Turkish people who are interested in sport news heard at the end of September that a young Italian was appointed as the head of the Turkish National Football Team.
Vincenzo Montella, who made the signing that made him the head of the team for 3 years, said that “after receiving the offer, he did not hesitate at all and accepted it immediately.”
The 49-year-old coach, born in Pomigliano d’Arco, was no stranger for Turkish fans. Before the national team, he coached another Turkish team called Adana Demirspor for 2 years and played 76 matches. In his own country, he was the boss of important Italian teams such as AS Roma, Fiorentina, Sampdoria and AC Milan.
Montella was happy, but in football the honeymoon lasts until the first match. The away match against Croatia was a difficult match for the Turks and Montella won his first match. They won the Latvia match they played right after, with a score of 4-0. Thus, the Turkish National Football Team qualified to participate in the European Football Championship to be held in Germany in the summer of 2024. Vincenzo Montella managed to enter the hearts of the Turks with only two matches.
In the following days, a new link was added to the “football partnership” between the Turks and the Italians. UEFA announced that the football tournament to be held in 2032 will be played in Turkey and Italy. It seems that the strategic partnership of the two Mediterranean countries in football is on the right track. We see cooperation between the two countries not only in football but also in volleyball and basketball. We know that the head of the Turkish women’s volleyball team that won the European championship is an Italian: Daniele Santarelli. The successful coach danced to Erik Dalı, a local Turkish song, after the championship.
When we look at the history of two countries that are very fond of sports, especially football, we see that these partnerships are not new.
The person who took Turkey to the 1954 FIFA World Cup and made it participate in an international tournament for the first time was an Italian: Sandro Puppo.
Puppo coached Turkey’s team three times between 1952 and 1954, 1960 and 1962 and 1965-1966.
There are other Italians: Giovanni Varglien was the head coach of the Turkish National Football team between 1955 and 1956, and Leandro Remondini was the head coach of the Turkish National Football team between 1958 and 1959. From 1966, when Puppo’s third term ended, until 2023, when Montella took office – an Italian had not been the head of the Turkish National Team for 57 years.
When we look at Turkish-Italian relations, we undoubtedly do not only see football. The two countries have a deep-rooted relationship that goes deep into history. This relationship started before the Italians established their own national union. Mehmed II, who paved the way for the Turkish empire by taking Istanbul from Byzantium, was a sultan who was fond of history and art. He thought that what would make him immortal was art rather than battles. Since it was believed that painting images was a sin in the Islamic world, he could not find a good painter around him. Gentile asked for help from Venice to appointed Bellini to Sultan’s palace. (Altınay, 2012).
Bellini, who came to Istanbul after a long ship voyage in 1479, painted an oil portrait of the Ottoman Sultan – Mehmed II, known as Fatih.
This painting is exhibited today in the National Gallery in London.
Other Italian artists also visited Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Fausto Zonaro (1854-1929) rose to become a court painter during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II. Born in Masi, Italy, Zonaro’s paintings can be seen in many current exhibitions even today. The painting that elevated him to the rank of palace painter is called “Ertuğrul Cavalry Regiment” and is exhibited in Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul.
Leonardo De Mango is another Italian painter who came to Istanbul during the reign of Abdulhamid and spent 47 years of his life in this city. He painted many paintings of daily life in Istanbul in his studio in Beyoğlu. One of them, the painting titled Büyükada Harbor (Marina di Prinkipo), was purchased by a government official from Italy in 1928. The painting hangs in one of the 14 halls of the Parliament Building “Palazzo Chigi” in Rome.
Italians named Girolamo Gianni (1837-1895), Amadeo Preziosi (1816-1882), Alberto Pasini (1826-1899) also came to Istanbul and painted. Their paintings are in various collections.
Undoubtedly, Italians were not the only painters working in Ottoman lands. There were also writers, poets, architects and photographers.
Venice-born Italian photographer Felice Beato (1832-1909), also known as Felix Beato, was one of the first people to take photographs in East Asia and also one of the first war photographers. He came to Istanbul and photographed the city.
Famous architect Gaspare Fossati built more than 50 buildings in Istanbul. Born in 1809, Fossati worked with his brother Guiseppe. The two brothers are known as the Fossati Brothers even today. Fossati, who came to Istanbul in 1837, first built the Russian Embassy building. He subsequently built many important buildings. The Fossati Brothers were tasked with the restoration of the Hagia Sophia Mosque by Abdulmecid in 1847. He published 25 of the paintings he prepared during this restoration, which he referred to as the most important practice throughout his life, as a large-scale album in London, with the support of Abdülmecid. He completed the restoration of the Venetian Palace in 1853. This building is today used as the Italian embassy residence.
The base of the great Atatürk statue in Taksim Square, where every foreigner coming to Istanbul is a must, was made by Giulio Mongeri (1875-1953), and the statue itself was made by Pietro Canonica (1869-1959).
Giulio Mongeri (1875-1953), an Italian born in Istanbul, was the architect of the Ziraat Bank General Directorate in Ankara, one of the first public buildings of the Republic of Turkey.
Tommaso D’Aronco (1857-1932) was invited to Istanbul for an exhibition in 1893. Marmara University rectorate building, II. Abdülhamit Fountain, Marmara University Haydarpaşa Campus, The Botter Apartment, which he designed for Abdülhamit’s tailor Botter, the Huber Mansion in Yeniköy and the Italian Embassy Summer residence in Tarabya are his works.
Guglielmo Semprini (1841-1917) is another Italian architect came to Istanbul.
Famous author Edmondo De Amicis is known all over the world with his novel The Child’s Heart, published in 1886. De Amicis described Istanbul, which he visited in 1874, in his book Constantinopoli. The book has an important place among the travelogues written on Istanbul.
What about music?
Italian musician and composer Giuseppe Donizetti (1788-1856) was a band member in Napoleon’s army. He was sent to Istanbul in 1827 and was appointed head of Muzıka-yı Hümayun to organize the orchestra. Sultan II. Donizetti, who composed anthems for Mahmud II and Sultan Abdülmecit, gave lessons in the harem. He was so loved in the Ottoman capital that he was referred to as “Donizetti Pasha”. It is still said that.
To take a closer look at Turkish-Italian relations, it is necessary to read Fabio L.Grassi’s book “Little Known Facts About Turkish-Italian Relations”. (Grassi, 2014).
As we learn from the book, Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi came to Istanbul many times and stayed for long periods. While some research shows the date of Garibaldi’s arrival in the city as 1828, this date was written as 1831 on the plaque hung in the house where he stayed. It is logical that Garibaldi stopped by the Ottoman capital many times during his travels in the Middle East over many years.
The institution called Sovieta Operaia Italiana di Mutuo Soccorso di Costantinopoli, established in Istanbul, was directly affiliated with the Garibaldi movement.
The document called Memoria Storica, published in 1906, contains basic information about this institution. It is an important institution that includes Italians living in Istanbul and has political aims and aims to help each other. Higher-ranking Italians were represented by the Masonic Lodge in the city.
According to the information provided by Grassi, the number of Italians in Istanbul at the beginning of the twentieth century exceeded 12 thousand.
The pain of the earthquake that occurred in Messina in 1908 was also felt in Istanbul. The Ottoman Empire had not yet healed the wounds of the 1894 earthquake. Both the Turks and the Italians in Istanbul immediately sent aid for the earthquake that destroyed the cities of Messina and Reggio Calabria. In total 3.458 francs were immediately sent to Italy. One of the names who participated in the aid campaign was Fausto Zonaro.
Italy was among the countries that occupied Ottoman lands after the First World War. But Italy was the most reluctant of the occupying countries.
Italy’s share of the shared Turkish lands was the Mediterranean coast, including Antalya and Konya, and the eastern Aegean region extending to the north of Izmir. A significant part of the cities that are considered Turkey’s tourism centers today were given to Italians. However, the attitude of Italian forces in these cities was extremely lax. They did not interfere with the administration anywhere. Italians and Turkish gendarmes patrolling the streets would sometimes sit together and chat. In fact, the Kuvayi Milliye (National-Kemalist Forces) organization, the power of the Kemalists, was established in Kuşadası, which was under Italian occupation. Mahmut Esat and Şükrü Saraçoğlu continued their activities in the region comfortably, and the Italians did not intervene. Since the Italians did not like the Greeks, they gave implicit support to Turkey. Captain Luca, the commander of the Italian soldiers in Kuşadası, was speaking in Turkish very well.
Again, as we learned from Grassi’s book, Italian companies did not refrain from selling weapons and ammunition to Turkish patriots. On September 23, 1922, a sales agreement for FIAT spare parts worth 270.000 Italian lirets was signed between the Italians and the National Forces. Delivery started three days later. Even after the forces led by Ataturk won the war, Italians continued to sell supplies to Turkey.
After the occupation ended and the defeated Western countries returned home, Ataturk improved his relations with Europe. There was now a modern, secular Türkiye facing the West. The Second World War, which started one year after Atatürk’s death, prevented the further development of relations between Turkey and Italy. Like other countries, the Ankara government was suspicious of the fascist government in Italy. Benito Mussolini’s aggressive policy required Turkey to be cautious.
Where are we today?
The trade volume between the two countries is around 26 billion dollars.
Italy ranks fifth among the countries to which Turkey exports the most. Italian children love to eat products made from Turkish hazelnuts. The two countries are not satisfied with just economic exchange, there is also important social, cultural and academic exchange.
Italians who follow the Turkish TV series broadcast on television are visiting every inch of Istanbul. I also participated in one of those trips. Right now, I am writing this article in the garden of an Italian Hospital (Terra Sancta) in Beyoğlu (famous district of Istanbul).
Ambassadors are not the only representatives of the two great nations. Artists, writers, tourists and athletes reinforce this friendship.
Turkey and Italy may will play the final in the European Football Championship in 2032. Italians would good to learn Erik Dalı dance from now on.
“Fatih ve Bellini” Ahmet Refik Altınay. Yeditepe Publications. 2012
“Türk-İtalyan İlişkilerinde Az Bilinenler” Fabio L.Grassi. Tarihçi Publications. 2014.
*Murat Erdin, writer and lecturer, based in Istanbul, Turkey