B.7. The Peak of the Industry (1560-1600):


B.7.a. Tiles:

The expansion of Iznik’s tile-making activities, c.1550, was accompanied by a significant change in style, probably due to the intervention of court designers and architects dictating the parameters within which the Iznik craftsmen had to work. Sinan, who became Chief Architect in 1538, was at this time placed directly in charge of all ceramics and architectural industries, and was certainly conscious of the role tile-makers could play in embellishing the façades and interiors of his buildings: in all his work the use of tiles was subordinate to the grand design, which was carefully structured to accent certain areas.

The exception to this rule is the mosque of Rüstem Pasha (completed 1559), Grand Vizier of Sultan Süleyman from 1544-53 and 1555 until his death in 1561, who had consolidated his position by marrying Süleyman daughter, Princess Mihrimah. His mosque was built in Tahtakale, a bustling quarter of artisans and shopkeepers on the shore of the Golden Horn. Sinan designed it on a series of vaults, which housed shops to produce revenue to sustain the foundation, raising it above the street. Inside, every inch of wall, up to the level of the top of the two galleries, is covered with Iznik tiles and is a perfect repertoire of every current Iznik design: Carswell even calls it a ‘tile museum’. They employ a new palette, adding to the traditional shades of cobalt blue and turquoise, a bright green and tomato-coloured relief-red (which has been compared to sealing wax because of its consistency), under a flawless transparent glaze.

These tiles herald the peak of the Iznik industry and contain seeds of the nascent new style: for example, on many of the tiles the red is not fully developed, while some of them still use manganese purple and the earlier olive-green. This is most noticeable on the large panel under the portico to the left of the main entrance: a brilliantly conceived and painted flowering prunus tree which has around its base sprays of tulips with spotted petals, hyacinths, carnations, roses and pomegranates.

A similar panel with a flowering tree decorates the outer wall of the tomb of Sultan Süleyman’s wife, Roxelane (also known as Hasseki Hürrem), dated 1558, in the royal cemetery which forms part of the Süleymaniye complex (completed 1557): this uses the new red with cobalt blue and turquoise, though also a sparing use of olive-green, and the tree trunk is a dark manganese purple. The tomb of Sultan Süleyman himself was completed shortly after his death in 1566: this was also tiled, thought no olive-green or manganese purple appears, though a new emerald green makes its debut. This pinpoints the introduction of the new colour palette to c.1560.

In terms of vessels, a key piece is a hanging lamp now in the V&A, which used to hang in the Süleymaniye mosque (so c.1557): this is incoherently decorated compared to the Musli lamp in the British Museum, and the new red is unevenly applied and rather transparent. There are two hanging ornaments which are associated in style with the V&A lamp, and a number of dishes painted, which share the common motif of a tulip with three long spiky petals.

If the inception of a major tile-making industry at Iznik was marked by the Rüstem Pasha tiles, how was this industry organised? This is not known, however it was certainly controlled from Istanbul, as evidenced by a number of firmans which exist, addressed to the kadi of Iznik, crossly urging the tilemakers to concentrate on their imperial obligations, and that a regular supply of tiles for the new mosque and palaces must take precedence over any other commissions, which presumably would bring them more profitable deals than the fixed prices of an imperial monopoly.

The relationship between the architects and tile designers as the finished product had to fit exactly into the building. Tile sizes also had to take into account the shrinkage of the clay during firing, which had to be carefully calculated: it is thus at this time that tiles become standardised to 25 cm square, and there was in fact a general consistency of style amongst all the decoratuive arts in the C16th, which must be accounted for by the court ateliers who supplied the designs. Or were the tilemakers themselves or their master-craftsmen required to visit the site for which they were producing tiles?

Sinan’s acknowledged masterpiece is the Selimiye mosque in Edirne, built 1569-75; its interior tile decoration is of superlative quality and design, with the most sumptuous decoration reserved for the Sultan’s gallery (loge). Here the grand entrance is flanked by floral panels contrasting with fields of more formal arabesques, which is crowned by an impressive pediment decorated with a cloud-collar panel filled with flowers, half-palmettes and palmettes, and a central feathery medallion is like a plume in the Sultan’s turban. Carswell considers this the finest tile-frieze ever produced at Iznik.

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B.7.b. Vessels:

While the Iznik potters’ creative genius was channelled into tiles c.1575, there is an impact on their vessels which use the same combination of vivid colours; it seems that when it came to vessels, which could be sold commercially unlike tiles, the potters broke free from the constraints of the court designers and began exploring their own inventiveness, so that it is difficult to do more than note the general types of design:

i) the most popular and numerous designs are dishes with a central spray of tulips and other flowers with saz leaves springing from a leafy tuft, which is a design that can be traced back to Chinese blue-and-white floral-spray dishes of the early C15th, where sprays were often tied with a loose ribbon; the wide sloping rim frequently has a foliated edge, commonly painted with a stylised adaptation of the Yuan breaking-wave border; it is possible to trace the decline of Iznik into the C17th through the gradual degeneration of this motif, until it is finally nothing more than a series of meaningless spirals.

ii) another major group is painted with centralised designs which often radiate from a single rosette, which also hark back to a series of Yuan blue-and-white and celadon dishes. The Iznik variety are decorated with derivative lotus-panels and cloud-collar designs, rings of spiky palmettes, a central cypress tree flanked with sprays of tulips and other flowers. There is also a set of dishes, of which 10 have survived, which are painted with different combinationss of floral sprays, with a European coat-of-arms at the centre: there has been much speculation about whose coat-of-arms this is, and Carswell suggests the only conclusion is that the dishes were commissioned by an Italian or Dalmatian client; there is no doubt that they are of Iznik origin, because a fragmentary example was found in excavations there.

iii) many forms of this period, as of all periods in Iznik, derive from non-ceramic sources: for example, some covered bowls on a pedestal foot were originally gilt copper vessels (called tombak), faithfully copied into pottery; Iznik candlesticks derive from typical metal shapes, as are single-handed jugs often with a torus moulding copied from their metal originals; these are often decorated with simple motifs such as sprays of flowers and çintamani (groups of 3 crescents, which degenerate to mere dots) with accompanying ‘tiger-stripe’ motifs, or spiralling panels which perhaps copy repoussé protoypes.

There are also tankards, which must have been copied from leather originals, as they have angular handles and replicate stitching in the painting of the handles and foot. Some conical Iznik tankards are probably based on silver-gilt tankards of Balkan origin. Another ceramic form which was originally leather was the matara or water-vessel, while the Sultan’s own matara was bejewelled jade and gold.

iv) a later style of Balkan silver dishes were decorated with fantastic birds and animals; these were also popular at the Ottoman court, and examples are known with the tughras of Ahmed I (1603-17), Osman II (1618-22) and Murad IV (1623-40). These inspired a whole group of Iznik pottery (which Carswell terms the ‘Mickey Mouse style’!), which are decorated with an extraordinary menagerie depicted on a green ground (imitating tarnished copper?): a common design depicts bewildered hunting dogs chasing after hares with grins on their faces; others include monkeys, phoenixes, snakes, birds, and harpies; the British Museum collection contains a few good example, on a deep bowl, a flask and a tondino.

v) another distinctive group c.1560-1600 are the slip-decorated dishes and jugs, covered with an all-over pale blue, orange or coral red ground, decorated with white, red, black or cobalt blue opaque slip designs; they usually depict simplified versions of the floral patterns on contemporary underglaze vessels. Carswell thinks they have ‘a sort of spontaneous peasant-like gaiety’. They are also reminiscent of a type of Chinese provincial ware decorated in white slip on a blue ground, generally ascribed to Swatow; however, the Chinese wares are C17th, so perhaps they themselves are inspired by Turkish slipware? This type had a wide circulation as a number of sherds have been excavated at Salonika, all of very high quality.

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B.7.c. External Influences on Iznik:

This late C16th period saw in increase in eclecticism in the products of the Iznik kilns, well represented by a lamp in the British Museum which recalls the shape of the Bayezid II lamps of c.1512: it is painted soberly in a greyish-blue with six-pointed stars in medallions and rosettes of overlapping shaded petals which derive from the moulded plugs at the centre of Yuan celadon bowls; on the base, however, it has a rosette decoration in cobalt blue with scarlet dots and green leaves, which bears no relationship to the lamp’s exterior, and without which the lamp would be dated much earlier.

Another smaller lamp is covered with intersecting panels of blue or green scales, on its shoulder in cartouches between its three handles are upside-down Hebrew inscriptions, whose translation so far defies any convincing explanation! They are transcribed: SAAYIDDAH / LOHASH / VEHAHAT.

It suggests that the painter is working uncomprehendingly from a text, perhaps provided by a Jewish patron. However, it is unique in being the only Iznik vessel to bear a Hebrew inscription (though we shall see that many C17th examples have Greek inscriptions) [click here]: was it commissioned for the Jewish community in Istanbul, which had risen to prominence in the Ottoman empire since their expulsion by the Christians from Spain in 1492. The Chief Rabbi held a status equal to that of the Greek Patriarch in Istanbul.

This lamp was probably manufactured c.1575, when the leading member of the Jewish community was Don Joseph Nasi, a philanthropist who may well have commissioned a lamp for one of the synagogues he had financed. Another possibility is that it is a court commission for presentation to the Jewish community? However, it seems that the commissioner or painter of this vessel was no Hebrew scholar.

At this period, there are also Iznik interpretations of a group of Chinese blue-and-white bowls made for the Portuguese market in the first half of the C16th, of which examples exist in the Topkapi Saray. One wonders how such examples actually inspired the Iznik potters: did pieces of Chinese porcelain travel to Iznik, or did they see them as they passed through on trade routes?

Thus the Iznik potters demonstrate an awareness of the external world and demand of markets outside of the court. This is also shown by the success of Iznik both within and outside the confines of the Ottoman empire: sherds of the highest quality, including tiles, have been discovered in excavations of the citadel in Budapest, and the farthest flung examples are sherds from a site of a Turkish garrison at Qasr Ibrim on the Nile; Iznik pottery was also exported across the Black Sea to Southern Russia, and especially the Crimea. Those exported to Europe in the C16th often acquired silver-gilt mounts, which are inscribed or stylistically dateable; for example, one mount – which is no longer on its jug – bears the arms of Johann Friedrich von Brandenburg and reads:

Zu Nicea bin ibn gemacht             In Nicaea I was wrought
Und nun gen halle in Sachsen             And now to Halle in Saxony
bracht             brought
Anno 1582             In the year 1582

England was aware of the decorative qualities of Iznik, as there is record of a licence in 1570 granting 4 English gentlemen the right to manufacture ‘earthen vessels and other earthen works with colours of portraictes after the matter of Turkey’. Iznik sherds have been excavated from Southampton, and a whole plate from a latrine at Waltham Abbey, in Essex; in 1612 it is recorded that ‘one earthen Turkey basin with painted dishes’ was in the possession of a tavern-keeper in Bishopsgate, London.

In Europe, the maritime link with Venice naturally led to an influence on indigenous Italian pottery: a tin-glazed earthenware dish, c.1540, now in the Kassebaum collection, is decorated with the tugraki spiralling stems and comma-leaves, and is also observed in two Ligurian albarellos (drug jars) of c.1570. This influence was not one way, as the tondino was copied in the pottery of Iznik.

Medici porcelain was developed under the patronage of Francesco I de Medici (1574-87) in Florence, and experiments with alchemy led to the discovery of the first European ware to approach the true composition of Chinese porcelain. This was produced in response to the Chinese blue-and-white which was arriving in Italy in increasing quantities from the C15th onwards; this was not just the result of trade, as there are records of diplomatic gifts: 20 pieces of porcelain were sent from the Sultan of Egypt to the Doge of Venice in 1461, and a similar gift from the same source to Lorenzo de Medici in 1487.

There is also a category of Chinese blue-and-white of the midC17th (‘Transitional’) period which shows a familiarity with the Ottoman world: typical examples are flasks with a pronounced bulbous moulding on an elongated neck, of which an example in the British Museum is decorated with symmetrical sprays of tulip-like flowers. This form either copies a metal sürahi (water-bottle) or an Iznik pottery version of the same, which were common in the C16th. This raises the possibility of the export of Turkish metalwork and pottery to the Far East, as may be the case with the Iznik slipware vessels which might have influenced a C17th Chinese type of slipware, produced at Swatow.

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