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Volume 38, Number 4July/August 1987

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The Golden Age of Ottoman Art

Written by Esin Atil

Ottoman art flowered magnificently in the 16th century. With unprecedented prolificacy, court artists created splendid examples of illuminated and illustrated manuscripts; objects fashioned of gold, silver, jade, rock crystal, ivory, and inlaid wood; ceremonial and functional arms and armor; brocaded satin and velvet kaftans and furnishings; flat-woven and pile rugs; and a variety of ceramic vessels and tiles. They formulated unique and indigenous styles, themes, and techniques that not only came to characterize the artistic vocabulary of the period, but which also had a lasting impact on Turkish art. The vestiges of that impact are still visible today.

This extraordinary burst of artistic energy took place during the reign of Sultan Süleyman I (1520-1566), a remarkable half-century when the political and economic power of the Ottoman Empire reached its zenith. Süleyman - a brilliant statesman, acclaimed legislator, and benevolent patron of the arts - more than doubled the territories of his domain, personally leading a dozen military campaigns that extended its frontiers from Iran to Austria. His state occupied the crucial link between three continents and controlled western Asia, eastern Europe, and northern Africa, while dominating the surrounding seas. Istanbul, the capital, became one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world, attracting flocks of diplomats, merchants, and artists, who came to reap its riches.

The Ottoman Empire was governed by a highly efficient centralized system, at whose core was Topkapı Palace, the administrative and educational seat of the state. Attached to the palace were diverse imperial societies of artists and craftsmen collectively called the Ehl-i Hiref (Community of the Talented). These societies included men whose backgrounds were as varied as the lands the sultan ruled, their talents ranging from calligraphy to boot-making. The artists entered the imperial societies as apprentices and advanced to the rank of master, and the most outstanding finally rose to head their corps. They were assigned daily wages commensurate with their status, level of accomplishment, and range of responsibilities, and were paid four times a year. Their wages were carefully recorded in quarterly registers.

The registers preserved in the archives of Topkapı Palace reflect the scope of the Ehl-i Hiref. The earliest document, drawn up in 1526, lists 40 societies with over 600 members; by the 17th century the number of societies had increased and their membership had risen to some 2,000. In addition to the artists employed in the imperial societies, Istanbul, like all the major centers of the empire, had diverse guilds of artisans which supplied both domestic and foreign needs.

The Ehl-i Hiref attracted the most talented and promising artists; its members were the elite and were stylistically by far the most influential of the Empire's artists. Artists from Herat, Tabriz, Cairo and Damascus worked alongside those hailing from Circassia, Georgia, Bosnia, and even from Austria and Hungary, collaborating with the local masters. They produced splendid works of art that represented a unique blend of Islamic, European and Turkish traditions. And because the Empire was as centralized artistically as it was politically, the artistic themes and designs produced for the court soon spread to all corners of the sultan's lands and influenced the artists of neighboring countries as well. The heterogeneous nature of the imperial societies and the scrutinizing, personal patronage of the sultan fructified a cultural blossoming which affected all the arts.

Süleyman, known to Turks as Kanuni (Lawgiver) in honor of his numerous legislative acts, and as "The Magnificent" in Europe, in deference to his military conquests and the wealth of his court, was also a magnanimous patron. He himself was trained as a goldsmith, following the tradition of the Ottoman house that every sultan have a practical trade, and he wrote poetry under the pseudonym Muhibbi (Lover or Affectionate Friend), composing odes in Persian and Turkish.

The sultan personally inspected the works of the artists and rewarded them for outstanding performances. Palace documents pertaining to the list of gifts received by the artists during religious holidays record cash awards as well as kaftans made of luxurious fabrics. For instance, a document datable to 1535 indicates that Süleyman gave over 225,450 akçes (silver coins) plus 34 garments to some 150 court artists; several masters received up to 3,000 akçes, a generous five months' salary for men making less than 20 akçes a day.

The most innovative artists belonged to the nakkaşhane, the imperial painting studio where hundreds of religious and secular manuscripts were produced. The primary duty of this society was to decorate the volumes commissioned for the sultan's libraries, that is, to illuminate and illustrate them. The nakkaşhane artists not only created original styles and themes that characterized the decorative vocabulary of the age; they also established the genre of historical painting that documented contemporary events and personages. They reinterpreted existing themes, experimented with new ideas, and formulated a synthesis which became unique to the Ottoman world. The styles and themes used in manuscript illumination quickly spread to the other imperial societies and were transmitted to a variety of other media, ranging from textiles and rugs to ceramic vessels and tiles.

One of the decorative styles that characterized the court arts of the age was called saz, an ancient Turkish word used to define an enchanted forest. It was originally applied to drawings which depicted such ferocious creatures as lions, dragons, senmurvs (phoenix-like birds) and chilins (four-legged creatures) in perpetual combat, engulfed by fantastic foliage bearing large composite blossoms and long feathery leaves. Also included in the repertoire were peris (fairies or angelic female figures). This imaginary world, inhabited by spirits which manifested themselves in flora and fauna, reflects a mystical approach with echoes of the shamanistic beliefs of Central Asia.

The originator of the saz style in Süleyman's court was Şahkulu. This artist, who was from Baghdad, first worked in Tabriz, was exiled to Amasya around 1501, then entered the nakkaşhane in 1520/1521. He became its head in 1545, a post which he retained until his death in 1555/1556. Şahkulu's drawings of placid peris and ferocious creatures in combat, and his studies of single blossoms and leaves, were incorporated into imperial albums. Their themes were employed by other imperial societies and applied to different materials.

One of the most spectacular representations of the saz themes appears on the yatağan (short sword) made for Süleyman in 1526/1527 by Ahmed Tekelü. This 66-centimeter (26-inch) ceremonial sword has an ivory hilt decorated with superimposed gold-inlaid saz scrolls, that is, scrolls bearing the same composite blossoms and long leaves found in the drawings. The upper portion of the blade shows the combat between a dragon and a senmurv in a fantastic landscape; the animals, cast separately of iron or steel and affixed to the blade, are gilded, and their eyes are set with rubies, enhancing their ferocity.

Intertwining scrolls with saz blossoms and leaves became a most popular decorative feature after the 1540's. They were applied to manuscript illuminations and bookbindings; jeweled objects made of gold, silver, rock crystal, and jade; and imperial arms and armor as well as textiles, rugs, and ceramics.

Carved in several superimposed layers, saz scrolls decorate a unique ivory hand mirror made in 1543/1544 for Süleyman by Gani. They also appear on a dazzling ceremonial kaftan worn by Süleyman's son Şehzade Bayezit (died 1561). Woven in polychrome silk and gold thread, the textile was designed almost like a painting, without a single repetition of the pattern.

Another decorative style that originated in the nakkaşhane was created by Kara Memi, who had studied with Şahkulu and became the head of the corps after his master's death. Kara Memi, who flourished between the 1540's and 1560's, was the promoter of the naturalistic style in which spring flowers, such as tulips, carnations, roses and hyacinths, grew from clusters of leaves amidst blossoming fruit trees. This style was fully developed by the 1540's, as observed on the doublures, or linings, of a lacquered bookbinding used on a copy of the Hadis (in Arabic, Hadith, the collected sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad) made for Süleyman's favorite son, Şehzade Mehmet, who died in 1543. This binding recreates a garden in perpetual bloom filled with spring flowers and trees

Similar themes were used to decorate a splendid Koran transcribed in 1546/1547 by Ahmed Karahisari, the most innovative calligrapher of all times. Although the layout of the opening folios and the designs employed follow traditional schemes, the two pairs of ovals flanking the text depict branches bearing blossoms growing from leaves. This theme was called bahar, meaning "spring" as well as "a blossoming fruit tree," and was popularly used on diverse objects.

One of the favorite flowers in the Ottoman court was the tulip, which was cultivated in the gardens of the capital. (See Aramco World , May-June 1977) This flower was introduced to Europe during Süleyman's reign by Baron Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, the Flemish-born Austrian ambassador to the court. Its name derived from tülbent - the Turkish word for the fine gauze-like fabric used to construct a turban - since its shape was thought to resemble the headdress worn by the Ottomans.

Three-petaled tulips and fan-shaped carnations became standardized and formulaic and were frequently combined, as on an embroidered wicker shield 64 centimeters (25 inches) across. Wicker, a strong and resilient material, is also lightweight, making it extremely desirable for both the Ottoman cavalry and infantry. These shields were constructed of withes wrapped with silk and metallic threads, then coiled and stitched together. The fronts were further reinforced with steel bosses and the backs padded and lined with velvet to cushion the elbow and protect the arm.

The naturalistic style was particularly favored by the potters of Iznik, a town which supplied the court with ceramic vessels and plates as well as tiles used on residential and religious architecture. The blossoming fruit tree was especially popular, and was used on tile panels decorating a number of buildings, including the mausoleum of Süleyman's beloved wife, Hürrem Sultan, who died in 1558. A similar version was used on a panel, constructed of forty-five square tiles, made in 1574/1575 for a chamber leading into the imperial baths in the Harem of Topkapı Palace.

In addition to saz scrolls and sprays of naturalistic flowers, the court artists employed such traditional designs as rumis, cloudbands, çintemani patterns, and spiraling vines. Rumis (split leaves) were generally used in scrolls, at times joined to create cartouches, as seen in the border of the tile panel from the Harem. Cloudbands, resembling twisted and knotted ribbons, were often combined with other elements. They appear in the spandrels of the tile as well as in the voids of a brocaded velvet cushion cover decorated with çintemani motifs. Çintemani referred to designs composed of clusters of triple balls and/or double wavy lines. Traced back to ancient Central Asian traditions, this pattern had talismanic as well as royal connotations, and is thought either to have derived from Buddhist symbols or to represent leopard spots and tiger stripes. The balls and wavy lines, used alone or together, were favored on satin and velvet textiles made for garments and furnishings, such as covers for cushions and bolsters or floor spreads.

The spiraling vine - thin branches bearing delicate blossoms and leaves - was first used on Süleyman's tuğra, the imperial monogram that contained his name and title. It was also applied to a group of ceramic vessels and plates painted in blue or blue and turquoise.

The artists fully exploited the decorative motifs created in the nakkaşhane and harmoniously combined them, as exemplified on the tuğra affixed to a ferman (edict) dated 1552. Here saz scrolls fill the large ovoid extension on the left, rumis and sprays of naturalistic flowers adorn the smaller ovoid, and cloudbands and blossoming fruit trees are placed in the voids between the vertical strokes at the top.

The same profusion of decorative elements appears in a most spectacular copy of the Divan-i Muhibbi, a collection of Süleyman's poems transcribed by Mehmed Şerif and illuminated in 1566 by Kara Memi.  The margins of the folios have saz scrolls rendered in metallic gold and silver inks - the silver has now oxidized to grey - and the panels between the lines of text burst with brightly colored naturalistic flowers and trees.

Both stylized and naturalistic floral themes were skillfully combined by the other artists, including the potters and weavers. Ottoman textiles were greatly admired by the Europeans, who collected brocaded satins and velvets, some of which were fashioned into ecclesiastical garments or royal robes. Ottoman rugs were equally in demand, frequently used as wall hangings or table covers. One of the most celebrated 16th-century prayer rugs was preserved in the Schönbrunn Palace, the residence of the Austrian kings outside Vienna. Its field is densely packed with a variety of saz blossoms and leaves, intermingled with branches of blossoming fruit trees.

The decorative styles initiated in the nakkaşhane had a profound impact on the production of the other imperial societies of the Ehl-i Hiref, as well as on that of the artisan guilds. These styles constituted the artistic vocabulary of the age and were universally applied to both imperial and non-imperial arts throughout the Empire.

In addition to illuminating manuscripts andtuğras, the nakkaşhane artists illustrated scores of literary and historical works for the imperial libraries. (See Aramco World, March-April 1987) These manuscripts were exclusively produced for the sultan's personal enjoyment: It was only when the imperial Ottoman collections became national museums, after the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, that these volumes were made public.

The nakkaşhane artists illustrated the texts of past authors as well as those dating from Süleyman's reign. But their greatest contribution was the representation of contemporary events and the creation of the most outstanding genre of court painting, that of illustrated histories. This genre, which depicted the most important events of a sultan's reign, was fully established in the 1550's.

The two significant ingredients of illustrated histories - the documentation of the settings and the portrayal of the personages - owed much to the efforts of two men who were not members of the nakkaşhane but belonged to the administration. The most prolific among them was Nasuh (died about 1564), a court official who accompanied the sultan on several campaigns and recorded these events. Nasuh was a true renaissance man: he was a historian, calligrapher, painter, mathematician, swordsman, and inventor of athletic games. He not only wrote about Süleyman's campaigns but also transcribed and illustrated his own texts, carefully documenting the cities and ports conquered by the Ottomans. One of his texts, entitled Beyan-i Menazil-i Sefer-i Irakeyn, is devoted to the campaign to Iran and Iraq which took place between 1534 and 1536. The first painting in this work depicts Istanbul and represents in detail all the monuments of the capital. (See Aramco World, March-April 1987, inside front cover) Nasuh's topographic renditions are invaluable sources for the recreation of the city in the 1530's.

One of his colleagues was Haydar Reis (1492?-1572), a naval captain who practiced the art of painting. He made portraits of the sultan, his son Selim II, and other court officials, using the pseudonym Nigari. His portrayal of Süleyman as an aging ruler accompanied by two officials was made toward the end of the sultan's life and realistically depicts the physical condition of his subject. (See Aramco World, March-April 1987, page 12) Nigari's paintings, executed from life, helped to promote the development of portraiture in the court.

Ottoman sultans were acutely conscious of their role in history and established the post of Şahnameci, the official court biographer. During Süleyman's reign this post was held by Arifi, who was commissioned to write a five-volume history of the Ottoman dynasty. The fifth and last volume in the series is the Süleymanname, devoted to Süleyman's reign and completed in 1558.

Arifi chose the artists who illustrated this volume with great care. Most of the paintings were assigned to an anonymous master who devised the compositions for accession ceremonies, receptions of foreign dignitaries, sieges of fortresses, and battles in the field. He conjoined the topographic style seen in the works of Nasuh with Nigari's interest in portraiture, and depicted the events, the settings, and the participants with documentary realism. His paintings are exquisite works of art, as well as historical documents that recreate the age - whether they show the Battle of Mohács, Hungary's decisive defeat in 1526 , a ceremonial event in the Throne Room during the 1539 circumcision festival of two princes, or an intimate meeting between the sultan and Barbaros Hayreddin Paşa, the grand admiral, in 1533.

The Süleymanname covers the sultan's life from his accession in 1520 to 1556, a decade before his death. The activities of his last years were recorded in two other manuscripts. The painter who illustrated them was Osman (active from the 1560's to the 1580's), a remarkably talented artist who followed the traditions initiated by the master of the Süleymanname.

One of these manuscripts was written by Ahmed Feridun Paşa, a famous statesman, and narrates the 1566 campaign to Szigetvár, Hungary. Süleyman was 72 years old at the time and in poor health, but he had insisted that he lead his own armies once again. He stopped en route to receive his vassal Stephen Zápolya, the king of Hungary. The painting depicting this event 19 portrays Süleyman as a majestic but tired and ailing monarch. An atmosphere of solemnity - even sadness - permeates the scene, almost as if the participants had a premonition that this was to be Süleyman's last campaign.

Arifi's Süleymanname was concluded by Lokman, the official court biographer who replaced him and wrote the Tarih-i Sultan Süleyman, ending his text with the death of the sultan. One of the paintings in this work , which was completed in 1579/1580, shows Süleyman's coffin being carried toward his grave, which is being dug next to the mausoleum of Hurrem Sultan, behind the Süleymaniye Mosque. This painting proves that although Süleyman's mausoleum had been designed at the time the Süleymaniye complex, comprising the mosque and some 18 other buildings, was conceived between 1550 and 1557, it was not built until after his death.

Lokman and the following şahnamecis produced voluminous works illustrated by hundreds of paintings depicting the activities of the sultans in detail. But no Ottoman sultan was as celebrated as Süleyman, and none provided the artists with so many glorious subjects to represent.

The artists of Süleyman's nakkaşhane not only formulated the decorative style and themes that characterized the golden age of Ottoman art, but also recreated the life and achievements of their patron, enabling students and scholars to understand and appreciate a most remarkable man and the magnificent and fascinating age which he shaped.

Esin Atil, former curator of the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is the guest curator responsible for assembling the exhibition "The Age of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent." The exhibition, which opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in January, will be on display at the Art Institute in Chicago until September 7 and will be shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from October 4 to January 17, 1988.

Magnificence on The Mall
Written by Sue Gunn

The audience was rapt. It was guest curator Esin Atıl's first lecture on Sultan Süleyman at the National Gallery of Art. The culmination of her years of research was beginning.

"It was so crowded," Atıl remembers. "The auditorium holds about 450 people, and there were about 100 standing up or sitting on the floor. I had to cut the lecture quite a bit, because I felt badly about people standing in the back."

A jammed lecture hall is only one measure of success for Atıl's exhibition, "The Age of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent." Scheduled from January 25 to May 17 at the National Gallery, on the Mall in Washington, D.C., the compact and splendid exhibition attracted more than 400,000 visitors, and at the end of its run was extended for a further 10 days. Süleymans treasures drew yards of coverage in newspapers and magazines, as well as extensive airtime from radio and television stations. The exhibition catalogue, authored by Atıl, sold more than 10,000 copies. Exhibition posters, usually marked down after a show's end, sold out within only a few weeks and had to be reprinted.

This success story began a decade ago, when Atıl's idea for an important exhibition of 16th-century Ottoman art led her, naturally, to Istanbul-where Topkapı Palace, now a museum, had held Süleymans treasures ever since his reign ended.

Here, Atıl encountered a major obstacle: a Turkish law, enacted after a museum fire a dozen years ago had destroyed a number of loaned objects, which prohibited lending national art treasures to museums outside Turkey. For 10 years, Atıl worked with a succession of government officials, trying to convince them to change the law.

Simultaneously, she encountered a more general challenge: the conviction of many in the I museum world that large foreign exhibitions of unique treasures - like the one Atıl was contemplating - were simply too risky.

"Even some of my colleagues felt that these loan exhibitions were detrimental to the objects and that certain objects might be lost or damaged in the process," Atıl says.

"And my argument was, yes, problems could happen. But if you choose the crème de la crème of museums in a country like the United States - where museum technology is far more advanced than in any other country in the world - the chance of anything happening is almost zero."

In 1982, Atıl won her battle. Turkish government officials were impressed by her credentials, which include advanced degrees in European and Islamic art and numerous Islamic exhibitions under her curatorship at the Freer Gallery of Art, as well as an extensive list of catalogues, articles, lectures and other publications. The prohibitive law was altered to allow a small but brilliant collection of artifacts from the time of Sultan Süleyman to enter the United States.

The importance of Atıl's conquest has not been overlooked by Turkey's ambassador to the United States, Şükrü Elekdağ. The Süleyman exhibition, he says, will help educate Americans about Turkey's culture, history and accomplishments, and will contribute to forming a more balanced view of the country and its people.

Also underlining the exhibit's significance in the United States is a statement by Turkish president Kenan Evren. In a preface to its 357-page catalogue, Evren hoped the exhibition will "draw the attention and appreciation of the American public, and will contribute to the creation of a bridge of culture between the Turkish and American nations."

Yet for Atıl, the exhibition's goal is not to enhance U.S.-Turkish relations. "If it does, it's of no interest to me," she says simply. "I hate to politicize a cultural activity. My purpose in doing this exhibition is to educate the public; that's what a museum curator does."

The first element in this educational process, however, is the seductive power of the objects themselves: The items in the collection cry outfor appreciation simply for their beauty.

"Ottoman art is beautiful; it is joyous, sensuous and colorful. Esthetically, it is very pleasing," Atıl says. "The proportions are just right, the inlays are just right, and, technically, it is of incredible quality. I want to show that there are forms of art for pure personal pleasure, and that it is this personal pleasure - this sort of splendor - that surrounded the Ottoman court.

"Ottoman art really is not an art that has a secret intention. You look at it, you see the beauty of the textile, and then you understand that it's made for an upholstery cover, for example, or for a ceremonial kaftan. Its meaning is immediately understood."

More specifically, Atıl wants her audience to appreciate the mythical saz and the floral naturalistic designs, two decorative styles that evolved during Süleymans reign. "I would like them to understand how they were sometimes totally blended in objects and sometimes used separately. I would like them to understand the joyousness of creation and nature, and the celebration of that – the perpetuity of spring that continually appears in Ottoman art."

Once captured by the esthetics, Atıl hopes visitors will begin to ask where and for whom these beautiful objects were made. Often, they're struck with questions after they've left the gallery.

"I get tremendous numbers of calls from the public," Atıl says. "They want to know more about the art, they want to read more about the society that produced it, or they have a similar piece they want me to identify.

"When they start asking these questions, I believe they will learn a little bit about a world, a lifestyle and a sense of esthetics that is quite far from the United States and the 1980's."

Communicating across such barriers of place and time constitutes success on another, deeper level for Esin Atıl and for her Sultan Süleyman exhibition - and there are signs that that success is being achieved. From the comments book placed at the exhibition's exit, one voice far removed from the Ottoman Empire of 400 years ago spoke its approval. In a looping, adolescent script, an American junior-high visitor wrote, "It was rad, awesome and totally cool."

This article appeared on pages 24-33 of the July/August 1987 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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