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İznik pottery, named after the town in western Anatolia where it was made, is a decorated ceramic that was produced from the last quarter of the 15th century until the end of the 17th century.

The town of İznik was an established centre for the production of simple earthenware pottery with an underglaze decoration when in the last quarter of the 15th century, craftsmen in the town began to manufacture high quality pottery with a fritware body painted with cobalt blue under a colourless lead glaze. The meticulous designs combined traditional Ottoman arabesque patterns with Chinese elements.

The change was almost certainly a result of the active intervention and patronage by the recently established Ottoman court in Istanbul who greatly valued Chinese blue-and-white porcelain.

During the 16th century the decoration of the pottery gradually changed in style, becoming looser and more flowing. Additional colours were introduced. Initially turquoise was combined with the dark shade of cobalt blue and then the pastel shades of sage green and pale purple were added. Finally, in the middle of the century, a very characteristic bole red replaced the purple and a bright emerald green replaced the sage green. From the last quarter of the century there was a marked deterioration in quality and although production continued during the 17th century the designs were poor, as the city's role as primary ceramics producer was taken up by Kütahya.

The ceramic collection of the Topkapi Palace includes over ten thousand pieces of Chinese porcelain but almost no İznik pottery. Most of the surviving İznik vessels are in museums outside Turkey, but plentiful examples of the city's tile production exist in numerous cities throughout Turkey, such as İstanbul, Bursa, Edirne, Adana, and Diyarbakır. In Istanbul alone examples of İznik tiling can be seen in at least 40 mosques, tombs, libraries, and palace buildings, such as the Rüstem Pasha Mosque, the Sokollu Mehmet Paşa Mosque, the tomb of Selim II in the Hagia Sophia complex, and certain buildings of the Topkapı Palace complex such as the Circumcision room and the Baghdad Kiosk

Provenance of Iznik pottery

From the second half of the 19th century until the 1930s European collectors were confused by the different styles of Iznik pottery and assumed that they originated from different pottery producing centres. Although it is now believed that all the pottery was produced in Iznik (or Kütahya, see below) the earlier names associated with the different styles are still often used. In the 19th century until the 1860s all Islamic pottery was normally known as 'Persian' ware. However, between 1865 and 1872 the Musée de Cluny in Paris acquired a collection of polychrome fritware pottery with a design that included a bright 'sealing-wax red'. As all the items in the collection had been obtained on the island of Rhodes it was assumed, erroneously, that the pottery had been manufactured on the island and the term 'Rhodian' ware was adopted for this style. European collectors also purchased a number of pieces decorated in blue, turquoise, sage green and pale purple which were believed to originate from the town of Damascus in Syria and became known as 'Damascus' ware. Blue and white fritware pottery became known as 'Abraham of Kütahya ware' as the decoration was similar to that on a small ewer that once formed part of the collection of Frederick Du Cane Godman and is now in the British Museum.The ewer has an inscription in Armenian script under the glaze on its base stating that it commemorated Abraham of Kütahya with a date of 1510. In 1905-1907, during the construction of a new post office in the Sirkeci district of Istanbul near the shore of the Golden Horn, pottery fragments were unearthed that were decorated with spiral designs on a white background. As a result, pottery with similar spiral patterns became known as 'Golden Horn ware'.

It was not until the 1930s that art historians fully realised that the different styles of pottery were probably all produced in Iznik. In 1957 Arthur Lane published an influential article in which he reviewed the history of pottery production in the region and proposed a series of dates. He suggested that 'Abraham of Kütahya' ware was produced from 1490 until around 1525, 'Damascus' and 'Golden Horn' ware were produced from 1525 until 1555 and 'Rhodian' ware from around 1555 until the demise of the Iznik pottery industry at the beginning of the 18th century. This chronology has been generally accepted

Iznik and Kütahya

The 'Abraham of Kütahya ewer' is not the only vessel with a possible Kütahya origin. A fragmentary water bottle decorated in the 'Golden Horn' style has an underglaze inscription in Armenian script that refers to the vessel as an "object of Kütahya". Lane argued that it was unlikely that either the 'Abraham of Kütahya' ewer or the water bottle had been made in Kütahya. However, subsequent archaeological excavations in Kütahya unearthed fragments of pots in the blue and white İznik style that had been damaged during manufacture ('wasters') providing evidence that fritware pottery had been produced in the town.The designs, materials and manufacturing technique appear to have been similar to that used in İznik. Kütahya is further from Istanbul with less easy access to the capital and was probably only a small pottery producing centre in the 16th century. Nevertheless, it is likely that some of the pottery that is currently labelled as 'İznik' was manufactured in Kütahya. Julian Raby has written: "For the moment we have no choice but to call all Ottoman glazed pottery of the 16th and 17th centuries by the generic label 'İznik', and to hope that in time we can learn to recognise the diagnostic features of contemporary 'Kütahya ware'

Imperial workshops in Istanbul

During the first half of the 16th century underglaze painted blue-and-white ceramics were also produced in Istanbul. A surviving account book for 1526 that records wages paid to craftsmen employed by the Ottoman court, lists a tilemaker from Tabriz with ten assistants.The tilemaker was probably one of the craftsmen brought to Istanbul after Selim I had temporary captured Tabriz in 1514. The tile workshops were located in the Tekfur Sarayı neighbourhood of the city near the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus.The craftsmen are believed to have been responsible for all the tiles on the imperial buildings until the construction of the Süleymaniye Mosque in the 1550s. Most of the tiles were decorated with coloured glazes using the cuerda seca (dry cord) technique, but in a few cases the tiles were underglaze painted in cobalt blue and turquoise. These underglaze tiles were used on the revetments of the facade of the Holy Mantle Pavilion (Privy Chamber) in the grounds of the Topkapı Palace and within the mausoleum of Çoban Mustafa Pasha (d. 1529) in Gebze.The most striking examples are five extremely large rectangular tiles (1.25 m in length) that form part of the facade of the Circumcision Room (Sünnet Odası) of the Topkapı Palace. Although the building dates from 1641, the tiles are believed to be from an earlier structure on the same site that was erected in 1527-28. These large tiles are decorated with very elaborate designs that suggests the close involvement of the court designers.

Although there are no surviving records detailing the output of the imperial workshops, it is likely that the potters manufacturing the blue-and-white underglaze painted tiles also made other items for the court. The historian Gülru Necipoğlu has suggested that an unusual gilded mosque lamp and a decorative ball that come from the Yavuz Selim Mosque should be attributed to the imperial workshop.The lamp and ball have underglaze inscriptional bands in cobalt blue but the mosque itself is decorated only with cuerda seca tiles. The number of tilemakers employed by the imperial workshops dwindled so that by 1566 only three remained. With the construction of the Süleymaniye Mosque, Iznik became a major center for the manufacture of underglaze tiles

Miletus ware (15th century)

Archaeological excavations in Iznik conducted by Oktay Aslanapa in the early 1960s revealed that the town had been an important centre for the production of simple earthenware pottery well before the introduction of the blue-and-white fritware.The excavations uncovered fragments of what is confusingly known as 'Miletus ware'. The discovery of kiln-wasters confirmed that the pottery was manufactured locally. The name originated from the discovery of sherds during excavations by Friedrich Sarre at Miletus in the early 1930s. As Miletus had a long history as a pottery producing centre, it was erroneously assumed that the pottery was produced locally and it became known as 'Miletus ware'. It is now believed that Iznik was the main centre for the poduction of 'Miletus ware' with smaller quantities being produced at Kütahya and Akçaalan.The excavations have not provided a clear date for the pottery but it is assumed to belong to the 15th century. The archaeological evidence from other sites in Turkey suggests that Miletus ware was produced in large quantities and widely distributed.

Miletus ware used a red clay body covered with a white slip which was painted with simple designs under a transparent alkaline lead glaze. The designs were usually in dark cobalt blue but also sometimes in turquoise, purple and green. Many dishes have a central rosette surrounded by concentric bands of gadroons


From the late 15th century, potters in İznik began producing wares that were decorated in cobalt blue on a white fritware body under a clear glaze. Both the manufacturing technique and the underglaze designs were very different from that used in the production of Miletus ware. Fritware had been made in the Near East from the 13th century, but İznik fritware, achieving a white surface, was a major innovation.

Fritware (also called stonepaste) is a composite material made from quartz sand mixed with small amounts of finely ground glass (called frit) and some clay. When fired, the glass frit melts and binds the other components together. In the 13th century the town of Kashan in Iran was an important centre for the production of fritware. Abū'l-Qāsim, who came from a family of tilemakers in the city, wrote a treatise in 1301 on precious stones that included a chapter on the manufacture of fritware, His recipe specified a fritware body containing a mixture of 10 parts silica to 1 part glass frit and 1 part clay. There is no equivalent treatise on the manufacture of Iznik pottery, but analysis of the surviving pieces indicates that the potters in İznik used roughly similar proportions. In Kashan the frit was prepared by mixing powdered quartz with soda which acted as a flux. The mixture was then heated in a kiln. In İznik, as well as quartz and soda, lead oxide was added to the frit.

As the fritware paste lacked plasticity and was difficult to work on the wheel, vessels were seldom made in one piece. Instead they were formed in separate sections that were allowed to dry and then stuck together using the fritware paste. This additive technique meant that there was a tendency for the final vessels to have slightly angular shapes. Dishes were almost certainly made using a mould attached to a potter's wheel. A lump of fritware paste would have been rolled out into a sheet much like when a cook rolls out pastry. The sheet would have been placed on the mould to form the inside of the dish. The underside of the dish would have been shaped using a template as the mould was rotated on the wheel. When the paste was partly dry the foliate rim would have been sculptured by hand

The ceramics were coated with a thin layer of white slip. This had a similar composition to the fritware paste used for the body, but the components were more finely ground and more carefully selected to avoid iron impurities that would discolour the white surface. It is likely that an organic binder was also added such as tragacanth gum. Although in his treatise Abū'l-Qāsim recommended that fritware vessels were allowed to dry in the sun before being decorated, it is probable that Iznik ceramics was given a bisque firing.The pottery was painted with pigments that had been mixed with glass frit and ground in a wet quern. For many designs the outlines were pounced through a stencil. For some designs the outlines were pounced through a stencil.

In the early period only cobalt blue was used for decoration. The cobalt ore was probably obtained from the village of Qamsar near the town of Kashan in central Iran. Qamsar had long been an important source of cobalt and is mentioned by Abū'l-Qāsim Qamsarin in his treatise.[32] From around 1520 turquoise (copper oxide) was added to the palette. This was followed by purple (manganese oxide), green, grey and black. The distinctive bright bole red was introduced in around 1560. The red slip containing iron oxide was applied in a thick layer under the glaze. Even after the introduction of a range of different pigments, vessels were sometimes still produced with a restricted palette.

The wares were glazed with a lead-alkaline-tin glaze, whose composition has been found from analysis to be lead oxide 25-30 percent, silica 45-55 percent, sodium oxide 8-14 percent and tin oxide 4-7 percent. Tin oxide is often employed to render glaze opaque but in İznik glazes it remains in solution and is transparent.

Abū'l-Qāsim described the use of earthenware saggars with a fitting lid. Although Miletus ware bowls were stacked in the kiln one on top of the other separated by spurs, the lack of spur marks on İznik fritware suggests that saggards were used. Firing was done in an updraft kiln, to about 900°C

Blue-and-white ware (1480-1520)

In the final decades of the 15th century, potters in Iznik began producing blue-and-white fritware ceramics with designs that were clearly influenced by the Ottoman court in Istanbul. There are no surviving written documents that provide details on how this came about. The earliest specific mention of Iznik pottery is in the accounts for the Imperial kitchens of the Tokapi palace for 1489-1490 where the purchase of 97 vessels is recorded.The earliest datable objects are blue-and-white border tiles that decorate the mausoleum (türbe) in Bursa of Şehzade Mahmud, one of the sons of Bayezid II, who died in 1506-7.

The term 'Abraham of Kütahya ware' has been applied to all the early blue-and-white Iznik pottery as the 'Abraham of Kütahya' ewer, dating from 1510, is the only documented vessel. The art historian Julian Raby has argued that the term is misleading as the ewer is atypical and has instead proposed the term 'Baba Nakkaş ware' after the name of the leading designer attached to the Imperial court in Istanbul. The earliest surviving Iznik fritware objects, dating from probably around 1480, are believed to be a group of vessels painted in a dark cobalt blue in which much of the dense decoration is in white on a blue background. The vessels have separate areas of Ottoman arabesque and Chinese floral designs. The combination of these two styles is referred to as Rumi-Hatayi where Rumi denotes the Ottoman arabesque patterns and Hatayi the Chinese inspired floral patterns. Many of the meticulously painted arabesque motifs of this early period are believed to be influenced by Ottoman metalwork.

Although both the use of cobalt blue on a white background and the shape of large dishes were clearly influenced by Chinese porcelain from the Yuan and Ming dynasties, the early Iznik fritware dishes were far from being direct copies of Chinese designs. In some pieces, such as the front of a large charger with a foliate rim in the Çinili Koşk Museum, the decoration used only Ottoman Rumi designs.

During the first two decades of the 16th century there was a gradual shift in style with the introduction of a brighter blue, more use of a white background and a greater use of floral motifs. Dating from this period are four mosque lamps from the mausoleum of Sultan Bayezid II in Istanbul which was constructed in 1512-13. A fifth lamp that probably also came from the mausoleum is now in the British Museum. These pottery mosque lamps are of a similar shape to Mamluk glass lamps. There was a tradition of hanging pottery lamps in mosques dating back at least to the 13th century. The opaque pottery lamps would have been completely useless for lighting they instead served a symbolic and decorative function. The lamps from Bayezid II's mausoleum are decorated with bands of geometric motifs and kufic inscriptions but around the centre they have a very prominent broad band containing large rosettes and stylized lotus blossoms










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