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İstanbul is an inexhaustible city. The more you explore, the more fascinating buildings, sights and sounds you discover in obscure corners and backstreets. Everyone knows the city’s primary colours, but what brings the picture of a city to life is the intermediate tones and the shadows which impart texture and depth.

İstanbul is far more than a collage of Sinan’s imposing mosques and tombs, the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Dolmabahçe Palace. All over the city surprises await us in the most unexpected places. In Beşiktaş, for example, a tiny complex of tomb, library and fountain lies unnoticed in the shadows behind the crowded bus stops. Yet this is a masterpiece high on the World Architectural Heritage List. Quietly it waits to the acknowledged for its contribution to İstanbul’s cultural legacy.

The architect Raimondo D’Aronco, just like his tiny Şeyh Zafir Külliyesi in Beşiktaş, does not receive the recognition that he deserves in İstanbul. Yet in the early 1900s he was a celebrity in İstanbul and enjoyed an international reputation.

aronco3.jpg (11801 bytes)Raimondo Tommaso d’Aronco was born in the Italian provincial town of Gemona near the Austrian border in 1857. His family had been builders for several generations, and as a young boy he started to learn the trade from his father, meanwhile attending first primary school and then the Gemona Arts and Trades School. In 1871, at the age of 14, his father sent him to Graz, D’Aronco attended the Johanneum Baukunde (School of building), which still exist today and was famous for training skilled masons and joiners. Already knowledgeable after years of practical experience with his father, D’Aronco proved an outstanding student, and his teachers urged him to study architecture. D’Aronco returned to Italy with his resolve, and enrolled at a summer school of design in Gemona, winning first prize in the competition which he entered upon completing the second course.

D’Aronco then volunteered for national service and worked as a fortifications engineer in Torino, which gave him experience in timber construction. Upon discharge he entered the Venice Academy, where the teaching was not confined to any particular school of thought, enabling D’Aronco, whose ideas had not been shaped by any previous architectural education, to experiment freely with form and style. At the end of the year, when he was still only 19 years old and full of enthusiasm, he was awarded first prize for architectural composition. Raimondo d’Aronco’s rise to fame in Italy began with design competition for a monument to King Vittorio Emmanuele II to be built in Rome. His design won the silver medal. Similar achievements at the competitions for the 1887 Venice Exhibition, the First Torino Exhibition of Architecture in 1890 and the Palermo National Exhibition in 1891 made him one of Italy’s most promising young architects. In 1893, he was invited to İstanbul to prepare designs for the İstanbul Exhibition of Agriculture and Industry to be held in 1896. He arrived in August 1893, and had completed the project within a few months. The designs were approved by Sultan Abdülhamid II, and the foundations were being laid when the great earthquake of 10 July 1894 devastated the city. One of its victims was the exhibition, which had to be scrapped.

aronco.jpg (30907 bytes)But in the wake of the earthquake the need for an architect of Raimondo d’Aronco’s standing became even more urgent, as a rebuilding program got underway. He was first charged with restoring damaged monuments in the old quarter, and went on to design scores of buildings for the government and individuals. The İstanbul period in his professional career only came to an end with the deposition of Sultan Abdülhamid II in 1909. These 16 years were to be the most productive years of his life, and represented the height of his originality. As a state architect on a high salary, he undertook projects for the imperial palace, the Ministry of Agriculture Forests and Mines and the Ministry of Pious Endowments.

The buildings which he designed at Yıldız Palace were European in style. The best known of these are the Yeni or Harem Köşk, the Archive Building, conservatories, Yıldız Palace Theatre, Yaveran Köşk, and the annex to the Şale Köşk.

aronco1.jpg (18145 bytes)D’Aronco also designed in the historicist style with echoes of Ottoman baroque, examples being the Ministry of Agriculture, Forests and Mines, the Medical College, and the new Tophane Fountain. The workshop and large house which he designed for the sultan’s tailor Botter represents a turning point in D’Aronco’s architecture. This art nouveau design in the avant-garde mood of the period compounded D’Aronco’s already enviable reputation. Around the same time he won the Torino International Exhibition of Decorative Arts design competition, which carried his fame into the international sphere. The Şeyh Zafir complex is a unique synthesis of traditional Turkish architecture and art nouveau. The tiny mescid (little mosque) of Merzifonlu which stood in Karaköy until modernization projects swept it away in 1958 was another work of comparable note.

Among the numerous private houses which Raimondo d’Aronco designed is the Huber House, today the official İstanbul residence of the Turkish president. He also built a palace for the sultan’s daughter Nazime Sultan, but this is no longer standing. The summer residence of the Italian ambassador in Tarabya is one of the most striking contributions to İstanbul’s architectural heritage by D’Aronco. Planned as a classic Italian palace, the building opens directly onto the sea like a Bosphorus house, together with an Italian type interior space. Broad eaves typical of İstanbul vernacular architecture cast deep shade over the terrace. The skilled welding of two cultures testifies to both D’Aronco’s interpretive skill and his affection for İstanbul.

By Prof. Dr. Afife Batur
(Istanbul Technical University Faculty of Architecture)