and political symbol. This was generally the case in the representation of the Orient, and specifically the city of Constantinople, for the early modern European imaginary. Travelers made their way to the Levant armed to varying degrees with their ancestors’ crusader memories, bookish knowledge of the Levant, a sense of cultural superiority, and clear expectations of self-enrichment as a consequence of their adventuring.1 They brought and projected onto their new surroundings well-worn views that furnished a filter to their actual perceptions. The city of Constantinople was particularly susceptible to cliché. It was a site of charged memories of dominance, submission, and struggle. As travelers from Europe fixed on this at once strange and familiar world, they translated their observations through the handy grid of gender.2 In the realm of the political symbolic, Constantinople was a woman -- there for the taking.

[Fig.1 early modern map of the Mediterranean world]

       In the seventeenth-century Mediterranean world, the port cities of Marseilles, Livorno, Genoa, and Venice, to name just a few, vied for preeminence with the cities of the Levant, but the capital cities of Paris and Constantinople were locked through their common claim on Roman heritage into a particular dynamic of competition, at least as Paris saw it.3

       In order to appreciate Paris and Constantinople in their seventeenth-century valences, we must briefly revisit a few key facts: Rome once ruled what was considered "the world" -- the imperium mundi. In the Christian era, an important shift surfaced when Byzantium (which had gone by many names: Chryfoceras, Acropolis, Lygos, and which briefly, even after it became Byzantium, was renamed Antonina, and then even Anthusa) was designated the Christian capital for the Roman Empire. In 324 A.D., the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and actually moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium, which he willed the "New Rome." He initially called the city Constantinian New Rome, and it quickly came to be known by his name, Constantinople.4 Over one thousand years of empire, until 1453, the city kept this name.5

[Fig. 2 map of the city of Constantinople]

       At this time the Ottomans, under Mehmed II, took possession of Constantinople and the city became Istanbul (which in Ottoman roughly means 'going toward the city,' 'heading downtown' ). This brings us, grosso modo, to the seventeenth century. At this time, and especially in the 1660s, Paris fancied and willed itself the "new" Rome -- the new "imperium romanum" with Louis XIV "le Grand" casting himself as Caesar Augustus. The heyday of Louis's reign would be celebrated and commemorated as the "classical" period.6 Thus each city, Constantinople and Paris, claimed a founding story in Rome -- the one historical, the other cultural -- and Paris fixed on Constantinople as a competitor for dominance. The Ottoman capital was a vital hub of commerce, culture, and military might, and as such seriously challenged French hegemony. In France's grand design, the Ottomans could be useful allies together against their common enemy the Habsburgs, but otherwise needed to be contained, humored, and ultimately subjugated. The Ottoman seat of power was also the strongest Mediterranean expression of Islamic might, and so the obvious challenge to "His Very Catholic Majesty."

[Fig. 3 frontispiece portrait of Jean Thévenot. The traveler returned home and now local savant.]

       As almost an expression of loyalty, French visitors to Constantinople persisted in using the Christian name for the city, and only occasionally mentioned that the natives called their city by that other name--Istanbul: "Quoy-qu'il en soit, ce dernier nom [Constantinople] est toujours depuis demeuré à Bysance, & sur tout parmy les Latins & autres Chrétiens d'Europe, car pour les Turcs & autres peuples de l'Asie, de l'Afrique, & de l'Europe, ils l'appellent tous aujourd'huy Stambol."7 The preferred name for the city divided clearly along East (Istanbul) / West (Constantinople) lines. The Europeans (and here specifically the French) performed a mini-conquest over the city each time they used her Christian name and ignored her Ottoman one. They thereby closed their eyes to both her ancient and her recent history. So subject to change, depending on current conquerors and influences, answering to so many names, the city appeared fickle and manipulable -- she had been had, she could be had. The city was a woman -- contested and desired.

       The nature and direction of movement between West and East, Paris and Constantinople, set the terms of the cities’ relations. In the period that interests us here, as commerce intensified, the French were traveling in increasing numbers to Constantinople. Contacts multiplied as the French government sought to systematize trading relations. French travelers, upon their return to France, packaged their findings in memoirs, anecdotes, histories, correspondences, dined out on their adventures, and marketed their knowledge to advantage. In so doing, they fed into Colbert's expansionist mercantile project. France moved in on the East.

       In keeping with this inquisitive and entrepreneurial spirit, an appropriation of Ottoman culture also took place. This new form of conquest would gradually reorient the traditional religious crusade as the preferred French mode of relating with the Levant. Even so innocent a project as a book describing and illustrating the capital of the Ottoman Empire - a sort of coffee-table book - performed a figurative gesture of conquest.

[Fig. 4]

[Fig. 5]

[figs. 4 and 5 Two title pages]

       Many emissaries were sent out to Constantinople by Louis XIV and his minister Colbert on errands to find and buy as many manuscripts, jewels and rarities as possible for the Royal library, for Royal adornment and for Royal prestige. Monsieur Vaillant was the French king's designated "antiquaire," but many travelers would participate in the activity of collecting cultural capital for the capital. As Colbert would callously phrase it, in his instructions to Antoine Galland regarding the judicious purchasing of manuscripts: "ce seroit orner nostre France des dépouilles de l'Orient."8 Rather than list the many official connoisseurs and agents sent forth on these imperialist shopping sprees, I focus here on one case illustration of an entrepreneurial venture, and explore the charged symbolism of this story. By examining the particulars of this one travel account, we may venture a purchase on at least one set of French seventeenth-century perspectives on and ambitions in the Levant. At the same time, we can use this case as an opportunity to consider the role of art in foreign affairs and of the artist as arm of the state, as well as personal entrepreneur.

       In 1680, Guillaume-Joseph Grelot, an artist-traveler, having spent some time in Constantinople, published a book of his drawings, printed up in engravings along with extensive commentary and accounts of his adventures, and dedicated it to Louis XIV. He thereby set himself into competition with the many travelers who were vying to produce the best reports on Constantinople, deploying his combined talents as gifted draftsman and intrepid voyager. He performed a triple act of siege: on Constantinople, on royal favor, and on the market. His book immediately went through several editions, and as soon as 1683 was "made English" for an even broader audience and even his English publisher bragged of Grelot's success with Louis: "The King of France was so pleased with these Draughts, that he commanded the Author to make them Publick, and gave him his Letters Patents, strictly forbidding any to invade his propriety, by copying them after him."9

       Grelot's text and illustrations together show the artist-writer maneuvering diplomatically to persuade Louis XIV of the beauty and importance of Constantinople, but in such a way as not to threaten the centrality of the king's own capital. The double discourse of informing and flattering the king, as he codifies the city, all the while setting his artwork to advantage has a further and less calculated effect, in that it demonstrates the political nature of even the act of sketching. Grelot here exposes the profile of the artist as a particular breed of soldier usefully deployed in the vanguard.

[Fig. 6 frontispiece of English edition, Grelot]

       The artist stakes out and captures the main features of Constantinople and Ottoman culture. He takes visual and narrative control, and constructs perceptions of the place and its strategic importance for distant consumption, for the French imaginary. He symbolically takes possession of the city and he offers her, subdued and bound in this book, to the king. As he underscores the transgressive and risky nature of his reconnoitering in his narrative, he seeks to enhance the cash value of his drawings as well as to garner merit for himself. He thereby sets the scene for his own material gain and entitlement. His packaging and commodification of the city belie a will to make it his by inscribing it in drawing, to set the French seal and thereby claim it in the name of his king, and at the same time to turn a profit for himself. Foreign affairs, as with personal ones, often come down to someone's bottom line.

[Fig. 7 first page of dedication, Grelot]

       The very first prize the artist delivers to Louis is his contemporary, Mehmed IV, the Sultan himself, taken and gagged as it were, directly across from the title page in the frontispiece. What more fitting offering, and how else to explain this image as the premier one in a study that does not at all focus on this Sultan's biography? Of course, conventional wisdom might find it fitting that the reading King be greeted by his worthy counterpart as he turns to the first page. But such an inaugural gesture of respect hardly accords with the artistic siege on this Sultan's dominion which follows.10

       The opening flourish of the dedication, to "His Most Christian Majesty," is telling: "Sire, one would believe that a Traveller who returns from the East should not present to your Majesty other than Pearls and Diamonds."11 The subtext here, obsequiously comparing and suggesting the greater value of jewels than of his own pictures (say of the captured Sultan), underscores by association the negotiable nature of his reporting. Such kowtowing bespeaks the subtle but hard hint that in offering images of the Ottoman capital to Louis, the artist, like a strong general, is actually offering his king a gift greater than mere ornaments -- these would be simply distracting spoils. Although the king might have happily accepted pearls, he can, and more profitably, the coy artist insinuates, put his drawings to less frivolous and more strategic use. Louis could crown his kingdom with this prize jewel of a city. Hence Grelot's book, he suggests, is more valuable than jewels.

       Indeed, Grelot confirms his militaristic ambitions for the king in comparing Louis with another great conqueror and boldly stating the purpose of the book: "I am in hopes that your Majesty, no less exalted for your indulgent goodness, than for the Grandeur of your Actions above Alexander, will permit me to give you a Prospect of those places which you know how to subdue whenever you are pleas'd to employ your Victorious Arms in such a Glorious enterprize" (Dedication). While such inflated discourse can be dismissed as merely a convention of the times, this calculated effusion appeals specifically to the bellicose in the French king and rings like a cry for battle.12 A by-product of seeking patronage in this case was to fuel the fantasy of the statist expansionist mentality as it moved into action.

[Fig. 8 engraving showing city and port of Constantinople, Grelot]

       Of course, it is also true that had Grelot simply admitted to the seductive attraction of Constantinople without recommending that Louis seize it, his fascination with this other world might have appeared treasonous. And Grelot did want to ingratiate himself with his king. This commoner stressed with pride that his travels had brought him into the presence of the king, not once, but on three different occasions: "I had the honour to be discours'd by him three times concerning my Travels" (78). Along with the unfolding of a larger picture of French power proposed through gestures of tales and drawings, there are also supporting stories of personal ambition and careers in the making.


Earlier versions of this text were presented between 1998 and 1999 at the Art History Department, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; at the Western Society for French History, Boston; at the MLA Convention, San Francisco; at the Comparative Literature Conference, Montreal; at Duke University; and at the University of Birmingham (UK).

I thank these audiences, as well as the graduate students of my "Voyages" seminar at Duke University, for their many interesting and helpful comments, questions, and suggestions

I thank the National Endowment for the Humanities, Duke University, and here especially the National Humanities Center for the assistance and support that has allowed this project to come to fruition.

This text appears also in my forthcoming book, "A Turban for France."


1. This is obviously a generalization, as George Saliba's Case I on Guillaume Postel demonstrates, but it is a fair one for the majority of Western travelers to the Levant.

2. Cities, at different phases in their histories, develop distinct characters (as power brokers, showcases for the arts, etc.); as they rise, as they compete with one another for preeminence, as they fall into decline, they take on gendered identities, always and only in relation to one another, and as invoked, as masculine or feminine. This is intuitive: in today's symbolic economy, think, for example, of Chicago, London or Houston as opposed to San Francisco, Paris or New Orleans. For a poetic expression of this line of thinking, see Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, trans. William Weaver (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972); Also see Annabel Wharton, "Gender, Architecture and Institutional Self-presentation," SAQ (winter 1991): 176-217.

3. See A.D.S.M., preface to La Cour Othomane ou l'interprète de la Porte, qui explique toutes les charges et la fonction des officiers du Serrail du Grand Seigneur, de la milice, de la religion de Mahomet et de la loy des Turcs (Paris: chez Estienne Loyson, 1673); but especially Voyages de Mr. Dumont, en France, en Italie, en Allemagne, à Malthe, et en Turquie. Contenant les recherches et observations curieuses qu'il a faites en tous ces pays; tant sur les moeurs, les coùtumes des Peuples, leurs différents gouvernements et leurs religions; que sur l'histoire ancienne et moderne, la philosophie et les monuments antiques (La Haye: chez Etienne Fouque, 1699): Here not only was the beauty of older Constantinople lauded, but the cognoscenti appreciated in the contemporary city a political marvel that rivaled even the Rome of recent history: "La pluspart des Peuples de l'Europe regardent les Turcs comme une Nation barbare et mal-disciplinée; ce qui fait qu'il y a peu de Personnes qui s'adonnent à la lecture de leur histoire; Mais les plus sages et les plus éclairés en jugent tout autrement; et voyant que les Ottomans ont plus fait en trois cents ans que les Romains en huit cents, ils infèrrent de là avec beaucoup de justice, que la Politique des Turcs n'est pas si méchante que le vulgaire se l'imagine, et que leur Gouvernement est fondé sur de bonnes maximes, puisqu'elles réussissent si bien" (73-74, emphasis mine). Alain Grosrichard, in Structure du sérail (Paris: Seuil, 1979) points to the same Rome - Constantinople fascination for Paris, but traces it through a Freudian nostalgia for despotism, 27; and Lucette Valensi makes this same point in The Birth of the Despot: Venice and the Sublime Porte (trans. Arthur Denner (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), but only with regard to the Rome - Constantinople relation, and the possible mediation of Venice, 46.

4. Grelot, Eng., 62-63. I am working with the English edition of 1683 (William Joseph Grelot, A Late Voyage to Constantinople, translated by J. Philips [London: John Playford, 1683]), and the original French edition of 1680 (Guillaume Grelot, Relation nouvelle d'un voyage de Constantinople [Paris: chez la veuve de Damien Foucault, 1680]), and will so indicate (Eng./Fr.).

5. For a more recent detailed history of these events, see Philip Mansel, Constantinople: City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924 (New York: Saint Martin's Press, 1996).

6. For discussion of the will to conceptualize France along the lines of the "Imperium Romanum," see Jean-Marie Apostolidès, "La Mythistoire," chapter 4 in Le Roi-machine: Spectacle et politique au temps de Louis XIV (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1981), 66-92. And for a study that examines the theory behind the dramatized will to recast Paris as the New Rome, and the relationship of Racine's Bérénice to this effort, and analysis of the representation of Rome in the play, see Harriet Stone, The Classical Model: Literature and Knowledge in Seventeenth-Century France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 77-93.; in the same spirit, René Jasinski proposes a pairing of the figures of Titus and Louis XIV, in Vers le vrai Racine (Paris: Librairie Armand Colin, 1958), vol. 1, 394-95.

7. Grelot, Fr., 73; Eng.: However that may be, this latter name [Constantinople] has remained ever since attached to Byzantium, and above all, among the Latins and other Christians of Europe, whereas for the Turks and other peoples of Asia, Africa, and Europe, today they all call it Istanbul.

8. Antoine Galland, Journal d'Antoine Galland pendant son séjour à Constantinople (1672-73) II, edited by Charles Schefer (Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1881), Appendice (letter from Colbert to Galland), 275; Eng.: This would be to ornament our France with the spoils of the Orient.

9. Grelot, Eng., "The Publisher to the Reader."

10. I have chosen to use the English edition in certain parts of the body of the text, and to cite the French translation, despite the fact that the publication of the French (1680) precedes the publication of the English (1683). The reason is that Grelot himself had envisaged a more complete edition when he first published the French one, and the English one is that, but also less. Some of the engravings in the (later) English edition were not included in the (first) French edition, but Grelot had already this more complete book in mind ("Je n'en donne neantmoins ici qu'une petite partie, et si je puis connoître que cet essay soit agreable; je feray paroistre dans la suite ceux qui me restent des autres . . . J'espere que l'on agréera ce petit ouvrage aussi bien que ceux qui pouront le suivre." Au Lecteur). However, certain parts of the text are missing in the English as it was adapted to an English audience (notably, the mention of Tavernier's account of the seraglio -- because it had not yet been translated into English?). The differences between the two versions would merit a more thorough investigation, one which is beyond the scope of this project. I will cite those missing passages in the French and provide an English translation in the note.

11. Grelot, Eng., ("The Author's Epistle to his most Christian Majesty"). Grelot, Fr.,"Epistre au Roy.""Sire, il semble qu'un Voyageur qui revient de l'Orient ne devroit apporter à VOTRE MAJESTE que des perles et des diamans."

12. Grelot was not alone in voicing such flattering ambitions for the King in the Ottoman domains; see the end of Boileau's "Epître IV" of 1672 where Boileau brandishes the Hellespont as the next war theater worthy of the King.

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