425 Do you doff your turban for the pope?

The book about which I have been telling you for years now, Rembrandt seen through Jewish eyes: the artist’s meaning to Jews from his time to ours, edited by Mirjam Knotter and myself, has been published by Amsterdam University Press and is available in hardback for €39.99 or as an e-book in Open Access for free.

This column owes its inception to a rare and precious happening. A young colleague discovered something I had missed in an article of 2013, and she sent it to me to publish. Back to Robert Sherley in Rome. Thank you, Günay Heydərli.

Because this is a long and complex installment, I am forewording it with a précis of the images.



On 24 May 1598, Anthony and Robert Sherley, sons of an Essex nobleman who had fallen into disgrace, left England, and by the first of December they reached Qazvin in the Persian Safavid Empire, where they were welcomed by the governor. The shah joined them in a few days and took them to his glorious capital, Isfahan. Early in May 1599 Anthony was sent by the shah back to Europe, accompanied by the high-ranking courtier Husein ‘Ali Beg and twenty-four attendants and servants, to serve with Husein as an ambassador to the courts of Moscow, Prague, Florence, the Vatican and Venice. To assure himself of Anthony’s loyalty, Shah ‘Abbas kept Robert and fourteen other Englishmen in Isfahan as honored hostages. On 12 February 1608, Robert too was sent by ‘Abbas on an ambassadorial mission to Europe, a charge he shared with the Persian dignitary ‘Ali-qoli Beg. (Beg, otherwise Bey, is a title of dignity, like Sir, and comes after the name. ‘Abbas used the surname Mordar, meaning “bearer of the seal of state”.)

Anthony was a psychopathic schemer, bluffer and thief. He had a con man’s charm and could put on a show of such convincing authority that he succeeded, between jail terms, in accumulating honors and commissions from some of the European rulers he visited. Books began to be written about him as early as 1600, in tones of stunned admiration for his exploits. A highpoint of sorts was reached in 1888, when Rev. Scott Surtee, of Dinsdale-on-Tees, published a pamphlet that attributed to Anthony Sherley the authorship of the plays that go under the name of William Shakespeare. Other writings were less adulatory. My own contribution to the genre was published in 2013 in an exhibition catalogue for the Rietberg Museum in Zürich, under the title “The Sherleys and the Shah: Persia as the stakes in a rogue’s gambit.” In it I published all the visual images of Anthony, Robert and their fellow envoys that I could find.

My reason for returning to the subject is a mail that I received on 7 December 2023 from Günay Heydərli of the department of history at Baku State University, Azerbaijan. Ms. Heydərli pointed out to me the existence of more images of Robert Sherley than I had known, acquainted me with an important publication concerning Pope Paul V’s audiences of Persian ambassadors in 1609, and put her finger on a fascinating difference in a minute detail between one state and another of a portrait etching of Robert. The matter concerned is the papal audience enjoyed by Robert on 29 September 1609.

Rome, Biblioteca Angelica, ms. 1214, fol. 75r (awaiting better image and more information)

In mezo ali S[igno].ri parenti del papa | La nobile entrata in Roma Flanked by relatives of the Pope | The distinguished entrance into Rome
Il Conte Don Roberto Scerley Æques Aurato Inglese
Ætatis suæ anni. 28. | Imbasciadore del Ser.mo Re di Persia XA Abbas. alla S[anti].ta di N.S.P.P. Paolo. V. intrato in Roma alli 28, de Settembre. 1609. Con gra’ solénità
Count Don Robert Sherley, English gilded knight. At the age of 28. Ambassador of the Most Serene king of Persia, Shah Abbas, to His Holiness Our Lord Pope Paul V, entering into Rome on the 28th of September 1606, with great solemnity. (In Prague, Sherley had been dubbed a knight palatine by Emperor Rudolf II. His possible status as an English knight is a matter of debate.)

Robert had arrived in Rome on 27 September, in quiet, moving into a house on St. Peter’s Square where the pope was putting him up. On 28 September he was taken to the Corso for the start of a ceremonial entry into the city, through a prescribed route for distinguished guests of the pope. His visit, long in preparation, had heavy-going diplomatic, military and even religious meaning for both Shah ‘Abbas and Paul V (1550-1621; ascended to papacy in 1605), about which more below.

In the background to the anonymous print above we see two drummers walking in front of two civilians on horseback. Behind them march a guard of thirteen men, ten of them bearing battle axes on their shoulders. Closing the cavalcade are three men on horseback, of whom the middle one, wearing a turban, is Robert. The riders flanking Robert are the relatives of the pope spoken of in the inscription, in a display of honor. We know them to have been Marcantonio Borghese, a nephew of Paul’s (whose name was Camillo Borghese), and his uncle, Marcantonio Lante. Because Sherley was coming as an emissary of a non-Christian ruler, no church functionaries were sent out to greet him.

The depiction downplays the solemn entry as described by an inside witness, who sounds impressed when we writes that Sherley “was accompanied by lightly armed horsemen without lances, illustrious relatives of cardinals, by noble Romans, several aristocrats, and members of the Swiss guard, walking with halberds […] Drummers and trumpeters were there. At Castel’ Sant’Angelo and St. Peter’s Square salutes were fired.” (“[…] et fuit associatus ab equitibus levis armaturaer sine lanceis, familiaribus ill:mor DD. Cardinalium, à Nobilibus Romanis, et aliquibus Baronibus, et à Militibus Heluetiis pedestribus cum alebardis […] Interfuerunt Tympanistes. Et Tubicines. In Castro S. Angeli et in Platea S.ti Petri fuerunt exoneratae Bombarae.”)

In commissioning the print, Sherley was more concerned with how he looked than with the ceremonial grand entry. The portrait shows him dressed in a tightly drawn vest with horizontal striping, bound by a linked, multistrand chain from the left shoulder down across the body. Over these he wears a cape clasped below the neck with a large button. All the cloth is worked up with stitched ornament. The feathered, satiny turban is of a certain model. It has a rod projecting from the top and, if it could seen in its entirety, twelve folds. This is symbolic of that number of imams, as revered in the Twelver form of Shi’ite Islam, the denomination of Safavid Persia. When Shah ‘Abbas wished to honor a Christian dignitary at his court, he would present him with a turban to which a crucifix was attached, simultaneously paying respect to Christ and to Islam. Robert Sherley wore his turban proudly in official receptions in Europe. That it is not tied under the chin, and that its end, showing the cloth to have a striped lining, hangs loose across his shoulder, have meanings that I dare not decode. The scroll in his right hand refers to the missive from Shah ‘Abbas that Sherley was delivering.

The following morning, 29 September 1609, Robert was received by the pope, in a public audience, in the reception hall of the Quirinal, which Paul had made his residence, away from the Vatican and the curia.


Matthäus Greuter (1564–1638), Sir Robert Sherley (with vignette of his audience with Pope Paul V on 29 September 1609)

Engraving, 14.5 x 9.8 cm
London, British Museum (1848,0911.529)

Engraving, 14.5 × 9.7 cm (trimmed inside the plate mark)
Collection of Loekie and Gary Schwartz, acquired from Frans Laurentius, Middelburg; from an album owned by the Earl of Portland, William Bentinck (1649–1707)
Diego de Astor after Matthäus Greuter, idem
Engraving, 17.8 x 12.9 cm
London, National Portrait Gallery (NPG D33608)


ROBERTVS SHERLEY’ ANGLVS COMES CÆSARE’ EqVES AVRAT’ Robert Sherley, Englishman, Count in the Emperor’s Order of the Golden Spur
die 29. septembris 29 September
Magni Sophi Persarū Legatus ad SSmū D.N./ Paulū P.P.V. Ceterosq. Principes Christianos. Ingress. Ro=/ mam solenni pompa die 28. Septemb. 1609. aetatis sue. 28. Legate of the Great Sophi, king of Persia, to His Holiness Our Lord Paul V and other Christian princes. Entered Rome in solemn ceremony on the 28th day of September 1609 at the age of 28.
Supm lic. / MG f. / Si vendino alla Pace / cū priuil[egi].o Under license. MG [Initials of Matthäus Greuter, intertwined] fecit. On sale at the [the square of Santa Maria della] Pace. With privilege.

For the sake of appreciation – here is the impression in my collection, clickable for enlargement.

This highlight of Sherley’s official life is depicted in a small vignette below another portrait, by the German-Italian printmaker Matthäus Greuter (1564/66-1638), which must have been commissioned on the spot. He is dressed in the same splendid clothing as in the entry. The turban is however now diagonally hatched cotton, tied with horizontal rather than vertical folds, with the feathers at the bottom and the end on Robert’s other shoulder. Which is to signify … something.

Rome, Biblioteca Angelica, ms. 1214, fol. 84r (typo in caption above)

Modo et ordine dell’Audienza data da N.S. Papa Pa[o]lo Quinto ad ALI Goli Bek Mordar Amb.re mandato da Xa Abbas Re di Persia, alli 30 d’Agosto 1609. del quale e’ stato Do’ Clemente Osat. Persiano The mode and order of the audience given by Pope Paul V to Ali Goli Bek Mordar, ambassador sent by Shah Abbas, king of Persia, on 20 August 1609, interpretation provided by Clement, Persian spokesman.
St[am]’pato in Roma a Pasquino con licentia d’ Superiore, appresso Giouanni Orlando Published in Rome at the Pasquino, with license by high authorities, with Giovanni Orlando

Reproduction from Mayu Fujikawa 202.

The vignette is a reduced and abbreviated adaptation of a larger, more detailed composition depicting a papal audience of a month earlier. That was the reception by the pope of a fellow ambassador of Sherley’s, the Persian dignitary ‘Ali-qoli Beg. Shah ‘Abbas had the habit of sending redundant embassies to Europe (he had done the same for Anthony’s ambassadorship), letting the delegates fight issues of precedence out between them. And they did. In this instance, ‘Ali-qoli got the drop, coming earlier and sharing with the pope the details of Shah ‘Abbas’s proposals. He left Rome a few days before Robert’s arrival.

The visits of the two ambassadors are extensively documented in the Vatican archives. The diary kept by the master of ceremonies, Paolo Alaleone, tells us that both audiences were attended by the same eight cardinals, along with other church and civic dignitaries: “Burghesius, Barberinus, Millinus, Lantes, Nazaret, Virallus, Lenius, Lanfrancus,” “the head of the cardinals’ diaconate, the governor of the city, the treasurer-general, as well as bishops, clerics of the chamber, and some prelates.”

As in the print of the solemn entry, here too the portrait of Sherley is the main motif, as if the pope is an attribute of Sherley the hero. The papal audience was even dispensable. Robert had Matthäus Greuter engrave another version of the portrait without the pope, with the same title as the image of the solemn entry:

Matthäus Greuter, Robert Sherley, ca. September 1609
Engraving, 9.5 x 6.0 cm
Basel, Kunstmuseum Basel (Aus B.31.196)


Ætatis suae anni. 28


Count Don Robert Sherley, Englishman


His age 28 years old

Imbasciadore del Ser.mo Re di Persia XA ABBAS alla S.ta die N.S. Paolo PP.V. intrato in Roma allí 28. de Settēbre. 1609. cō solen̄itá. Grande. Ambassador of the Most Serene King of Persia Shah ‘Abbas to His Holiness Our Lord Pope Paul V, entered Rome on 28 September 1609 with great solemnity.
Sup̄. lic. Si vendino à Pasquino | MG f. cū privil. Under license. Sold at the Pasquino
M[atthias] G[reuter] fecit with privilege.



D. RVBERTVS SHERLEYNS ANGLIUS COMES et EQUES  Aureatus. legatus ad Summum Pontif.m


A portrait of the great Sophi, king of Persia

Don Robert Sherley, English count and knight of the golden spur, envoy to the Supreme Pontiff.

‘Ali-qoli Mordar, envoy to the Supreme Pontiff, 73 years old

Imbasciatori del Re di Persia alla Sta di N.D. Papa Paolo. V. uno die qualia cioé Ali Goli | Fece intrata solenne in Roma alli 27 di Agosto 1609. Et l’altro cioé il Conte Don Ruberto | Sherleyns, Inglese Cattolico, quale fece intrata in Roma adi 28 di Setembre, del’ istess.o anno | 1609. Ambassadors of the king of Persia to His Holiness Our Lord Pope Paul V, one of whom was Ali-qoli, who made a solemn entry into Rome on the 27th of August 1609. And the other is Count Don Robert Sherley, an English Catholic, who entered Rome on the 28th of September, of the same year, 1609.
Si Stampa in Roma a Pasquino. Con licenza d’ Superiori. | Lucas de Vrbino F. Printed in Rome at the Pasquino. With license of high authority. | Lucas de Urbino fecit.

Luca Ciamberlano (1570/80-1641), Portraits of Shah ‘Abbas, ‘Ali-qoli Beg and Robert Sherley, with a vignette of the audience of Sherley with Pope Paul V, 1609
Engraving, 15.9 x 10.0 cm
Rome, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, Fondo Corsini, vol. 34AH4 (38168)

One further print brings ‘Ali-qoli and Robert into highly meaningful contact with each other and with their master, the shah. The print could only have been a commission of Robert’s, whose audience is the one depicted in the vignette.

At this point, we have three prints picturing Robert Sherley’s audience with Paul V, by Matthäus Greuter, Diego de Astor and Luca Ciamberlano. To which we can add a fourth, namely an alternative state of the Greuter print. As was pointed out to me by Günay Heydərli, there is an important discrepancy between the state of the impression in my collection, which I illustrated in 2013, and that in the British Museum. In mine Sherley is wearing his turban, in that in the British Museum he has taken it off and put on the ground beside him.

In fact, all four of the versions present a different situation. In the upper two Sherley is wearing his turban, in the lower two not. In Diego de Astor’s rendering Sherley holds a scroll in which he seems to be pointing out a passage. As Luca Ciamberlano pictures the scene, the pope is flanked by a standing figure, while there are six rather than four cardinals, as in the other prints, seated at the back wall. Only the three figures in turbans accompanying Sherley are the same in all. These variations must have been dictated by Sherley, who was apparently always changing his mind about who he wanted to impress with what. One more reminder that picture-making is different than recording.

Concerning the question of my title – do you doff your hat to the pope? – authoritative testimony was indited by the master of Vatican ceremony, Paolo Alaleone. From the wording in his report of ‘Ali-qoli’s audience, it seems as if the Persian diplomat, in bowing three times and kissing the pope’s feet, kept his turban on, as in the print by Giovanni Orlandi: “[…] factis tribus reuerentijs cum turbante genuflexus osculatus est pedem Papae […]”

Of Sherley, he wrote that “the envoy came dressed in a black velvet [or chamois leather] vest in Hungarian style, with a turban, and after bowing three times without the turban on his uncovered head, kissed the pope’s feet.” ([…] orator uenit indutus uestibus nigris de uelluto more Hungarum com turbante, et factis tribus genuflexionibus sine turbante discoperto capite osculatus est pedem Papae.”) Elsewhere, he says of the garment, differently, that it was “a Turkish brocade vest that was worn in Poland and was given to Sherley by the commanding officer of Moscow.” (“[…] ‘uesta di broccato di Turchia usata alla Pollacca’ e donato dal Capitano generale di Moscovia.”) May it be remarked that in none of the depictions of Sherley’s audience do we see him actually kissing the pope’s (shodden, of course) feet. Although he had converted to Catholicism, a trip back to England was on his agenda, and he may have thought it prudent to maintain a bit of distance.

Sherley traveled with cases full of clothing. The Italian hosts kept a keen eye on his outfits, which conveyed messages of a handily ambiguous kind. On the 3rd of October, when he had a private conversation with the pope – a far more important encounter than the public audience – he was dressed in English style (“uestito all’Inglese”), and at a later excursion in the city, as in the portrait prints: “in Persian garb, with a gold crucifix on top of a turban and a multistrand golden chain around his neck” (“uestito alla Persiana con una crocetta d’oro in cima al turbante et con un mazzo di catene d’oro al collo”).

If for Sherley it was a vanity project having all those prints made, for Paul V the embellishment in art of the visit of the two ambassadors from Persia was a matter of state. This had to do in the first place with the gravity of the mission. Persia was at war with Ottoman Turkey, and a perennial issue of its contacts with the west concerned joining forces and punishing the Turks in a pincer movement. Another proposal of the shah is that the pope induce King Philip III of Spain to seize the island of Cyprus from the Turks. The pope was an important party in these ongoing deliberations. The shah and the pope exchanged letters, Sherley penned a ten-point plan of action, Vatican observers wrote memos – a big deal was in the makes. Then there was the alluring way in which ‘Abbas dangled before the pope, through unwritten messages conveyed by Sherley, that he was considering converting to Christianity, perhaps the Catholicism that he protected in his realm, in the Carmelite monastery of Isfahan. Another reason for Paul to commission representations of the Persian embassy had to do with his wish to live up to the image of the pope as a worldwide spiritual father, indeed to his ambition to bring all of mankind into the Mother Church. The pope worked at it, receiving ‘Ali-qoli Beg and Robert Sherley for numerous private meetings during their stays in Rome. To Vatican observers, it seemed that the participants in these events really liked each other.

Visibility – how could this be other for a Borghese pope? – was a big element in these interests. This is apparent in more than one way. Most movingly, as a present for ‘Ali-qoli Beg to take home to his ruler, Paul gave the emissary a portrait of himself painted by the Bolognese artist Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614), one of the best portraitists in Italy at the time. To top it off, he also commissioned Fontana to paint a portrait of ‘Ali-qoli. Neither is traceable.

The extent to which Paul V went to create visual displays of the Persian embassy is quite astonishing. He had depictions of it created for three iconic locations in Rome.

Paul V, Pontifex Maximus, allows ‘Ali-qoli Beg Mordar, envoy of Shah ‘Abbas, king of Persia, to kiss his feet, in the year 1609, the fifth year of his pontificate.

In 1611, in a lunette in the Sala Paolina, adjoining the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, he had Giovanni Battista Ricci da Novara (ca 1537-1627) paint an enlivened rendition of the engraving by Giovanni Orlandi. It was part of a program, devised by Baldassare Ansidei, keeper of the Vatican Library, in which other embassies from non-Christian countries were depicted.


Rome, Palazzo Quirinale, Salone dei Corazzieri (previously Sala Regia; photo: Piero Castiglione). See the online visit on Google Arts and Culture.

In his own chosen residence in the Palazzo del Quirinale, in 1615-16, Paul had a comparable sequence of frescoes painted, with separate scenes of ‘Ali-qoli Beg and Robert Sherley, by a team of artists headed by Agostino Tassi, Giovanni Lanfranco and Carlo Saraceni.

In the meanwhile, in 1615 he had ordered and saw to completion a sculpture in high relief, by Cristoforo Santi, for his own funerary chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore. ‘Ali-qoli Beg is now shown not prostrated before His Holiness, but half-kneeling before him, in a respectful exchange of glances. The younger man behind him may be Sherley. In low relief above them is the head of a cavalcade, alluding to the solemn entries into Rome accorded them by the pontiff.

Santa Maria Maggiore, Capella Paolina. See above right.

This image above all, illustrating an achievement by which the pope wished to be remembered for all eternity, attests to the significance of the meeting of the faiths in which Robert Sherley was a key player. The grand geopolitical program and spiritual ambitions behind the encounter came to naught. What is pinned down by the works of art above is in part commemoration of events in Rome in the late summer of 1609, in part a tribute to the good will that, aided by some personal conceit, can overcome a potential clash of civilizations, and in part an aspirational will o’ the wisp. What is left are images that draw us pleasurably into the lives and doings of people in potentially life- and even world-changing situations.

© Gary Schwartz 2024. Published on the Schwartzlist 29 January 2024. With thanks to Günay Heydərli, Simon Turner and Doeschka Meijers.


Mayu Fujikawa, “Pope Paul V’s global design: the fresco cycle in the Quirinal Palace,” Renaissance Studies 30 (2016), pp. 192-217

Mayu Fujikawa, “Papal ceremonies for the embassies of non- Catholic rulers,” in Matthew Coneys Wainwright and Emily Michelson, eds., A companion to religious minorities in Early Modern Rome, Leiden and Boston (Brill) 2020, pp. 13-54

Angelo Michele Piemontese, “I due ambasciatori di Persia ricevuti da papa Paolo V al Quirinale,” Miscellanea Bibliothecae Apostolicae Vaticanae 12 (2005), pp. 364-425

Far outdoing ‘Abbas and Paul by way of interdenominational contact, last fall Pope Francis visited Mongolia. I could not help thinking of the visit as an acceptance of the invitation to Mongolia that had been extended in 1246 to his predecessor Innocent IV by Güyük Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. Innocent had sent a letter to the khan with the Franciscan friar John of Plano Carpini, requesting him to stop persecuting Christians and expressing a desire for peace between them, “possibly unaware,” as we learn from Google, “that in the Mongol vocabulary, ‘peace’ is a synonym for ‘subjection.'”

Güyük’s response gave me a big thrill when I read it in grad school sixty years ago in The Mongol mission, by Christopher Dawson.

Though thou […] sayest that I should become a trembling Nestorian Christian, worship God and be an ascetic, how knowest thou whom God absolves, in truth to whom He shows mercy? How dost thou know that such words as thou speaketh are with God’s sanction? From the rising of the sun to its setting, all the lands have been made subject to me. Who could do this contrary to the command of God?

Now you should say with a sincere heart: “I will submit and serve you.” Thou thyself, at the head of all the Princes, come at once to serve and wait upon us! At that time I shall recognise your submission.

Yeah! At the time the Mongol Empire reached from the Japan Sea to Western Europe, in what Wikipedia, quoting David Morgan, calls “the largest contiguous empire in history.” I found no indication in the reports of Pope Francis’s visit that he came to submit to the present successor to Güyük.

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1 thought on “425 Do you doff your turban for the pope?”

  1. Two questions about the depiction labeled “Il Conte Don Roberto Scerley …” You write that the configuration of the turban “have meanings that I dare not decode.” Does this phrasing imply fear of Rushdian reprisals concerning a 400-year-old print?

    Second, I notice that the left hand is in an aggressive “M” configuration that is commonly employed for the Virgin Mary and other high Catholic figures. Do you care to comment on the significance of this gesture?

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