Archive for Ottomans

Venetian Red Turns 200

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Lace, Liz Hager, Painting, Textiles with tags , , , , on September 5, 2009 by Liz Hager



Henri Matisse, Interior in Venetian Red, 1946
Oil on linen, 36 1/4 x 25 1/2″
(Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique)

Before we launched Venetian Red, one trusted blogmeister advised us that it would take at least 200 posts before we’d really get noticed. Back in May 2008, that seemed like an impossible goal, nearly unfathomable in its abstraction. And yet, by the miracle of passion and diligence, here we are. Of course, 200 is just an arbitrary signpost; it’s what’s behind the number that’s most important.

As two working artists, we conceived this blog as a vehicle to share our perspectives on the collective creative endeavor. We wanted a forum to dig more deeply into what influences and inspires us creatively. We wanted to delve into the mysteries and commonalities of creating art. We wanted to explore the connections, big and small, between the art and design worlds. We wanted to think out loud about the issues that concern us. We decided to do this in a public realm, because making art, like being human, is more richly experienced as a collaborative process.

We’re proud of our work to date, which, true to our interests, is wide-ranging. Venetian Red has tackled Old Masters and kuba cloth; painters and lace makers; photographers and Russian windows; site works and artists writing about art. In places, we’ve gone deep—over the past 14 months we’ve devoted a lot of space to the Victorians and the Ottomans. (Well why not? They’re a fascinating lot.)  On other topics, we’ve only skimmed the surface. Thankfully, there is so much more to discuss.

And while pondering and writing have been fulfilling in their own right, our biggest reward has been finding you, our group of loyal readers. When we posted our first entry, A Crimson Fez, we had no idea whether what we had to say would interest anyone else. Miraculously, though, you showed up. In numbers (some of you from half-way around the globe) and with feedback. For that, we thank you!

Venetian Red is blessed in turning 200. Thank you for being here to celebrate this milestone. We hope that you will stay with us—there are still many places to go on this enduring journey of mystery and discovery that is art.

Iznik Ware: A Chronicle of Ingenuity

Posted in Ceramics, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2008 by Liz Hager

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.   

Looking for more?

Iznik ware images

Ming Ceramics at the British Museum

Images of Topkapı Palace tiles

A Yastik for My Divan

Posted in Liz Hager, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , on August 7, 2008 by Liz Hager

Silk Velvet Yastik, probably 17th c., though identified as 7thc (typo?), (photo courtesy Sadberk Hanim Museum, Istanbul)

The great migration of Turkic tribes from north-east Siberia into Central Asia began in the 6th c. AD and continued for centuries. The Seljuk tribe dominated beginning in the 11th century; at the peak of its influence, the Seljuk empire stretched from the Western shores of Turkey to the Punjab. Among other things, the Turkic peoples brought weaving and embroidery traditions with them into the conquered lands. Though only a few of Seljuk textiles have survived, their weaving traditions have lived on in the textiles of their successors. 

The Seljuk Empire was eventually subsumed by the Oshmans (Ottomans), an upstart tribe with ambitions.     In 1326 after a seige of nearly seven years, Orhan I, the second Beg (chief) of the Ottomans, captured the Byzantium city of Bursa and made it the capital of his expanding empire.  Given Bursa’s strategic location on the southern coast of the Sea of Marmar, this victory ultimately paved the way to the greatest prize, Constantinople. That fell to the Ottomans in 1453.  Under Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottomans advanced rapidly over additional territories, until they controlled a vast swath of land, which stretched west into Europe, east to China and south to Morocco and Yemen.  The Ottoman Empire remained intact for nearly 600 years, until the Versailles Treaty of 1919 distroyed it.

Beyond its role in the march of empires, Bursa is important for another reason—silk. The Chinese were able to kept the method of silk production secret for centuries, but the vast trade network that was the Silk Route facilitated the smuggling of the secret west to the Byzantine Empire.  By the time of its conquest by the Ottomans, Bursa had long been a Byzantium center of sericulture, due to a climate favorable to the cultivation of mulberry trees (the leaves of which the silkworm must feed).  By the 14th century, it had become a principal market for world silk and its workshops handled not only the manufacture of silk for domestic Ottoman use, but also added value to silk products flowing from Persia to Europe, by way of the Italian cities of Genoa, Florence and Venice. By 1502 records reveal that Bursa had over 1,000 looms.The period between 1550-1650 was the heyday of Bursa’s economic activity; Sulieman was responsible for expansion of the fine and decorative arts at court and Bursa provided most of the textiles. Contemporary inventories list 91 types of fabric made there, although the city’s artisans were predominantly known for their lampas (woven cloths with ornamental designs) twill, seraser and velvet. Which brings me to the piece above. 

Combing silk threads from cocoons at rug factory near Ephesus, Turkey (photo ©2008 Liz Hager)

There was no attribution, but a good guess would be that it was made in Bursa.  

Depending on whom you consult, velvet weaving originated in Egypt, China, Kashmir or Italy.  Velvet derives its sumptuous sheen from a special weaving technique, in which a second weft (the horizontal thread) is looped over a rod and then cut with special tool, causing the fibers to stand horizontal to the cloth. Until the Industrial Revolution created economical production, velvet was the exclusive domain of the court and aristocracy. Further, due to its high natural sheen, silk was the material of choice in making velvet until after the Renaissance. It’s not hard to imagine how silk velvet would be an essential item in every sultan’s palace, for its opulence splendidly conveys the wealth of the court.  For seating, Turks have always favored the long low mattress-like seat called a divan (which derives from the Turkish word for government council, itself borrowed from the Persian for “book of accounts”).  Yastiks are the front side of the cushions used to bolster one’s back while sitting on a divan.

The yastik above sports an ogival pattern of stylized carnations. In comparison with other Ottoman and Italian velvets, this particular example of the diamond shape ogee (ogive) pattern is quite simple, and it strikes me that the weaver knew those big carnations could stand on their own without embellishment. Their stylized form evokes hand-held fans, a subtle reference to the leisures of court, perhaps?  In the cells at the top and bottom of the yastik is the stylized tulip motif, a perennial favorite of the Ottomans (probably because tulips originated in Turkey). Though I enjoy the intricacies of the more elaborate yastik designs—there’s palpable joy in tracing the interlocking lines of the patterns—I find the flat, regimented and bold character of this design quite majestic.

I’d like a yastik just like it for my divan, please. 

Want more?


“The Silk Road”: overview on silk making process

Christie’s—Ottoman Velvet


Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World

Luxury Goods from the Ottoman Court

Posted in Ceramics, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, People & Places with tags , , , , , , on May 14, 2008 by Liz Hager

© Liz Hager 2008, All Rights Reserved

One of the many intricately tiled wall designs at Topkapı Palace.
Note the overall emulation of rug design and the ogival motif created by the central vines. (Author’s photo.)

When I finally got to Istanbul last year after many years of delay, I fell utterly and unreservedly in love with the city. As with all world-class cities, Istanbul is a mass of contradictions.  Like Mexico City, it’s big and sprawling (17 million people by some estimates), both decadent and modern, often along the same block. Istanbul offers up the usual downsides of a large city (noise, intense pollution, hoards, hawkers and hustlers). But these soon seem minor inconveniences as you are buoyed along in the current of the city’s incredible historic legacy,  visible around most every corner (not to mention underground). Over the past 7000+ years, hoards — Phoenicians, Hittites, Greeks,  Romans, Seljuks,  Byzantium Christians, and Ottomans—have colonized  the city, leaving all manner of historical footnotes. More than once, I found myself wishing I had brought along my 9th-grade ancient history textbook, just to help keep them all straight.

Undisputedly, it’s the handiwork of the Ottomans on most stunning display in the city.  After a few days of museums, palaces, and mosques, I was reeling, visually intoxicated by the multitude of Ottoman-era ceramics, rugs, embroideries and finely appointed costumes.  The intricacy of Ottoman ornament is truly astonishing. Even the Sultan’s grillwork was wrought with an elaborateness that immediate elevates it to high art.

Outside of the knotted rugs, Iznik pottery must be Ottoman Turkey’s greatest glory.  The distinctive tiles and tiles were originally made in the city of Iznik, just across the Sea of Marmara from Istanbul.  A city with its own venerable history, Iznik lived a good part of its life as Nicea, a place of great import to the early centuries of the Christian religion.  In 325, the Roman Emperor Constantine convened the hugely- important First Council of Nicea, which brought rival factions together in a resolution of conflicting beliefs. With the Ottoman conquest of the Byzantine Empire in the 14th century, Nicea became Iznik. Although pottery had been made in the city since Byzantine times, it was under the Ottomans that the pottery developed its distinctive look. İznik vessels were originally made in imitation of the highly-prized Chinese Ming porcelain, the latter available as early as the 14th century to Ottoman sultans via the Silk Route trade.  Before 1520, Iznik ware was decorated mainly in blue (cobalt oxide) and white. Over time, the color palette extended beyond these to  include purple (manganese), red (silica and iron oxide), green (copper oxide), turquoise, grey and black.   Interestingly the Iznik potters could not replicate porcelain (made of clay), so they “faked” it with glass and sand. A minor point in the face of such stunning surface designs.

To be sure,  there are loads of places in Istanbul to see beautiful Iznik tiles and porcelain. But there is no place more stunning than Topkapı Palace, built by Sultan Mehmet, to celebrate his conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The palace was home to successive rulers until the victory of the Allies in WW1 dissolved the Ottoman Empire. The palace, now a museum, is extensive and complex, rooms follow rooms which lead to courtyards and more rooms. At every turn is a stunning full-wall Iznik tile design. Look up and you’ll see tile decorated ceilings. It seems as if every nook and cranny covered with tile, a pasha’s feast for the eyes.  And, if that weren’t enough, inside the old palace kitchens is a large display of 15th and 16th c. Chinese porcelain, a fitting homage to obsession that begat a style.


Iznik Plate in the Istanbul Archeology Museum (Author’s photo)

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