The art of the Ottomans reflects the diversity of their empire. Artistic influences also came from neighboring cultures, and the nomadic, Central Asian origins of the Ottomans themselves. These influences infused the capital at Istanbul from as far away as China, Iran, Egypt, Syria and the Italian city-states of Genoa and Venice. Artistic styles were absorbed through conquest, through direct invitation of artisans, or through the migration of peoples. Artists, in turn, brought indigenous folk traditions and responded to the influence of trade and commerce as well as to standards set by the court.
The Sultan as Patron
Although the sultan’s palace was traditionally a center of artistic development, it was during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent (1520–1566) that the Ottoman court reached its zenith in this regard. Not only were the most celebrated painters, poets, architects, and calligraphers employed by the sultan, but virtually all members of the court—including Suleyman himself—were accomplished in one or more of the visual or literary arts. Initially trained as a goldsmith, Suleyman was also an accomplished poet who wrote under the pseudonym Muhibbi, meaning “beloved friend,” or “affectionate lover.” Later sultans such as Mahmut II (1807–1839) and his son, Abdulmecid I (1839–1861), were known as accomplished calligraphers.
The arts of the Ottoman court set the fashion for virtually all aspects of Ottoman culture. Throughout the empire’s duration, countless artisans gravitated toward the capital city of Istanbul to supply the palace with all types of the highest quality objects. Filiz Cagman, Director of the Topkapi Palace Museum, has determined that in 1575, the palace enlisted the work of 898 artisans. These included painters, designers, tile makers, calligraphers, book binders, manuscript illuminators, goldsmiths, engravers, swordsmiths, bow and arrow makers, carpet and textile weavers, armorers, gunsmiths, furriers, ivory craftsmen, musical instrument makers, and potters.
The court was served by a highly organized artist’s society, the nakkashane, or imperial painting studio. During Suleyman’s reign, the nakkashane formulated an aesthetic vocabulary that would greatly impact all Ottoman arts. Three distinct styles of decoration emerged from the studio: the traditional style—which relied on early Islamic floral designs of intertwining branches, leaves, and blossoms; the lively saz style—which borrowed heavily from Eastern motifs and is recognizable for its Chinese lotus and dragon elements; and the naturalistic style—which depicted realistic garden flora marked by specific plants and trees. This naturalistic style eventually became the preferred Ottoman decorative theme for ceramics, textiles, and even architectural embellishment.
Artisans typically belonged to trade guilds, and their numbers were tightly controlled by the Ottoman bureaucracy. They were issued with warrants (gediks) that identified an individual’s place of work and right to own appropriate tools. On occasion, artists were required to parade before the sultan. One manuscript in the Topkapi Palace collection shows seven hundred guilds marching in Istanbul before the sultan.
The fruits of the Ottoman sultans’ patronage extended and were enjoyed far beyond the palace walls. In addition to sacred and memorial architecture such as mosques and tombs, they sponsored various utilitarian civic projects. Suleyman even facilitated the opening of the first Turkish coffeehouses
and shadow theaters. Imperial patronage demanded workmanship of the finest quality, and artists were rewarded accordingly.
On a Personal Scale
Since many of the artists employed at the Ottoman court came from the far reaches of conquered lands, diverse aesthetic styles and materials contributed to the development of uniquely Ottoman metalwork, textiles, ceramics, and carpets. Meals at court were elaborate rituals with a multitude of gold, silver, and brass trays of foods and confections served from the royal kitchen in an endless procession. After the meal, richly dressed servants delivered silver pitchers and basins for washing, with towels embroidered with gold and silver threads for drying.
In the seclusion of the palace harem, Ottoman women wore beautiful and elaborate clothing with exquisite accessories according to their rank and the detailed customs of the court. Every event and ceremony was an occasion for displaying the most splendid costumes and objects from the treasury. The gold and silver brocades, fine satins, and silks seen in imperial costumes were created by skilled craftsmen for uses ranging from tents to palace decorations. In public, the sultan wore a floor-length, loose robe called a kaftan. His arms passed through slits in the shoulders, allowing the lengthy sleeves to fall behind. He wore a tall turban and carried an embroidered handkerchief. Many of these items were carefully preserved in the palace Treasury. Others were placed in the mausoleum where the sultan was buried.
Trade and Commerce
The rich textiles, metal wares, and fine ceramics that were first produced for the use of the sultan, the court, and imperial mosques, later became a major source of income as export goods. High quality textiles of Ottoman workmanship found their way into European churches and wealthy foreign homes. Iznik ceramics were purchased by the Lord Mayor of London and the Hungarian princes of Transylvania. In this way, designs originated by Ottoman court artists became familiar outside the empire.
Ottoman ceramics continued the traditions of previous Islamic traditions, but they were heavily influenced by imported Chinese ceramics that came via Iran and by sea. Chinese porcelains in particular were highly sought after for their beauty and strength.
Muslim potters could not replicate the Chinese wares because they did not have access to some of the essential ingredients such as kaolin clay. They also did not use the high firing temperatures required to make porcelain. Rather than compete directly with Chinese wares, the Ottoman potters produced their own cheaper versions using different materials and designs. They used a lower- firing clay called earthenware, covered it with a white slip and then decorated under the glaze.
Ottoman imperial kilns were located at Iznik in western Anatolia. Vessels and tiles used for the decoration of buildings were made here for almost three centuries. At first, potters were interested in the Chinese blue and white color schemes, but by the 1500s, they had expanded their palette to include blue, green, black, and a distinct shade of red. Typical designs included bouquets of stylized foliage, surrounded on the edges by Chinese-inspired wave or cloud patterns. When court patronage of ceramic tiles declined in the 1600s, ceramic production at Iznik also declined.
Carpets are perhaps the best-known form of Islamic art in the West, because of their long history as trade items, and their practical use as floor coverings. Carpets were originally made by nomadic peoples who raised sheep. Dyed wool was hand-knotted on to a framework of threads (warp and weft) placed at right angles to each other. A wide range of patterns and designs could be arranged within a square or rectangular shaped border. The density of knots determined the value of the carpet as well as the amount of detail in the design. Large carpets were produced in urban settings or court workshops, since large looms could not be accommodated in nomadic tents or village houses. Carpet designs allowed for a rich vocabulary of images—overflowing vases, floral patterns, trees, and animals, as well as a host of geometric and abstract shapes. These designs enlivened the living environment, and they also had the advantage of being transportable. This meant that they were ideal for use as prayer rugs. They could be unrolled wherever prayer took place, providing a comfortable surface on which to bow down. In the Ottoman period as well, carpets were used in large tent enclosures that accompanied the sultan and his army on military campaigns. Such carpets beautified the interior of the tents, and also provided warmth underfoot.
Very few carpets survive from before the 1400s through the 1500s. However they appear in European paintings of the time, indicating that they were already being traded in areas outside the Ottoman empire. According to Islamic art historians Sheila Blair and Jonathon Bloom, “by the middle of the 15th century Anatolian (Turkish) weavers were producing large-pattern ‘Holbein”’ carpets, many intended for export to Europe. The typical example, knotted in brightly colored wool in a variety of colors, primarily brick-red with white, yellow, blue, green, brown and black, has a rectangular field containing several large octagons inscribed in square frames. These are usually decorated with strap-work patterns and separated and enclosed by bands of smaller octagons.
Several borders of varying width usually include an elegant band of pseudo-inscription in which the stems of the letters appear to be twisted together. These carpets get their name because many are depicted in paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497–1543) such as his Ambassadors of the year 1533 in the National Gallery, London. They first appear in European paintings dated to the 1450s, where they are shown on floors in patrician settings or as luxury table coverings.”
The central and most venerated art of Islam is calligraphy, the art of beautiful writing. Because the word of God, received as revelations by the Prophet Muhammad, was transmitted and written down in Arabic in the Koran, the language and alphabet itself became sanctified. The training of a scribe was strenuous. It involved not only learning to form the letters and words with the proper proportions for a particular style, but also developing the muscular control of the arm and shoulder necessary for the writing of monumental scripts.
As part of their training, students of calligraphy copied works by acclaimed masters of the art. In copying, they were taught to eliminate personal idiosyncrasies in their writing so that the particular qualities of the master’s hand could be more easily recognized. Once a great calligrapher established his reputation, he was able to demonstrate his creativity in an individual style of his own without losing the character of the copied work.
In Ottoman Turkey, the calligraphic tradition of Seyh Hamdullah, the renowned scribe of the 1500s, was most influential. The tradition of his style, renewed in the 1600s by Hafiz Osman, was continued in an unbroken chain by the calligraphers of the 1700s and 1800s. Works by the renowned calligraphers—whether completed products, fragments, or practice exercises— were prized items. One of a scribe’s highest aspirations, even at the end of the Ottoman period, was to copy the work of a great master of the past to preserve it forever. Works executed on finely webbed leaves and in paper cutouts represented a further demonstration of calligraphy skills.