Iznik Ware: A Chronicle of Ingenuity
Isnik Plate, ca. 16th century, ceramic, Archeology Museum Istanbul (photo ©2007 Liz Hager)
[For more on Iznik ceramics, No Trifle: William de Morgan & the Iznik Tradition and Luxury Goods from the Ottoman Court]
It is May 3, 1481 in Constantinople.
Sultan Mehmed II‘s conquest of the city nearly 30 years earlier has provided a critical base of operations from which the Ottomans vault to pre-eminence in the Mediterranean. To celebrate the might of his sultanate, Mehmed has undertaken a lavish building program in Constantinople, which reaches an opulent crescendo in 1465 with the completion of Topkapı Palace. Covering some 150 acres, the Sultan’s compound contains enough buildings to lodge 4,000 people. Inside, the structures are lavishly appointed; each of their rooms is transformed into an exquisite mirror of Paradise through the magic of ceramic tiles made to specification in a small town south of Constantinople.
On this day Mehmed dies. But his tiles endure to inspire Ottoman artisans to new aesthetic heights.
Like his father, Bayezid II is a patron of western and eastern cultures. The Ottoman Court is ravenous for sumptuous goods that show off their new-found wealth. Infatuated by the blue and white arabesque designs of Yüan and Ming Dynasty porcelain, Sultan Bayezid’s treasury is rumored to be paying exorbitant prices for the delicate, yet durable, ware. It takes months to ship the plates and bowls from China by camel caravan along the Silk Route. Supply is spotty.
An enterprising man returns to Iznik from Constantinople, where he has heard whispers of the difficulties securing porcelain from China. Surrounded by the tiles in his workshop, he conceives a plan. He who adapts the venerable Iznik tile technique to emulate Chinese porcelain will profit greatly.
In his workshop, the ceramicist mixes clay with silica, or pulverized quartz, the additive that gives porcelain its strength. He throws the lump onto his potter’s wheel and methodically pumps its paddles with his feet. Slowly the wheel gains speed; the lump wobbles lopsidedly. The artisan gazes out his studio window to the grape arbor on a nearby slope. He smiles, remembering the last time he and his brother-in-law drank the wine from those grapes. At once he knows what he will create. With his left hand he steadies the outside of the lump, while the fingers of his right hand firmly, but gently, run over the clay, gradually coaxing it into the flat symmetrical shape of a plate.
After the first firing, the master applies a thin undercoat of kaolin. The clay mineral creates the opaque white ground that is the hallmark of porcelain. In various hues of cobalt, he paints a pattern of grape clusters in the center of the plate, taking care that their tendrils form a pleasing interlocking design. Then remembering the Ottoman love of flowers, he adds a circle of stylized roses around the outer rim. He places the piece back in the oven. He stays awake to stoke the fire, for the success of this piece depends on maintaining an exceptionally hot oven. In two day’s time, when the piece has cooled, he paints a thin solution of lead, tin, and glass particles over its surface. This transparent glaze insures that his plate will carry the luster of luxury. The master sets the plate into the oven for its final firing.
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