The Palace library, which consists of 13,405 manuscripts of various kinds, and which has been built up gradually over the centuries by successive Ottoman sultans since the foundation of the Palace, is housed what was originally the old Agalar Mosque, to which it was moved in 1966. Apart from manuscripts of considerable value, the collection also contains examples of the calligraphy works of a number of important Turkish masters. Among the better known manuscripts displayed regularly in the Palace are those prepared for Mehmet the Conqueror, Islamic manuscripts brought from Cairo and Tabriz by Selim the Grim in 1514-17 and the finest calligraphy works of the Ottoman scribes Sheikh Hamdullah, Ahmet Karahisari, Hafiz Osman Mahmut Celaleddin, among others. Six hundred of the manuscripts in the collection are illustrated with miniatures, mainly of a pictorial and topographical nature, by the most renowned artists of the day, namely Ahmad Musa, Race Abdulhay, Sheikh Sultan Mehmet, Mehmet Siyah Kalem, Bihzad, Piri Reis, Nigari, Osman, Ali, Rasan, Naksi and Levni.
The earliest illustrated manuscript in the collection is the astrological work known as the Kitab’ul Hasayis’ which dates to 1131. It is followed by a 13th century manuscript prepared in Konya, the romantic story of Varka and Gulsah. Some of the most fascinating and controversial early miniatures to be found in the so- called ‘Fatih’ albums, are attributed to Mehmet Siyah Kalem (H.2153, H.2160). One of the albums, (R.1272) also possesses the first Ottoman portrait by Sinan Bey, a portrait of Mehmet the Conqueror, who is also known to have had his portrait painted by Bellini in 1479.
One of the most notable artists to emerge in the Bayezit II period was the topographical illustrator Matrakci Nasuh, who was also the author of ‘Tarih-i Sultan Bayezit’ (R.1272), an illustrated account of the Sultan’s reign, and the ‘Suleymanname’ (H.1608), devoted to the events of the reign of Suleyman I, the Mediterranean campaign of Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha and Suleyman’s Hungarian campaign. Also during the reign of Suleyman I, the ex-seaman and artist Haydar Reis, who used the pseudonym Nigari, executed portraits of Sultan Suleyman and Selim II and Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha (H.2134,ffs.3,8,9) and two other important miniatures depicting two princes and a hunting scene. He is regarded as a portrait artist in the tradition of Sinan Bey.
The classical age of the Turkish miniature, the 16th century, is characterized by works free of the influence of other schools. The first such work of note is the ‘Nuzhet el-Ahbar der Sefer-i Sigetvar,’ describing the death of Suleyman I at Sigetvar and the accession of Selim II, which is illustrated by Nakkas Osman (H.1339). Nakkas Osman also illustrated a work by the court biographer or Sahnameci Seyyid Lokman, who wrote during the reign of Selim II and Murat III, a biographical account of the Ottoman rulers, with twelve portraits of the Ottoman sultans up to Murat III. The same author and artist were responsible with the artist Ali for the preparation of Seyyid Lokman’s second biographical work, the ‘Sahname-i Selim Han’, dated 1581 (A.3595) , an account of the reign of Selim I. A third work by the same author, the second volume of which is to be found in the Topkapi Palace library is the ‘sehinsahname,’ completed in 1597, and also illustrated by Nakkas Osman (B.200) . The ‘Hunername’, also Lokman’s work, and written in Turkish (H.1523) describes the skills of the nine Ottoman sultans up to the Selim I, and was also illustrated by Osman and his team, who were responsible for all 42 miniatures in this work. The second volume (H.1524) describes the 46 year reign of Suleyman I.
The collection also boasts the three- volume history of the world of Seyyid Lokman (1586) entitled ‘Zubdet-ut Tevarih’ (H.1321); ‘Nusretname’ (H.1365) written by Gelibolulu Mustafa Ali which describes the eastern campaigns of Ottoman commander Lala Mustafa Pasha, and ‘Kitab-i Gencine-i Fethi-Gence’ (R.1296) which describes the Azerbaijan campaign of Ferhat Pasha in 1588. But the most notable illustrated manuscript of the classical period in the collection is the ‘Surname’ (H.1344), prepared to celebrate the circumcision in 1582 of crown prince Mehmet, the son of Murat III. The work, which illustrated the 52-day celebration following the circumcision, was illustrated by Osman and his team. One other important work, a six-volume manuscript of which Volumes 1 ,2 and 6 are to be found in the Palace library is the ‘Siyer-i Nebi’, an account of the life of the Prophet Muhammed (H.1221-1223).
During the period of Mehmet III ( 1595-1603) fine illustrated works were prepared by Nakkas Hasan, a former vizier, who worked with the palace historian Talik-i zade Suphi Celebi. Their works include the ‘Egri Fetihnamesi’ (H.1609) , which describe the battle of Hacova and the return of the army to Istanbul, and the ‘Sahname-i Ali Osman’ (A.3592), which contains 12 miniatures.
One of the most important manuscripts of the late classical period was ‘Falname’ (H.1703) , a book on soothsaying prepared by Kalender Pasha during the reign of Ahmet I (1603-1617), which contains 35 miniatures. Kalender Pasha is also thought to have prepared the album of Ahmet I (8.408) which contains scenes from daily life and figure studies.
The reign of Osman II, ( 1618- 1622), proved to be most prolific for 17th century miniatures. The ‘Sahname-i Nadiri’, prepared by a court biographer using the pseudonym Nadiri who narrated the events of the reign of Osman II, contains two important miniatures by the court illustrator of the time, Naksi. Naksi was also responsible for the 46 illustrations of ‘Tercume-i sekaik-i Nu’maiye’ (H.1263), a Turkish translation of an Arabic work containing the biographies of Turkish scholars, and of an anthology containing the poems of Nadiri -the ‘Divan-i Nadiri’. Illustrated albums containing miniatures in the Turkish genre style were the most popular products of the Palace manuscript school during the 17th century.
Royal preference for this kind of work continued into the 18th century, as witnessed by the ‘Silsilename’ (an album of royal portraits) (A.3109) and a second album (H.2164) of the artist Levni containing portraits of male and female types, 43 in all. Both these manuscripts were executed around 1720, as was the third and largest illustrated work executed by Levni and written by the poet Vehbi – the ‘Surname-i Vehbi’, for which the artist produced 137 miniatures illustrating scenes from circumcision celebrations held for the sons of Ahmet III in 1720, inclu4ing realistic figures of acrobats and dancers (A.3593). Portraits of single figures also featured in the work of Bukhari (1728-45) a court painter under Mahmut I (1730-54), whose illustrations are collected in the album form popular during that period.
After the second half of the 18th century, the miniature technique lost favor in the Ottoman court, and was eventua1Iy superceded by European artistic techniques.There are a total of 37 portraits of the Ottoman Sultans in the Palace, executed by Western and local artists in European portrait style. Some of these portraits have remained in the Palace since their execution, while others were acquired later by purchase. The artists are only known in relatively few cases.
A painting of Mehmet II thought to have been executed by Bellini was later copied in enlarged form by the artist Zonaro. The portrait of Selim III was painted by Konstantin Kapidagli in the 19th century.
The same artist produced a series of sultan portraits on royal request, of which those of Suleyman II, Ahmet 11, and Mustafa II are currently on display in the portrait gallery above the Miniatures Room. The Polish artist Chalabovsky executed a portrait of Abdulaziz in 1867, while that of Murat IV dating to the same century was the work of Ayvazovsky, Russian painter to the Ottoman court.
Mehmet V (Resat) was portrayed by an Austrian artist, the Viennese painter w. Krausz, while the last sultan, Vahdettin, is represented in a portrait copied from a miniature ivory by the local artist Yasar Calli. The other paintings in the collection are anonymous.