Fausto Zonaro was born in Masi, a small town near Padua in 1854. From an early age he revealed a clear propensity for drawing. When he was 12 years old, with parental consent, he attended the Technical Institute of Lendinara, a town 12 km away from Masi.
From Lendinara, Zonaro goes on to study in Verona at the famous Cignaroli Academy. Shortly after that he transferred to Venice, where he opened a small school of painting in Palazzo Pesaro located on the Grand Canal. It was at this location where Zonaro meets Elisabetta Pante, a young woman who attends the courses at the school and whom later became his partner in life and in art. Although he was a famous and well known artist, Zonaro was one of many painters in Italy, and so, after living in Paris for one year to study and refine his technique, he decided it was time to leave along with his unique style. In fact, the painter’s style, composed of original and unmistakable products by schools and artistic movements fused together with French Impressionism, Venetian colouring and Neapolitan realism, wouldn’t undergo any more changes. And with this knowledge Zonaro tried his luck in the fabulous and mysterious East, in the year 1891. Following the reading of “Constantinople” written by Edmondo De Amicis, a real best seller during the time, Fausto and Elisa decided to stay for some time to look for new inspirations and new territories to explore. Elisa was the first to start. Exploring alone and after reaching her destination, she developed a dense network of relationships through the Royal Embassy of Italy. When the time was opportune, Fausto Zonaro also left Venice and travelled to Constantinople. Even while on the boat, he wouldn’t stop painting. The proof was seen on some small wooden boards depicted with landscapes of Ancona, Bari, Corfu, and Athens. He was the last of the long line of Italian artists, beginning with Gentile Bellini, who went to seek fame and fortune in the Ottoman Empire.
At the sight of Constantinople, the aesthetic upheaval is total. Zonaro for some time interrupted the activity in order to devote himself to the study of this new environment; so different and yet so fascinating. The light, atmosphere and nature were completely different compared to what he was used to in Italy. Therefore, the painter had to become committed to represent exactly what he saw and what he felt. His first production, small tablets with Turkish daily life scenes, are addressed once again to tourists and traders who literally swarmed to Constantinople. From 1891 to 1896, Zonaro was appointed Painter of the Court. This crescendo of fame and commissions were due largely to a single factor, created and supported entirely by Elisa, who in the meantime becomes his wife. It is she who is responsible for, undoubtedly, the success of Zonaro at the western and eastern aristocracy. Elisa understands that the friendships and the relationships earned are not enough. She knew her husband needed advertising, and advertising for a painter during that time included artists’ pictures being published in the most respected art magazines of Europe. Photographic studios in Constantinople were few, expensive and very inadequate for the couple, so once again Elisa, with her eldest son Fausto I, goes to Paris and decides to undertake the difficult art of photography. She is most likely the first European woman who graduated in photography.
She returned to Constantinople, armed with cameras, acids, films, and tanks for development. She uses her new found talent to take photos of her husband’s art and sends them to major newspapers of global art. Newspapers were excited to show articles and reviews with images of Zonaro’s paintings.
So commissions, portraits, landscapes, and many different proposals start to arrive to Zonaro.
The Ambassador of Russia, Alexander Nelidov even made a living room available at the Russian Embassy where Zonaro could open a popular school of painting for the western part of the aristocracy living in Constantinople (ambassadors, noble ladies, ladies of the bourgeoisie) and some members of the court of the Sultan.
Nelidov, in agreement with the Italian Ambassador Panza, were to present the final work of Zonaro, the Imperial Regiment Ertuğrul on the Galata Bridge in 1896 to Sultan Abdülhamid II. The Ambassadors knew that the Sultan, a fabulous patron of the painters, would have liked the picture, having created himself that body of cavalry. Furthermore, the previous court painter had died a few months ago and so the position was vacant. Abdülhamid II not only immediately bought the work, but he elected Zonaro as the Court, while also granting him a very high salary.
This sovereign was always very gracious with Zonaro, he always looked at him with sympathy and esteem and judging by the commission entrusted to him (the portrait of the beloved children, studies from life in the Palace Park, gifts of money, titles such as Army Colonel and later Pasha, gifts such as a three-storey building in the Beşiktaş district, exceptional fees such as the arrangement of the apartments destined to the Emperor and the Empress of Germany during on an official visit to Constantinople in the 1897) it was clear to see. It is during the reordering of the picture gallery, in the rooms intended for the Emperor, that Zonaro met, for the first time, the Sultan Abdülhamid.
These were his words: “One day I was putting new pictures in the large corridor leading to the theatre […] and a voice is heard and all the members of my team glide faster and in a flash I am alone. I thought that I was close to a great danger. You know? A fire, an earthquake? I was fantasising in order to find a reason for what happened when the door of the lobby of the theatre opens. A man with a reddish beard, in a jacket and fez, fiddling a stick holding in his hands, stares at me hinting a slight bow, and I look at this silhouette. My eyes go beyond the boundaries of him and I see the white teeth of the Negro Nadira, the favourite eunuch of Sultan. I find myself! I am in the presence of Abdülhamid! A deep bow, a greeting, I straighten up. I feel that I am in the presence of a Sovereign and I stay at attention with my head high, staring forward as twenty years before they had taught me in the Regiment in Italy. My hands were folded but I looked right well towards my Lord. A Muslim would never dare doing that. So, with a deep voice, S. M. speaks to me in Turkish. I concentrate all my faculties to understand and be ready to answer. “How are you? You are good at Constantinople? Your family is fine? There are some good paintings in my gallery?” And I replied to everything “Evet Efendi Mis” (Yes my Lord) Then, hinting me a picture, he tells me to take it away from the wall and put it in the space above the door of the theatre. I look and I see that this painting is higher than the previous and that it could not stand. I was going to express the inconvenience when S. M., moving his stick like a saw: “Copsi bir as!” (Cut a little) He says, looking at me with a smile, and I immediately say “Evet Efendi Mis.” Then he turns around and goes away. The last vision is the bouncing bow of the fez and the white teeth of the black skinny peeking me while he pulls the door. Half an hour later the painting of a knight of the Fourth Regiment, which fortunately had a lot of ground and sky was in its place; the author’s signature had disappeared, but who cares? Tie the donkey where the master wants… “
Taking possession of the palace donated by the Sultan, Zonaro settles a permanent exhibition of his work there. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Zonaro was at the top of his artistic and vital parable. In 1896 he was rewarded with the title of Painter of His Imperial Majesty the Sultan. The same year another Italian, Raimondo d’Aronco, became the Sultan’s official architect.
Few aspects of Istanbul eluded his energetic brush. He painted dervishes, beggars, street barbers, public scribes, firemen and fishermen. His landscapes included views of Üsküdar, Kumkapı, Beşiktaş and many other districts of the city, and he also depicted scenes from the great religious festivals of Bayram and Muharram. Some of the pictures have a bland journalistic quality – and were indeed reproduced in the Figaro Illustré. The subjects of the pictures are as varied as the population of Constantinople itself. In one, a minaret soars above the Golden Horn, in another, Turkish ladies gather flowers in a meadow and others included, families picnic by a fountain, the moon gleaming on the Bosphorus, and a Turkish woman lifting a corner of her veil.
Being a painter of a maritime city, Zonaro however, excelled in the seascapes. Masts and minarets, smoke and mist, sails and clouds, light and water blend into some of the most evocative of all representations of Istanbul.
Zonaro’s appeal is enhanced by his role as painter of the court as well as of the city. The unique quantity of Zonaro’s pictures, as well as the unique quality of his archive – which includes his memoirs, his visitors’ book and his wife Elisa’s accounts and photographs, from which he often worked – reinforce his importance as a witness to Istanbul’s imperial twilight.
Elisa, for her part, continued to photograph his paintings-constituting a precious archive of hundreds of photographs- and personally took care of the home and children. Also as a photographer she gave painting lessons to the powerful women of the harem, where she now had regular access. The house of Zonaro spouses becomes then, for about 10 years, a solid point of cultural exchange between East and West, and a place of meeting of mentality, customs, and different religions.
The sunset of Zonaro in the East coincides with the collapse of the kingdom Abdülhamid. In 1909, Enver Bey, Started the movement “Union and Progress” and as leader of a large part of the Army, he forced the Sultan to reopen the Parliament, which was closed for twenty years, and to restore the constitution and then forced the exile of the Sultan. The painter is spared from the humiliation of dismissal, as it touches the majority of the Court of Abdülhamid, but the new Court asks him to pay a salty rent to continue living in the palace of Beşiktaş. Zonaro cannot prove with documents that the Palace is his property because it was a gift and so, offended and embittered, he decided to return to Italy. Back in Italy he settled in San Remo, and the choice is quite understandable. San Remo is an authentic miniature Constantinople. Although he never returned to Constantinople, he talked about it unceasingly and he wrote in his memoirs, “Twenty Years of the Reign of Abdul Hamid”, which is still unpublished.
Zonaro again rebuilds his life. He organises exhibitions throughout Liguria and the French Riviera, he opens a permanent atelier, he dedicates himself to small paintings of views of some cities, he creates portraiture with crayon, reproduces Orientalist paintings, or touches upon nostalgic memories of a lost world. San Remo is also a giant sanatorium for tuberculosis patients from all over Europe and among the victims there is also his daughter Yolanda, who died at the age of 21. In addition to the pain due to the loss of Fausto I, who died in 1915 while volunteering to Argonne in France. And in July 19, 1929, Fausto Zonaro, an honorary citizen of San Remo, would die as well. With public honours, he was buried in the monumental cemetery of the Foce, where he still rests. Elisa, the faithful companion of a lifetime, would die about two decades later, in 1946, in Florence. She currently lies in the cemetery of San Miniato al Monte.