‘Turcica’: An Introduction to European writings on the Ottoman Empire


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Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq, Lazzaro Soranzo, Orazio Malaguzzi, Giovan Battista Montalbano
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‘Turcica’: An Introduction to European writings on the Ottoman Empire

‘Turcica’: An Introduction to European writings on the Ottoman Empire
by Alistair Hamilton
Alistair Hamilton
Alistair Hamilton
DOI: 10.24157/ARCS_011

  • Keywords:
    Constantinople, 15th century, Islam, Orientalism, Levant, Muslim
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European writings on the Ottoman Empire fall into two main categories. On the one hand the Turk was seen as the enemy and was feared accordingly, and on the other the Ottoman world inspired immense curiosity. The Arcadian Library is home to an extensive collection that documents both approaches. A collection of anti-Turkish propaganda pamphlets, Italian polemics and a Papal appeals contrast with more sympathetic works, often written by diplomats and travellers to the Ottoman world, which explore the military power, religion and costume of Europe’s neighbour to the East.

On the one hand the Turk was seen as the enemy and was feared accordingly, and on the other the Ottoman world inspired immense curiosity. European approaches to the Turks tend to fall into two broad categories. There is a large body of works connected with the Turkish wars, and an equally large body which supplies information about Turkish life, Turkish religious observances, and Turkish history.


Fear of the Turks produced a lengthy ‘pamphlet’ war. Of these pamphlets the Arcadian Library has an exceptional collection, issued from the early sixteenth to the late eighteenth century. A great many are not even in the standard bibliography by Carl Göllner. They include anti-Turkish sermons and exhortations, prophecies of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, descriptions of battles and military campaigns, and celebrations of victories. By far the majority were printed in Venice, but some were also produced in other parts of Italy, the German-speaking areas, France, the Low Countries, Spain and Portugal.

Amongst the subjects covered is the Battle of Lepanto, the first great western victory over the Turks in 1571. It gave rise to every sort of celebration in print, from poems in praise of the commander of the fleet, Don John of Austria, to accounts of the military action, prophecies pointing to it, and advice about how to proceed after it. Other events discussed in the pamphlets include the Christian defeat at the battle of Mohács in 1526, the North African campaign undertaken by Charles V in 1535, and the various campaigns of Eugene of Savoy and Francesco Morosini in the last decades of the seventeenth century. There is also a somewhat unexpected group of eighteenth-century Portuguese pamphlets concerning events in Istanbul, in addition to nine other contemporary Portuguese news reports on the various actions taken by the European powers against the ‘pirates’ on the Barbary coast between 1757 and 1799.

The library also has a number of manuscripts on similar subjects. These include an appeal for a crusade against the Turks issued by Pope Pius IV in the early 1560s; an Italian tract dated 1571 by the ‘Commendator San Giorgio’, with a discussion of the possibilities open to the Christian powers after Lepanto and the most desirable targets of further attacks; and a further Italian work, dated 1574, about the importance of maintaining a defensive anti-Turkish alliance after Lepanto; and an exhortation to fight the Turks written in about 1580.

Nor was it only the wars between the Christians and the Turks that interested the West. The library also has the 1682 French edition of famous work on the Uskoks, the Christian pirates who terrorized shipping on the Dalmatian coast, by Minuccio Minucci with Paolo Sarpi’s continuations. Among its more curious documents, the library also includes an autograph letter written in Hungarian in May 1616 from the Ottoman pasha of Buda, ‘Ali Pasha, warning the rebellious forces in Romania, who had tried to occupy two frontier cities, not to oppose their Turkish masters.


The second category of ‘Turcica’ was designed to satisfy European curiosity. For the Turks were found to be deeply intriguing. Their military organization, which proved invincible for so long, needed to be explored. Travellers returned with stories of the sultan’s magnificence, of a state which was astonishingly well ordered, and of a religion in which some of the virtues were observed with far greater diligence than in the West. Efforts were made from the outset to convey the actual appearance of the Turks, with interest in the appearance of Ottoman subjects persisting to draw a European readership.

Augier Ghislain de Busbecq served as Habsburg ambassador to the Porte between 1555 and 1562, and profited from long periods of idleness, in which he awaited a summons from the sultan, in order to form a magnificent collection of manuscripts, antiquities, plants and animals. The first European to travel to Amasya, where he visited the sultan, he made an immense contribution to archaeology with his transcription of the Roman ‘Monumentum Ancyranum’ in Ankara. He returned to Europe with some 264 Greek codices one of which, the manuscript of Dioscorides, is now the pride of Österreichische Nationalbibliothek in Vienna, an impressive collection of coins, a menagerie which included six female camels, horses of ravishing beauty, and a tame mongoose, and various plants which were unknown in Europe. Credited, perhaps mistakenly, with having introduced the tulip into Europe, he certainly introduced the sedge and the lilac. Busbecq’s letters from Turkey, a truly fascinating advertisement of Turkey, are still regarded as one of the most important descriptions of the Ottoman Empire. Alongside these, the Arcadian Library also includes a copy of Turcici imperii status, seu discursus varii de rebus Turcarum, a work published in 1630 and containing excerpts, and sometimes complete treatises, by a number of different authors including Busbecq.

Histories of Turkey and descriptions of the current political situation had long been popular. One of the most successful writers in this respect was the Italian humanist Paolo Giovio, whose work is present in the library. Other early works include Francesco Sansovino’s Gl’annali, overo le vite de principi e signori della casa othomana of 1571, and the compilation of material on the Turks assembled by the rector of the Frankfurt gymnasium, Philip Lonicer, adorned with woodcuts by the Swiss print-maker Jost Amman, of 1578. The library also holds the English, Dutch and Italian editions of the account by Sir Paul Rycaut (English consul in Izmir) on the ‘present state’ of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey was also prominent in histories of other states such as Venice, as we see from Paolo Paruta’s work. Included in the Arcadian Library is a first edition of the English translation of 1658, as well as the funerary oration Paruta delivered for the victims of Lepanto in 1572.

However informative these may have been, all previous works on Turkish history were superseded in quality by The Present State of Turkey first published in 1807 by Thomas Thornton, who had spent many years working for the Levant Company in Istanbul. The library also holds the second edition.

Abridged from Hamilton, A., 2011. Turcica. In: Bridge of Knowledge: Western Appreciation of Arab and Islamic Civilization in the Arcadian Library . London: The Arcadian Library, p. 145-200.