This important dish is one of the earliest surviving Ottoman pottery vessels.
Like both the pottery of Timurid Iran and Ottoman Iznik, our dish is obviously stylistically inspired by the decoration of the Chinese porcelain that was so prized in the Persian and Turkish courts from the 14th century. A 14th century Ming dish that feels very close to ours in overall conceit, as well as in many of the individual details, such as the band around the cavetto which closely resembles the exterior of our bowl, was in the collection of Henri Pharaon (John A. Pope, ‘Chinese Influences on Iznik Pottery: A Re-examination of an Old Problem’, in Richard Ettinghausen (ed.), Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1972, pl.15a, p.124). It is tempting to suggest that its presence in a Lebanese collection means that it is one of the dishes that the potters of the Islamic world may have encountered. A dish from the Hongwu period, Ming dynasty (1368-98), has a very similar rim to ous, decorated with alternating scrolling motifs (Geng Bao Chang, Qing hua you li hong. shang shang, Shanghai, 2000, no. 20, p.22). A more unusual feature on our dish is the root-like motif found beneath the lower fleshy lotus flower. It has been suggested that that is probably a development of the ribbon often found on Ming ceramics (see for example an early 15th century dish published in Sir Harry Garner, Oriental Blue & White, London, 1970, no.13). The potter responsible for our dish was clearly exposed to these Chinese imports, and inspired by them.
The glaze of our dish is thick and opaque, demonstrated on the rim where in a few places it has chipped off leaving the original clay surface intact. In this, it relates most closely to a group of Islamic imitation celadon wares (see for example a dish sold in these Rooms, 27 April 2004, lot 96). The attribution of that small group has been disputed, although they are generally thought to be from the Iranian rather than the Ottoman world, probably dating to the mid-15th century. Apart from in that small feature however, our dish clearly differs from the Persian pottery of the 15th century. In their seminal work on Timurid pottery, Lisa Golombek, Robert B. Mason and Gauvin A. Bailey talk of a “precise” style found on a small number of dishes (Golombek et al., Tamerlane’s Tableware, Toronto, 1996, pls.62-67). With some confidence they attribute the majority of the group to Tabriz. Their ‘Tabriz’ dishes, like ours, are characterized by very high quality Yuan or early Ming style decoration but most have a marked crackelure in the glaze, typical of Timurid pottery but very unlike ours. However, one dish included in that group by Golombek et al, is slightly different. Not only does it have a smooth glaze, like ours, but it was tested and has a similar petrofabric to that found in Iznik pottery (1978.1484, published in colour in James W. Allan, Islamic Ceramics, Oxford, 1991, no.31, pp.52-53). That example, in the Ashmolean Museum, led Golombek et al to broaden the attribution of this “precise” group to Tabriz or Iznik, late fifteenth century (Golombek et al, op.cit., p.120).
The Ashmolean dish shares a number of features with ours, and provides perhaps the closest comparable. Not only is it almost exactly the same size (42cm. in diameter) and uses the same deep blue but, like our dish, the designs show obvious parallels with subsequent Iznik decoration. The fleshy floral sprays around the cavetto are very similar to those found alternated with cypress trees in our dish. The thin ‘comma-shaped’ leaves which spring from the floral scroll at the centre of the Ashmolean dish are also not dissimilar from those found at the bases of each cypress tree on ours. The cypress tree on our dish is a feature never found on Timurid pottery but one which becomes popular in Iznik and as part of the Ottoman decorative repertoire. The cypresses are found on early Iznik vessels – for example on a bowl sold in these Rooms, 10 April 2014, lot 188 or on a flask, attributed to circa 1480 now in the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha (inv.no.PO.005.97; John Carswell, Iznik Pottery for the Ottoman Empire, exhibition catalogue, Doha, 2003, no.21, no.1, pp.22-25). As on both of these examples, our cypresses are carefully filled in with thin vertical lines (in the bowl and flask then painted over by curls), and gently break the confines of the borders set for them by a few millimetres. Both the Ashmolean dish and ours have designs clearly organised into three registers, and divided by paired blue lines. The wave and rock border on the Ashmolean dish, though different to ours, is a clear nod towards the wave and rock borders found on Chinese porcelain, and later so popular in Iznik. All of these individually separate points seem decisively to link the two dishes to Turkey rather than Iran.
Apart from Miletus ware, very few ceramic vessels are attributed with any certainty to Ottoman Turkey in the period between 1420 and 1470. Most of we know of the ceramic production of the period stems mainly from tiles of Edirne and Bursa – and there our dish again finds close comparable examples.
After the defeat of the Ottomans at the Battle of Ankara in 1402, Timur bought craftsmen back with him to Samarqand. Amongst these was the designer Nakkas Ali who, on the return to his homeland, supervised the building of the mosque and tomb complex of Mehmed I in Bursa, between 1419 and 1424. The style that these artists bought back to Turkey from Iran and Central Asia is known as the ‘international Timurid style’ and was characterised by organic floral and foliate designs that synthesise traditional ‘Islamic’ motifs such as arabesques with Chinese-inspired designs (Venetia Porter, Islamic Tiles, London, 1995, p.99). In this melting-pot of Ottoman, Chinese and Persian styles it seems most likely that our dish was created.
The aesthetic of the tiles in the Mehmed I complex, though very different to ours, was very Iranian and can only have been inspired by the tiles of contemporary Samarqand and Herat. A Persian inscription on the tiles of the mihrab of the Yesil Cami (Green Mosque), ‘amal-i ustadan-i Tabriz , ‘made by the masters of Tabriz’, confirms that Persian craftsmen were unquestionably involved in the building’s decoration (Porter, op.cit., p.99). Over the next fifty years, the ‘masters of Tabriz’ worked on various buildings in Turkey. These included the tiles of the Complex of Murad II in Bursa in 1425 and a series of buildings in Edirne including the Sah Melek Pasa Cami in 1429, the Üç Serefeli mosque between 1438 and 1448 and, perhaps most notably, the mosque of Murad II in 1436. The lower walls of the latter were decorated with a lattice of hexagonal blue and white tiles, each decorated with a wide variety of chinoiserie floral motifs, closely related to those of our dish (illustrated in Gérard Degeorge and Yves Porter, The Art of the Islamic Tile, Paris, 2002, p.196). Both our dish and the Murad II tiles distinctively outline many of their cobalt-blue floral forms with thin white borders – as on the upper palmette on our dish and the small rounded pomegranate-like motifs. Similarly the small curling leaves that spring from the vines are closely comparable. The deep blue used on a number of those tiles also relates them to our dish.
Although the work of itinerant Iranian craftsmen is not known solely though the work of the ‘masters of Tabriz’ (tile cutters from Khorassan are, for instance, thought to have worked on the ?inili Kösk in the grounds of the Topkapi Saray in 1472), the known work that they produced does seem to be limited to architectural cladding. Few or no vessels produced by them seem to have survived. The technology and skill required to produce them clearly existed however, and so there is no obvious explanation for this. Though no precise comparables for our dish are known, the closest parallels are certainly to be drawn with the Ottoman pottery of the 15th century. A number of our motifs make their first appearance with the work of the ‘masters of Tabriz’, mature over the century and are later perfected by the potters of Iznik. It seems likely that our dish was an early, and successful, experiment.