Is it instructive to look past an artist’s work and imagine the influence of the teacher? If the teacher is also a master, or if the teacher is the master, how might our opinion of the student’s work change? Would Botticelli be Botticelli if Fra Lippo Lippi weren’t lurking in that alleyway where Robert Browning found him 400 years later in a long but delightful poem? Do we look at Lippi at all now that we’ve got Botticelli to charm us? Haydn taught both Mozart and Beethoven and neither student seems to have suffered from Papa’s pedagogy. And while most of us would argue that Haydn has no Magic Flute or magical Ninth Symphony, he generally holds his own. And what of George Gershwin who went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, perhaps the most notable teacher of composers in the twentieth century. She taught Aaron Copland, Virgil Tomson, Philip Glass, even Astor Piazzola. But she turned down Gershwin, abandoning him to begin writing ‘American in Paris’ all on his own.
In Ottoman Turkey, Mimar Sinan is the master architect. His great Suleymaniye Mosque looms over Istanbul, looms over the Golden Horn, looms over the Bosporus as it carves Europe and Asia into separate continents. Talk about location, location, location. And, architectural historians agree, this masterpiece isn’t even his best work.
Sinan wielded great influence, as you’d expect from the best architect of the Ottoman world. His work was compared with Michelangelo’s, and the two men probably followed each other’s careers. Sinan’s apprentices included Sedefkar Mehmed Aga, who designed the Blue Mosque, now one of the most popular and beautiful tourist attractions in Turkey. It sits proudly facing the Hagia Sophia, and it looks up at the Suleymaniye with all the pride of a student who knows he’s done well.
(Just to keep things in order: the Hagia Sophia was built in 537 as a Christian cathedral. It was the largest cathedral in the world for a thousand years. Sinan built the Suleymaniye between 1550 and 1557. Aga’s Blue Mosque (or Sultan Ahmed) was built 50 years later between 1609 and 1617.)
For our purposes, I want only to ask of you a preference. Does Suleymaniye welcome or charm or inspire you? Or does the Blue Mosque move your aesthetic eye? Why one or the other? What sorts of motives might each architect fulfill? Which imagination are you more susceptible to?
I won’t tell you my secret, but you may tell me yours if you like.