Constantinople is building bridges with Leonardo da Vinci

Kiya Tabassian. Photo: Maryvonne Plassard

In the year 1502 Leonardo da Vinci sent a letter to the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II.

The Italian artist and designer was pitching a project on spec. He had heard that Bayezid wanted to build a bridge across the Bosphorus strait connecting the two sides of his capital that were separated by the busy waterway.

His bridge would have been the longest of its time at 240 metres It would have been 23 metres wide and soar 40 metres over sea level.

Da Vinci even offered to come to Turkey to supervise the project.

Leonardo da Vinci

His plan for the Golden Horn was not so golden for da Vinci. Bayezid rejected his idea as basically too unrealistic.

This year is the 500th anniversary of the Italian master’s death and that prompted Kiya Tabassian to consider making music to celebrate.

Tabassian is the mastermind behind the group Constantinople which often investigates historic events with historical music. And da Vinci’s death was one of those events.

“The anniversary of his death gave me the idea to make an homage to this fascinating Renaissance man and to try to rebuild with music the bridge that he drafted but that was never built.”

The idea of a bridge is a perfect metaphor for what Tabassian does. He connects the music of the East with the West. He is Iranian and emigrated to Quebec as a teenager with his family.

“Musically, for years we have been staying on that bridge between west and east.”

Here is a look at part of da Vinci’s design for a bridge over the Bosphorus.

In the concert they will present in Ottawa on Sunday at the Horticulture Building at Lansdowne Park, the music is drawn from a musical manuscript that Tabassian has uncovered.

This is something he does. Tabassian loves to find music that has been forgotten and breath new life into it.

The manuscript dates from the 17th century and was compiled by a Polish born convert to Islam who worked for the Ottomans as a diplomat. His name was Alberto Bobovski and when he converted he adopted the name Ali Ufky, Tabassian said.

“The manuscript collects pieces and songs from different parts of the world, mainly from Italy, the Ottoman Empire and Persia.”

Ali Ufky, it turns out, was a bit of a Renaissance man himself. He spoke several languages and he was a diplomat, scientist and musician.

“The manuscript is kind of like the bridge Leonardo was dreaming of,” Tabassian said.

“I think for Leonardo, with the idea of making a bridge on the Bosphorus, I think he was thinking about connecting East and West. He did not meet the Sultan but he sent him a letter and a drawing of the bridge. In the letter da Vinci was talking about the innovation of the bridge but he was also talking about having the honour to make the bridge where Europe and Asia meet.”

Da Vinci isn’t the only Italian master to propose a bridge connecting east and west.

Michaelangelo too planned a bridge. He actually went to meet the Sultan, Tabassian said. But his proposal was interrupted by fighting between the Venetians and the Turks. There is a novel written about Michaelangelo’s bridge by the French novelist Mathias Enard called Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants (New Directions).

He started work on this project about two years ago, recognizing the anniversary was approaching. It was a good fit for him.

“I have been doing this kind of research for many years. I’m kind of obsessed to find the musical treasures of history. This manuscript is a treasure and to see that in beginning of 17th century, he took the time to write such a beautiful work resonated.

“I am doing this in 2019 and 400 years before this guy was doing the same thing.”

Constantinople in concert.

Tabassian believes in the importance of finding connections between East and West.

“We need more and more examination and understanding. When you look at manuscripts and documents from a few centuries ago you can see that people were examining things in a deeper way then.

“I like to highlight that and to do it I try to go as deep as possible and to give that exploration to the audience.”

He’s already hard at work on his next project which will be a performance based on the writings of the poet Rumi.

As for Leonardo’s bridge, a version of it, using his design, has been constructed. It is a pedestrian bridge located just outside Oslo, Norway.

Constantinople presents In the Footsteps of Da Vinci
Where: Horticulture Building, Lansdowne Park
When: April 14 at 2 p.m.
Tickets and information:

This is not the only event in Ottawa honouring da Vinci. On Monday at the Carleton Dominion Chalmers Centre, Carleton University will host a celebration of Leonardo da Vinci to honour the innovator’s life with a keynote lecture and highlights from a student led Diluvio art exhibit among other things. It’s free and the public is invited.
When: April 15 at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Carleton Dominion Chalmers Centre

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.