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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Art of the Ottomans after 1600

In the early seventeenth century, both Ottoman book production and architecture remained traditional. The court scriptorium continued to produce its established series of texts—biographies, travel accounts, genealogies, and geographies—many of which were illustrated or illuminated. The Mosque of Ahmet I in Istanbul (1609–16), also known as the “Blue Mosque” because of the interior tile scheme, continues in the vocabulary of the great architect Sinan (ca. 1500–1588).

Later in the century, a weakening Ottoman economy began to affect the arts. An influx of gold and silver from the New World caused inflation and the treasury shrunk without military victories and booty to refill the coffers. The sultans were forced to reduce the number of artists they employed in the nakkaşhane (royal scriptorium) to ten from the high of over 120 in the time of Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520–66), and for many years did not increase the set prices they paid for ceramics, paintings, and carpets. It became more profitable for artists to produce items for the open market than to be tied to the workshops of the low-paying court, and sultans had to pass edicts forcing them to finish imperial commissions. One of the few arts that maintained a high level of quality was calligraphy. Hafiz Osman (1642–1698) was the master of this era, teacher to Sultan Mustafa II (r. 1695–1703) and his son, Sultan Ahmet III (r. 1703–30).

Under Ahmet III the arts revived. He built a new library at the Topkapi Palace and commissioned the Surnama (Book of Festivals, ca. 1720, Topkapi A.3593), which documents the circumcision of his four sons as recorded by the poet Vehbi. The paintings detail the festivities and processions through the streets of Istanbul, and were completed under the direction of the artist Levni (died 1732), whose work is also known from a set of portraits collected in a muraqqa‘ (Topkapi H.2164). While his style was traditional, other artists of his time were greatly affected by the European prints and engravings that began to circulate in Ottoman lands.

Ahmet’s reign is also known as the Tulip Period. The popularity of this flower is reflected in a new style of floral decoration that replaced the saz style of ornament with serrated leaves and cloud bands that had characterized Ottoman art for many years, and is found in textiles, illumination, and architectural ornament. The architecture of this period is exemplified in the monumental fountain constructed by Ahmet III outside the gate to the Topkapi Palace. Ambassadors dispatched to Paris and Vienna sparked further changes with their descriptions of the Baroque architecture of Versailles and Fontainebleau, but many of the Baroque-inspired palaces built during Ahmet’s reign were destroyed in the revolt that forced him to abdicate in 1730. The earliest building to survive is the Nur-u Osmaniye Mosque (1748–55), begun by Mahmud I and finished by Osman III. Its flamboyant decoration, ornate moldings, and vegetal carvings are the hallmark of the style that continued into the nineteenth century.