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.