ARMANDO ALEMDAR ARA gives some insights into his latest commission.
Gjergj (George) Kastrioti (b 1405) known as Skanderbeg is a relatively unknown historical figure these days but for centuries he has been praised in Europe as one of its saviours against the Ottoman Empire. Byron wrote about him in 1812 and Vivaldi wrote an opera about this forgotten hero, sometimes called ‘The Albanian Braveheart’.
Portrait of Skanderbeg, Uffizi, Florence
Born in the Albanian mountains, Skanderbeg was the youngest son of a local lord, Gjon Kastrioti. When Gjergj was 18 years old, his father Gjon became a vassal of the Ottomans and was forced to pay tribute to Sultan Murad II by handing over his sons as part of the devirme, a military system that conscripted Christian boys being taken from their families, converted to Islam and indoctrinated as loyal servants of the Sultan. Gjergj was renamed Skanderbeg (Iskander Bey or "Lord Alexander" in Turkish) and formally inducted into the Order of the Dragon by King Alfonso V of Aragon. Skanderbeg became an able military commander but his father’s unsuccessful rebellion against the Ottomans and subsequent death inspired him to turn his back on the Ottomans and become one of their fiercest enemies. He established himself in the Albanian mountains with a small number of other Albanian warriors who had deserted the Ottoman ranks and from there set about fighting the mighty Ottomans army.
Skanderbeg reverted back to his birth religion of Christianity and started diplomatic relations with the Venetians and the Kingdom of Naples. Pope Calixtus III named Skanderbeg Captain General of the Holy See. This confirms that Italy’s hopes at that time seem to have rested on this Albanian warrior to hold back the Ottoman Empire from Italy and the rest of Europe. Skanderbeg managed to successfully defend Ottoman advances until his death in 1468. His legacy became legend and he became a hero.
Armando Alemdar Are, Portrait of Skanderbeg, 2020, oil on linen, 40 x 30cms
Antonio Mara Crespi, Portrait of Skanderbeg, 1820
With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the importance of this warrior who saved ‘Christendom’ from an Islamic empire perhaps seemed less significant in 20th Century Europe. After WW2 the Balkans saw the birth of Yugoslavia which, under the guise of socialist ‘brotherhood and equality for all nationalities’ adeptly managed to keep the rights of (Albanian, Turkish and Roma) minorities supressed. Albania was itself in the grip of the communist dictator Enver Hodga who abandoned the Albanians in the Yugoslav territories (Kosovo) in a deal with Tito. With the collapse of Yugoslavia Serbian nationalism exasperated the issue of Albanian identity. A figure like Skanderbeg was one of the only things left for Albanians to hold on to as a symbol of their struggle for self-determination. His legend lives on today as a symbol for national struggle and identity. Now, in 2021, as we have seen the rise of populist, nationalistic politics across the world in recent times, we need to remember a warrior such as Skanderbeg because his life serves as a reminder for all minorities, migrants and people seeking self-determination. As Karen Murdarasi in History Today points out: “A man who dedicated his life to fighting for his people and his culture against overwhelming odds – and won – might not be such an outdated ideal after all. Perhaps Skanderbeg could yet be a hero for our times.”
The idea of Skanderbeg in Battle came about after some inspirational discussions with Etrita Ibroci, Managing Director of a European stock broker company based in New York. Over the past 25 years Etrita has been involved with many Albanian/American non-profit organisations as a founder or board member. Etrita inspired me to learn more about this relatively unknown warrior and also rise up to the challenge of creating a large representational painting of a historical figure. The Skanderbeg Project has been a wonderful learning experience and, to my initial surprise, the most exciting artistic adventure. I shall be eternally grateful to Etrita for this commission.
After going through photographic archives of Albanian warriors (albeit dated much later than the ones who would have fought against the Ottomans in the 15th Century) and observing numerous paintings and sculptures of Skanderbeg (one being in Westminster, London), I set about sketching the initial composition. I soon realized that the canvas had to be large to justify the theme and moreover, that the figure of Skanderbeg himself would demand prominence that surpasses time; he had to be ‘larger than life’, larger than history. For this reason, I painted the equestrian figure so that his face is on the same elevation as the Albanian mountains in the background. I had the opportunity to observe and draw these majestic mountains in my recent travels to the Adriatic coast.
When developing the foreground, I deliberately left the figure of Skanderbeg himself for the end. Before I embarked upon painting his figure I felt that I first had to paint a separate portrait of him after taking some time to read, in order to learn and understand his life and his spirit. I was then able to use the small portrait as a guide for the large canvas. Skanderbeg is pointing not only to the direction of his army’s assault, but also towards the future of all Albanians regardless of creed or religion and all people and nations seeking self-determination.