French historian Marc Bloch wrote that origins should never be considered as a topic of historical interest. Far from representing a scientific category, “the demon of the origins was perhaps only a disguise of this other diabolical enemy of history itself: the mania of judgement”. Deeply inspired by him, Fernand Braudel conceived the project of his masterpiece on 16th-century conjoncture, that has changed forever the historiography of the Mediterranean. Prominent intellectuals of Braudel’s same generation, as Edward Carr and Moses Finley, widely contributed to provide philosophical grounds for a new historical perspective, to fulfil the cultural concerns of post-WW2, quickly-changing societies. Unfortunately, these new and sometimes revolutionary perspectives did not affect the “Western” vision of the “East” and of its past, rather targeting European history, including – eventually – Eastern European countries and empires. Edward Said scrutinized the orientalist vision, arguing that Western historiographies had not overcome a colonial cultural paradigm in interpreting the Muslim world. Could the same be argued about other non-European civilisations? Even now that half a century has passed since the publication of Orientalism, a definite step towards a post-colonial attitude in considering, for instance, the centuries-long and complex history of the Ottoman Empire, has not been taken yet. This course will be an attempt to guide the students to a cultural overturn in the historical interpretation through an investigation of the Ottoman visions of the “West”, from the foundation of the Empire in the 14th century till the Turkish War of Independence (1919-23).
The course will start with a description of some methodological tools in history, such as comparison and generalisation. Afterwards, the issue of historia patria will be scrutinized, demonstrating how today’s nations are generally still deeply concerned by a teleological vision of their own past, functional to respective nation-building projects. In such a context, the difficulty to establish a fully-accepted legacy of the history of larger, plural entities, such as Europe, has been seldom overcome through the definition of hard identities. Radical differentiation from the Ottoman Empire has been and still is a major chapter in this definition process. Basically, “what we were” (and “we are”) passes by what “we were not” (and “we are not”). Particular attention will be given to the discussion on republicanism, that we may find in the Medieval and Early-modern history of Venetian institutions, as opposed to the Empire/imperium, quintessential representation of “the other”. Following these few introductory classes, the course will start to enquire the Ottoman visions of the West, meaning the Italian maritime Republics (Genoa and Venice), the Spanish Empire, the Vatican State, the Republic of Dubrovnik, France, England, and the Low Countries. In particular, words from Ottoman documents will be illustrated, showing reproductions of sultans’ letters to European sovereigns, written in different epochs. Analogies with political concepts of the Italian Renaissance will be highlighted and the impact of the Ottoman reforms on the emergence of Middle-eastern leading classes and their progressive adherence to European positivism will be duly analysed.
Learning outcomes of the course
Considering European monarchies and Ancient Italian States through the Ottoman lens, students will be led towards a comparative awareness of the advantages deriving from a new historical perspective based on looking at our respective past from a point of view that is considered “different” (and sometimes “divergent”) by definition.
Teaching and evaluation methods
Class participation and discussion 25%
Final exam 75%
1st week: the framework.
A) Description of the main institutions in 16th century’s Mediterranean and discussion over the respective forms of government.
B) Overview of the primary sources produced by the same institutions.
2nd week: the characters.
A) Presentation of the main characters of the time with peculiar focus on transcultural actors.
B) Discussion on individual and collective identities and on the notion of historia patria.
3rd week: the tools.
A) Comparison: when to compare and when not to compare.
B) A step forward: generalisation.
4th week: between East and West.
A) Aristotelian philosophy as common cultural background.
B) The second failed siege of Vienna and the birth of Orientalism.
5th week: the sources 1.
A) Presentation and reading of a letter written by Süleyman the Magnificent to the doge of Venice (in English translation).
B) “Unbelievers” or “loyal friends”? Analysis of the letter, contextualisation of terms used to define the doge and the Republic in times of war and in times of peace.
6th week: the sources 2.
A) Presentation and reading of a report written by Marcantonio Barbaro, Venetian ambassador to Istanbul at the time of the War of Cyprus.
B) Turks or Ottoman? Discussion upon the varied spectrum of categories that defined alterity.
7th week: the images.
A) Representation of the Ottomans in Western paintings.
B) Consumption of Western goods in the Ottoman Empire.
8th week: Ottoman and Venetian Balkans: East or West?
A) Venetian Dalmatia and Ottoman Bosnia: a connected space. Geographical description and overview of historical relationship between the respective territories.
B) A new trade route: Split project in the 17th century. European Muslims find a new home in Venice: Fontego dei Turchi.
9th week: the “other” Turks and the “other” Europeans.
A) French, English, Polish, Russians, and Spanish in the Ottoman sources.
B) Safavids, Tatars in the Venetian sources.
10th week: economic divergence.
A) The theory of the poles of development: from South-East to North-West.
B) The energy transition and the Great Divergence in the Mediterranean.
11th week: modernity.
A) The age of Reforms: nation-making in “sick-man of Europe”.
B) Secularism, Positivism and the making of the Turkish nation.
12th week: exam.
Final Exam: written test with multiple choice and open questions.
Selected readings from:
M. Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, 1953.
M.I. Finley, The Use and Abuse of History, 1975.
E.H. Carr, What is History?, 1961.
E. Said, Orientalism, 1978.
A. Salzmann, Tocqueville in the Ottoman Empire. Rival paths to the modern state, 2004.
A. Mikhail, God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World, 2021.
S. Faroqhi, The Ottoman Empire and the World Around It, 2004.
Last updated: July 11, 2023