When I Drew Rustem Pasha

by Trici Venola on Monday, 17 October 2011 at 00:33

The following is compiled from emails to friends last March.

From 7 March 2011

 From their emails, some friends back home think I’m in Rural Turkey.

I live in a city of 20 million people they tell us is only 15. I’m in a 1940s apartment with 10-foot high ceilings, orchids blooming next to the computer, a big geranium-covered balcony over other balconies, and five cats. It’s two rows of apartments back from a spectacular view of the mouth of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, across from the Old City, Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium, the Center of the World for 2000 years, layers of antiquity overlaid with a frenetic young culture obsessed with technology, surrounded by water on three sides which I can see if I walk outside and around the corner. I go over there to the old city a lot these days to draw.

Just now I’m drawing in the Spice Bazaar in Eminonu at the Galata Bridge. I’m drawing Rustem Pasha Mosque, and today did not go well. I sat on a campstool on a manhole cover next to a cafe in a parking lot for four hours and blew it, so I have to do it again tomorrow. I have to draw Rustem Pasha because it is like a pain every time I look at it until I do. Until I draw it. Here’s the drawing I finally did: Rustem Pasha & Friends ©2011 by Trici Venola.

The mosque rises above the right-angle joining of two long buildings topped by many domes. The masonry is rubbly stone layered with red brick. The vintage is Medieval. The windows piercing the stone on the building to the left, Papazoglu Han, may have been standard when the buildings were new, but centuries of reinforcement with marble and wood have made them different sizes and personalities. Most of them have black cross-hatch iron grills on them. Above them, arches of brick are visible in the texture of the stone. There’s a lot of green growth erupting from patches of the masonry on both buildings, and the domes are whiskered in places.

The building to the right, Chukur Han, has pairs of windows with pointed arches built in the brickwork. Both buildings are two stories, with a store under each dome. At the corner, there’s a Coffee World, a local chain that serves chocolate spoons with every cup. The other stores sell spices, dried fruit, nuts, candy, tea, restaurant supplies, hardware, lunch and so forth. The spices and dried food are mounded in open bins, the place is jammed with people shopping, the ferries are loading and unloading just across the highway zooming with cars, old people feed pigeons on the square, lunatic seagull shrieks and ferry horns blowing, guys jumping in and out of cars, parking them, and in the middle of this daily melee, the charming old mosque.

It was built by Mimar Sinan, Suleyman the Magnificent’s great architect of the Renaissance. From the ramp to the Galata Bridge you can see it below Sinan’s great Suleymaniye Mosque on the hill. Sinan said that Suleymaniye was his masterpiece, but Rustem Pasha was his heart. It’s got a fine dome with many clerestory windows and one minaret, the view I’m presently drawing. It’s built high, over many shops and courtyards surrounded by arches and workshops (these are called Hans), some functioning and some fallen into ruin. High Medieval walls loom above narrow passageways going up to the mosque, where you duck into a dark enclosed stone staircase leading up to a high airy courtyard of marble pillars and arches and fabulous Iznik tiles. I love Rustem Pasha for the same reason everyone else does, because as Sinan felt, it does have a heart. It’s small, highly textured, accessible, and covered with the wonderful tiles in many different patterns, most of them cobalt and turquoise and white. There’s one right next to the door, a souvenir tile from a hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, that looks to be from a few hundred years ago. It’s a lone picture tile stuck into the middle of a frieze of identical floral ones.

It’s naive art, and I was drawing it because I love it. People coming out of the door after prayers were laughing and telling me they love it too, and one of them told me it was Mecca. Six minarets all round the edge, the requisite pairs of doors, the sacred oil flasks, the fountains, and in the middle, the big sacred black cube: Mecca. I’m hunched on my stool thinking how much I’d like to be drawing inside but it’s got to be forbidden, but I’m drawing away and people are coming up and telling me what the picture means and buying my book (I have a book of drawings I sell out of my handbag, sold about 1000 so far) and the Imam (priest) comes out and invites me to draw inside anytime. So I did but froze to death, it’s still too cold.

So today I spent out in the sun, trying to capture the charm of this place, but I’ll have to go back tomorrow and try again. I quit, disgusted with blowing the drawing but on the whole happy to care enough to do it over and have the time to  do it. I bought cheese and olives and walked across the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn, fishermen on both sides, ferries and tankers and cruise ships and seagulls and the heaving teal sea, Japanese tourists everyone is being extra nice to, because of their disaster. Walked along the piers toward home past a decayed Byzantine chunk of old church pressed into service as a parking lot I should draw before it’s demolished. Walked up the steep hill to home.

Tomorrow night I’m going to an art opening, see some swell new work, talk to the artist, a professor friend from New York about art tours. But tonight I made soup, my Winter Soup staple that lasts five days, and watched a movie like I do most nights. Some days I take people on tours, some days I take people shopping, some days I work on the computer all day. I have 27 sketchbooks full of drawings and a few stories.  I live really quietly, but I live in Byzantium.