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The enchanted forest of Iznik: Norman A Rubin reviews an exhibition of the historic work of Iznik potters.

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AN ENTHRALLING DISPLAY OF IZNIK CERAMIC TILES and flatware was exhibited at the Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv, Israel. Norman A. Rubin reviewed the exhibition that displayed the fascinating history of the Iznik potters and their magnificent craftsmanship. In the 16th century, three Islamic empires were established in Western Asia and India. The oldest and largest of these empires was the Ottoman Turkish Empire, which had begun its expansion at the end of the 13th century.

The Ottoman Empire was a multinational entity whose cosmopolitan and polyglot court attracted artists and artisans under the patronage of the sultans. Working in the productive atmosphere of the court, they fashioned a new imperial style based on the legacy of the past. The court style, which had already been established in the time of Mehmet the Conqueror (1451-1481) runs as a theme through various arts forms, including pottery.

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The centre of pottery production eventually shifted to the city of Iznik, though court archives indicate that there still remained pottery studios in the capital city of Istanbul. For this reason, it is customary to use the name Iznik to designate all glazed pottery dating from the Ottoman period. Iznik pottery, one of the Ottomani decorative arts, demonstrates momentum and breathtaking beauty despite its simple materials; clay decorated with lead underglazed pigments.

The celebrated 'RUM' tableware of Iznik is more delightful than that of China and even more beautiful. ~ Badr al-dinGhazi, Arab wayfarer, 1530

During the Byzantine era the pottery of Iznik was similar to the other pottery of Anatolia but after the Turkish conquest it developed its own distinctive style. Blue and white plates, bowls, vases and lamps and other items were made with floral designs in Iznik in the 15th century. Moreover, production expanded greatly as the pottery workshops turned to imperial tile manufacturing for the many grandiose palaces and monumental buildings.

COLOUR AND DESIGN

In September 1514, after the decisive victory of the Ottoman army over the Safavid rulers in the Battle of Caldran, many Persian artists and artisans flocked to Istanbul and joined the imperial workshops (nakkashane--Turkish). There they established the ancient Turkish style of Saz (enchanted forest--early Turkish), a style composed of flowers arranged on delicate tendrils burgeoning with long serrated leaves. Saz patterns were traced on paper and transferred to textiles and ceramics, produced in the imperial court workshops in Instanbul.

The style changed with the incorporation of floral Arabesques outlined on a cobalt-blue background intertwined with calligraphic ornamentation. Other designs began to emerge on the tiles and other artefacts, mainly consisting of spiral scrolls derived from the stylized TUGHRA (imperial cipher) of Suleiman the Magnificent (c.1520-1566), which is often seen on state documents (Firmans).

Turquoise was added to the traditional Iznik palette of blue and white from the 1530s onwards. From the year 1540 onwards, mauve and purple also appear in Iznik designs, followed by the colour pigments of green and exquisite coral red unique to Iznik pottery ware. (Most of the colours were prepared from metal oxides; blue from cobalt, brownish red from iron; green from copper and yellow from antimony; off-white was the natural colour of the glazed clay.)

Potters also began using an earthy red glaze known as Iznik Red or Armenian Bole, a thick clay slip rich in iron. (A rich variety of soft unctuous clays of various colours was used as pigments. The colour red was predominant.) The thick, protuberant red glaze appeared for the first time in tiles for Sulieman's complex of mosques and palaces, completed in 1557.

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During this period the finest Iznik pottery and tiles were exuberantly decorated with flowers of all sorts in a stylized floral designs known as Hatay (Cathay) with Chinese cloud patterns and geometric designs. In early Iznik fritware, they attempted to duplicate the hardness, whiteness and translucency of the much sought after contemporary Chinese porcelain of the Yung and Ming dynasties (favoured by the Ottoman rulers, which became a major part of their collection.)

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In the second quarter of the 16th century, the early decorative styles were abandoned. The Cini (Chinese patterns and stylized arabesques) were replaced by patterns based on the local flora of Anatolia, primarily tulips (in Turkish, Lale, a name that incorporates the name of Allah) and that of the crescent (Hilal).

IZNIK GLAZE

Around the 12th century, a revolution occurred in the ceramic technique of the Islamic potters; inspired by the Chinese porcelain. Imports of that period of Ding and Qinbai types showed that Hatay porcelain pieces were not of similar crafting of the previous periods. The frit ware was lighter, finely thrown, translucent with subtle moulding under a thin transparent glaze. These could not be imitated by means of the thick opaque tin glaze over a clay body in use at that time by the Ottoman craftsmen.

Instead the Islamic potters, led by the Persians, revived an ancient Egyptian technique, in which an artificial body material was made up from ground quartz with a small admixture of white clay and glaze. The soft paste body was then covered by thin alkaline glaze. The 'frit' body was white translucent when thin and capable of a wide range of decorative techniques. The tiles and wares had a fine white body, unequal to porcelain only in its softness and a close-fitting brilliant glaze that allows a vibrant range of colours.

It is the invention of underglaze painting, however, that was most significant for the history of ceramics. The underglaze painting technique required a glaze stable enough to prevent the pattern from blurring during firing; it was discovered in the use of the vitreous alkaline glaze coating (formulae unknown). For the first time the potters were able to paint freely directly on the frit body under a protective layer of glaze. The new alkaline glaze enabled the artisan to decorate the frit ware with precision and delicacy. Also this technique did not have the disadvantages of the earlier lead-glaze wares, which involved great expense in fuel and labour.

The most impressive products of the Iznik potters of this period were pieces crafted in the overglaze, a colour or glaze applied to the existing glaze. And not until the establishment of potteries in the west in the 18th century was the range of decorative techniques surpassed (even in China).

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MOTIFS AND SYMBOLS

Of all of the motifs underlying the symbolism attached to objects, none recurs as frequently as that of the universe and world kingship.

God being the King of the world and the king (whichever human ruler might be intended) the shadow of God on earth. ~ Kasa I Marvazi, 13th century Persian poet.

The world is symbolized in varied literature by the hemispherical dome to which sky, as seen by the human eye, is constantly compared. Because early bowls could be hemispherical, the sky was alternatively referred to in literature as the 'upturned bowl' (tas-i nigun) and a rotating dome (gunbad-I gardan). These two sets of images are the key and colour on pottery vessels.

Every metaphor used in literature for sky can be matched in pottery (and metalwork). The 'turquoise dome' or 'azure dome' is echoed many times in the crafting of lapis lazuli Iznik pieces. The lotus dome (gunbad-i nilufari) image appears on bowls with chalice motifs on the underside. As time went by, the lotus chalice gave way to an illusion of the flower or to a single lotus blossom within a rosette. (Allusions to the dome of heaven could be made in the form of an encircled geometrical pattern.)

During the last quarter of the 16th century, abstract forms were added to the Iznik repertoire. They were characterized by a focal centre and refracting outward, thus earning the name 'kaleidoscope> style'. These designs did not reflect or resemble other Ottoman or Muslim symbolic themes. Also, functional vessels decorated in bright colours represented an attempt to enter the lucrative foreign market, thus putting aside the ancient motifs for the demands of the trade.

CONCLUSION

During the years 1603-1717, when Sultan Ahmet was building the Blue Mosque, Iznik wall tiles and functional vessels deteriorated both in technical quality and in their aesthetic precision. This was due to conflict between the Iznik potters and court authorities: Imperial orders limited production to court needs. In the middle of the 17th century, the court removed its patronage from the Iznik potters in favour of tiles and pottery produced by the Armenian potters in Kutahya, northwestern Turkey. Armenian potters, not only crafted exquisite tiles for their churches, but also installed them in Turkish mosques from the end of the 17th century.

REFERENCES

(1.) Exhibition and archives of the Museum of Islamic Art, Old City of Jerusalem, Israel.

(2.) "The Enchanted Forest of Iznik" Irit Ziffer Catalogue--Birds of Paradise, Professor Nurith Kenaan Kedar, Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv, Israel.

(3.) The Aesthetics of Islam, A.S. Melikan-Chirvani--Ceramics, Oliver Watson--Treasures of Islam, edited by Tony Falk, Arlines Books, Philip Wilson Publishers, England.

(4.) Lords of the Golden Horn, Noel Barber--Arrow Books, London.

Norman A Rubin lives in Israel. His research has been featured in publications worldwide. Photos courtesy of Wikemedia Commons.
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Author:Rubin, Norman A.
Publication:Ceramics Technical
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:May 1, 2010
Words:1524
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