Keys to a vernacular culture


If you wish to delve deeply into the vernacular culture of a society or civilisation, you must look not only at its architecture, liteature and music, but at its minor arts. You must observe closely the details, colors and forms of the door leading into a house, the cup from which you drink water, and the carpet on which you tread. The splendour of monumetal works of art is enrichened and diversified in works of the minor arts in which the people of that society or culture express their deepest yearnings and purest sensibilities. The minor arts are like a mirror held up to the innermost essence of a culture.

This is true also of the Ottomans. To understand them, making the acquaintance of their decorative woodwork, their Edirnekari painted decoration, their tombak (gilded metal) ware, their Iznik tiles or their Usak carpets is as important as knowing about the Süleymaniye Mosque or such great figures of literature and music as Fuzuli, Itri or Dede Efendi. Moreover, unlike some other societies, that of the Ottomans had no sharp social boundaries, and was one in which all spheres of life were interconnecting. This applied equally to the field of art, where it is unclear where monumental art ends and minor art begins. Moreover, we can speak of an integrality in which architecture reflects on music, music on carpets, carpets on miniature, miniature on poetry, and poetry on tiles. Forms and styles flowed with astonishing fluidity from one sphere of life to another.

The Ottoman minor arts are the enigmatic keys to this exciting world.

Lending life to wood


The art of woodworking had completed its technical development by the time of the Ottomans, reaching its maturity both as a complementary feature of architecture and as a functional and decorative art. Arresting examples of this art were produced during the Seljuk and Beylik periods (11th -13th centuries) of pre-Ottoman Anatolia, and its carved rumi scrollwork, kOndekori (fret ornament in the from of interlocked tongue and groove jointing) and other techniques aimed at division of the surface into geometric forms were adopted and used during the Ottoman period.

Early Ottoman woodwork is largely characterised by restrained geometric forms, less intensive floriate designs and floriate openwork. Wooden pulpits decorated with kundekdri and carved rumi scrollwork were common in the early Ottoman period, and even though marble later superseded wood, the style of ornamentation was transferred virtually unchanged to the new medium.

Kuran cases and stands made for religious manuscripts from the Seljuk period onwards display exceptional diversity of from and material between the 16th and 18th centuries. Elaborate veneer and inlay decoration using tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl and ivory to create floriate and geometric designs illustrate the degree of elegance and refinement achieved by Ottoman Empire style.

The gold leaf and jewelled decoration whose most splendid examples can be seen on Ottoman thrones began under western influence, and in accordance with the increasing taste for opulence appeared on furniture at both the palace and in private homes.

In the 18th century an entirely new form of decoration on wood called Edirnekari (Edirne work) appeared. Doors, cupboards, shutters, and other interior woodwork was painted with pictures of landscapes-either real or idyllic pastoral scenes-and naturalistic flowers depicted either singly or in groups using earth pigments. This decoration originated in the city of Edirne, and quickly became fashionable all over the empire. In the final years of the empire it became known as the “capital city school” , in reference to its popularity in Istanbul.

Woodwork and decoration on wood of the Ottoman period is characterised by new motifs and compositions, experiments with color, and outstanding veneer work using mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell.

Forms of Ottoman metalwork


Ottoman civilisation inherited a highly developed art metalwork in the lands which it conquered. A diversity of decorative techniques and new forms applicable to metal had been experimented with and refined. As in the other arts, the Ottomans soon set their indelible mark on the art of metalworking.

Bronce had been the preferred alloy in the Seljuk period, but under the Ottomans brass, copper, silver and gold came to the fore. To the cities of eastern and south-eastern Anatolia which had been centres of metalworking since Seljuk times were now added the workshops of Ustova, Petkova, Skopje, Prishtina and Sarajevo in the Balkans. With the contributions of new workshops and local craftsmen, the Ottoman art of metalworking rose to its zenith.

As in the other arts, the distinctive Ottoman style shaped by the court workshops in Istanbul set its mark on metalwork over the vast lands of the empire, despite differences in technique and materials from region to region. Inconspicuous rivalry between palace and local workshops also made its contribution to the development of the art.

Gilding on silver, copper and other metals was a technique of some antiquity which became a feature of Ottoman metalware from the 16th century onwards. Known as tombak, it was used for a wide array of domestic artefacts and for mosque cande-labra and other architectural accessories. The use of tombak as a decorative adjunct of wood was an innovation introduced by Ottoman craftsmen.

A feature characterising Ottoman metalwork and distinguishing it from that of other periods was objects made of gold and silver alone. All objects made from noble metals were subject to state control, and only those that were of the correct purity were stamped by the assay office with the tu ra of the reigning sultan and the SAH mark.

The mounting of jewels on objects made of diverse metals and alloys was another art which reflected Ottoman splendour. Here again there is a distinction between the work of court craftsmen and that of other jewellery, between whom an undercurrent of rivalry existed. Beautifully crafted jewellery, jewellery caskets, mirrors, brooches, rings, aigrettes, book bindings and daggers ornamented with precious stones produced for presentation to the sultan and members of the court bring this rivalry into focus.

Beauty born of fire and clay


The art of tiling was inherited by the Ottomans from the Seljuks, who produced a wide range of domestic ceramics and made use of brick, glazed brick, stucco and tiles in architecture. During the Anatolian Seljuk period a new technique in the art of ceramics came to the fore in the context of architecture. This was tile mosaic, which was used in Ottoman art until the end of the 14th century.

At the beginning of the 15th century Ottoman tiling attained an unprecedented degree of maturity and refinement thanks to the emergence of the color glaze technique. This technique marks the first phase of Ottoman wall tiles, and led to the development of an original Ottoman style in the art of ceramics. The tile mosaic designs consisting largely of geometric stars and interlace patterns now made way for naturalistic flowers, undulating borders, and natal and rumi scrolls, while the pre-dominant color scheme of tile mosaic consisting of turquoise, cobalt blue and aubergine purple was now replaced by a more diverse color scheme consisting of yellow, dark blue, turquoise, green, pink, and white.

Yet another innovation, the discovery of the underglaze technique, carried the Ottoman art of ceramics to its greatest peak in the 16th century, which corresponds to the classical period of Ottoman art. Naturalistic floral and foliate designs, cloud bands, leopard spots, rumi and hatayi motifs, medallions, lotuses, palmettes and scrolls are the ubiquitous elements of ceramic designs of this period. The designs were first painted in a scheme of underglaze colours, comprising a soft green, white, turquoise, blue, and coral red, over which a transparent glaze was applied before firing. The coral red, which was used for only fifty years and whose secret died with the craftsman who invented it, was applied in a thick layer so producing a raised effect. This hue was one of the most distinctive characteristics of Ottoman ceramics of the period.

The town of Iznik in the province of Bursa was the most important centre of Ottoman ceramics manufacture. Tiles made of clay from the Iznik region were decorated according to designs by court artists and the results were subject to their close inspection. Ceramics continued to be made here throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, although there were other ceramics workshops elsewhere which met the shortfall when Iznik’s capacity was overstretched. The potteries of Kutahya developed in parallel to those of Iznik, and took over from Iznik when its potteries went into decline in the 17th century, but they never achieved the same outstanding quality.

Early Ottoman domestic pottery begins with the red paste, thick walled pottery made in Iznik in the 14th century, and decorated in cobalt blue, brown and turquoise over white slip. In the 15th century blue and white ware appeared, and from the mid-16th century onwards this was superseded by polychrome ware whose color scheme included the famous coral red and which echoed the strikingly lovely designs of tiling.

Works of art beneath the feet


The art carpet weaving traces the history of the Turks from the earliest eras. It spread westwards from Central Asia, to reach its consummate form in the carpets of Persia and Turkey. In particular Anatolian Seljuk carpets have an important place in terms of their dimensions and approach to color and design. The Turkish or Ghiordes knot is a distinguishing feature of these carpets.

Early Ottoman carpets which developed in thel 5th century can be seen in paintings by European artists, particularly those of Holbein, after which this type of carpet there-fore became known. Holbe,in carpets are classified in four groups, differing in both composition and color scheme. They were produced not in central Anatolia,which had been the main centre of Seljuk carpet production, but in western Anatolia, and particularly the region of Usak. The reason for this shift was proximity to the trading port of Izmir, from which carpets were exported to Europe. Their unusual field designs attracted the attention of European artists.

Usak medallion and star carpets, whose designs were provided by palace artists in the 16th century, best illustrate the sophisticated classical style of 16th century Ottoman carpet, weaving. The compositions of the Usak carpets include many unusual designs, notably the “bird carpets” so-called after their motifs reminiscent of birds. They are an illustration of the innonative powers of Ottoman carpet weavers who, like their counterparts in other fields, looked beyond the boundaries of traditional design.

In the mid-16th century another type of carpet featuring a different technique and style of design emerged in addition to carpets woven in western and central Anatolia. Featuring the sine or Persian knot and with a different type of field designs, these were known as Ottoman court carpets. It is generally agreed that the carpets known to have been commissioned specifically tor the palace were made in workshops in Ihe Bursa region.

Ottoman carpets are the most conspicuous examples of the way in which Ottoman style achieved universal recognition.