“What’s with the tulips?”

It is usually quite easy to distinguish classic Turkish cini (ceramic), as the central design theme has remained unchanged for centuries. Flowing floral branches and blossoms with erect bulbous tulips and bursting carnations are like a large crescent and moon red flag saying ‘TURK’!

kutahya cini

But what is behind this, why has this particular design endured?

A quick glance of Wikipedia yields the following summary:

The Tulip Period or Tulip Era was a relatively peaceful period of the Ottoman Empire from 1718 to 1730. The name of the period derives from the tulip craze among the Ottoman court society. Cultivating this culturally ambiguous emblem had become a celebrated practice. During this period the elite and high-class society of the Ottoman Period had established an immense fondness for the tulip, which was utilized in various occasions. Tulips defined nobility and privilege, both in terms of goods and leisure time. Under the guidance of the Sultan’s son-in-law Grand Vizier Nevşehirli Damat İbrahim Pasha, the Ottoman Empire embarked on new policies and programs during this period, which established the first Ottoman language printing press, and promoted commerce and industry. The Grand Vizier was himself very fond of tulip bulbs, setting an example for Istanbul’s elite who started to cherish the tulip’s endless variety in paint and celebrate its seasonality as well.

Silk Ottoman kaftan

“Very fond” could possibly be a gross understatment. Tales abound of the tulip parties in which the palace grounds and gardens were a blanket of tulips with mirrors and lanterns strung from the tree branches.

ebru (marbling) tulips
The Ottoman standard of dress and its commodity culture incorporated their passion for the tulip. Within Istanbul, one could find tulips from the flower markets to the plastic arts to silks and textiles. Tulip bulbs could be found everywhere; the demand grew within the elite community where they could be found in homes and gardens.
Therefore, the tulip is a symbol with mythical appeal, which can be found from Ottoman palaces to their clothing, which sustains a memory of the Ottoman Empire’s social past. The tulip was also praised in poetry and motifs used in paintings. To this day in modern Turkey the tulip is still considered the embodiment of perfection and beauty.

Iznik design ceramic vase tulip--1
I think the passion and enthusiasm of the makers and painters of classic Turkish ceramic is another element to this designs continuing success. From Turkish Traditional Art Today, Henry Glassie talks with an usta (master) of the cini trade in Kutahya, Turkey.

“Bu guzel bir sanat, (this is a beautiful art). There are other beautiful arts, but I love this one very much. I rank it superior. Other artists will have to forgive me, but I rank my own art as superior, because it is necessary to be concerned with the whole process, with the paste, with the glaze, with the paint, with the brush.”

Involvement is necessary in every painstaking details of his piece and at the final moment when his piece is surrendered to the kilm to undergo its dramatic transformation, control is relinquished and he can do nothing.
“It is all in there, my mind, my heart, my soul.”
Time passes so slowly while he is waiting nervously for the kilm to be opened. Devastation if the piece is ruined. Forget about the time and materials, what if the next piece is not as beautiful? But, if the piece returns complete he is thrilled with pleasure with his art “a rose picked from fire.”

For today’s painters, their goal is not simple reproduction, they see themselves as honoring a long standing and beautiful art form which reached its pinnacle during the tulip age.  Still today the tulip is a symbol of beauty and perfection in Turkey.


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