Archive for Topkapi

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

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

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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