Tuesday, February 15, 2011

History of Miniature


This book centers on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Ottoman miniature
paintings found mostly in illustrated manuscripts. Miniature painting—or taswir and
nakish, as the Ottomans called it—was the dominant form of Ottoman pictorial art
until the eigthteenth century. It developed together with medieval Islamic book
illustration—alongside illumination (tezhip), calligraphy (hat), paper marbling
(ebru), and bookbinding (cilt). Manuscript production formed an integral part of
Ottoman institutional activities. Miniatures were produced mostly in the imperial
studio (Nakkashane) founded in the mid-fifteenth century under the patronage of
Mehmed the Conqueror (1451-1481). It was an art of the court commissioned,
largely, by Ottoman sultans and powerful courtiers.
The imperial studio was responsible for creating a unique style, designed by
the head masters, such as Nakkash Osman, Matrakçi Nasuh, and Nigari from the
sixteenth century; Nakkash Hasan, Ahmed Nakşî, and Musavvir Hüseyin Istanbulî
from the seventeenth century; and Levnî and Abdullah Buharî from the eighteenth
century. The preparation of an illuminated manuscript engaged various craftsmen—
the author, the calligrapher, the gilder, the illuminator, the margin-drawer, the
illuminator of intricate floral ornamentation, the marbled-paper maker, the painter,
the master binder, and the artist who ornamented the bindings with lacquer work.
That the miniatures were not signed until the eighteenth century alludes to the
collective nature of their production.
According to Günsel Renda, the representational modes of miniature painting
were formed by artists who “imbued with the abstract worldview of Islam, reflecting
 These craftsmen were united in guilds, each having a patron saint. Each craftsman had to obey the
rules that governed the guilds. 7
a conception of painting based in primary colors, emphasized contours, and a
preference for decorative surfaces and two-dimensional depiction omitting light and
shade” (1995: 16). This conceptual approach to figural representation was handed
down to the Ottomans from Persian and Timurid schools (particularly those
developed in Shiraz, Tabriz, and Herat) as well as from Chinese and Byzantine
painting—even if the latter influence is rarely mentioned. The Ottomans conceived
miniature painting as an art in the service of the Empire and therefore regularly
commissioned works depicting the daily events and activities related to the palace
 This approach obliged the miniaturists to “develop ways of representing
incidents and persons realistically” while “adhering to the formalist representational
mode of Islamic miniatures” (Renda, 1995: 20). In this sense, Ottoman miniature
painting differs from its artistic counterparts such as those flourishing in the Safavid
(Persian) and Mughal schools, which have poetic styles.
Illustrated books fall into classifications including history, cartography, urban
topography, science (cosmology, geography, astronomy, pharmacology, botany,
alchemy, and physics), (sultanic) portraiture, literature, and religion (with the
exception, of course, of representations of the Koran). The formative period (ca.
1451-1520) of Ottoman miniature painting was heavily influenced by the examples
of Western schools brought by Venetian artists—such as Gentile Bellini and
Costanzo de Ferrara—who were invited to Constantinople by Mehmed the
Conqueror. Simultaneously, local artists were grappling with Persian, Timurid, and
Chinese masterpieces so as to find a unique Ottoman visual voice.
 Going forward,
the sixteenth century, which has been considered the “golden age” of Ottoman
miniature painting, was the period in which the imperial visual language was
institutionalized, especially in the works of Nakkash Osman, which tended not to use
the effects of Italianate painting introduced in the previous century and created a
more “Eastern” style of expression.
 Such events included the sultans’ enthronement, their audiences with ambassadors, and their
departures for military campaigns, as well as battle scenes and images of daily life including royal
hunting scenes and festivities held in the sultan’s presence.
 The issue of periodization remains a problem, as one cannot trace a linear progressive development
of the practice. Atasoy and Çağman (1971) suggest a periodization, mostly following the reigning
sultans: “The Early Period: Mehmet II (1451-1481),” “The Period of Establishment: Süleyman the
Magnificent (1520-66),” “The Classical Period: Selim II (1566-74) and Murat II (1574-95),” “The
Late Classical Period: Mehmet III (1595-1603),” “The Seventeenth Century,” and “The Eighteenth
This study looks at the so-called “declining period” of miniature painting,
namely the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. My decision to focus on that period
in particular is due to the fact that miniatures of the seventeenth century have
received less scholarly attention because very few examples, especially from the
second half of the century, have survived. According to Atasoy and Çağman, the
second half of the century is, in fact, “the most obscure period in Ottoman miniature
painting” (1974: 71).
 Another reason why I have decided to study the period has to
do with certain shifts in the production of miniatures. The few illustrated books
remaining from the epoch demonstrate that the imperial language of the sixteenth
century began to give way to less established ways of representation.
The first modification can be observed in the amount of works collected in
murakkas —albums in which numerous miniatures from different periods and styles
were assembled. Even though some single-page miniatures had been produced in the
previous periods, only in the seventeenth century did such miniatures generate a
genre in its own terms. Second, the lessening of the material and textual constraints
of the book allowed miniaturists to experiment with new subjects, most notably the
everyday scenes that had not previously been possible under the thematic reign of
the book. In this period, the supremacy of the imperial studio was challenged by
urban miniaturists—mostly located in Istanbul—who, not restricted by imperial
constraints, worked in a distinct style and took up new subject matter. At the same
time, new schools of miniature painting, such as those in Aleppo and Baghdad,
sprang up in the provinces. These schools, though marginal and short-lived,
managed to bring about a new idiom, marked by a flexible use of the page and the
frame and a wider color scheme.
Beginning in the eighteenth century, Ottoman miniature painting underwent
distinct transformations as the Empire opened up to the West for the first time.
During this period, known as the beginning of Westernization, the Ottomans showed
themselves to be intensely interested in European art and architecture, epitomized in
 According to the authors, the sultans reigning in the period from 1648 to around 1703 were located
in the palace in Edirne. Therefore, “the palace in Istanbul had lost its previous importance and
consequently the Istanbul palace studio was no longer encouraged” (71). Subsequently, the
miniaturists moved to the Edirne palace, which already had a long-established studio. The illustrated
works made and kept at the Edirne Palace were probably lost during the many disasters and enemy
occupations that later befell the city, perhaps in 1878, when the palace was blown up by the Russians
the so-called Ottoman Rococo, even as they themselves became objects of desire for
Europeans, as seen, for instance, in the writings of Mary Wortley Montagu and
paintings by Jan Baptiste Vanmour. The cultural encounter with the West had
inevitable effects on Ottoman arts. Accordingly, contemporary art historians have
focused on the ways in which European techniques of representation (such as
modeling, illusionism, perspective, and shading) have been incorporated into
traditional Ottoman arts, most notably in miniature painting.
In these inquiries, considerable attention has been given to the oeuvre of
Levnî, who by and large revised traditional miniature painting by experimenting with
new expressive forms (see, Atil, 1999, 1993; Tansuğ, 1993; Irepoğlu, 1999).
Working in the so-called Europeanized style, Levnî’s contemporary Abdullah Buharî
created single-page miniature paintings that depicted scenes from everyday life and
made paintings of costumes and flowers as well as landscapes frescos that become
popular in the second half of the century. Among the last examples of book
illustration are Hubanname and Zananname by Fazil Enderunî and Hamse-i Atayî by
Nevizâde Atayî, completed in the last quarter of the century. Several illustrated
copies of these works demonstrate that traditional methods in miniature painting—
such as mixing pigment with gum arabic and employing non-overlapping layers of
paint—have been replaced by new techniques adopted from the West—such as the
use of watercolor, which allowed for subtle gradations of light and shade. By the end
of the century, miniature painting was gradually supplanted by new media such as
murals (landscapes) and oil-on-canvas painting (sultanic portraits).
To study the visual production of the period under consideration, I have
selected three miniatures from each century. These works are representative of the
material and conceptual shifts brought about by Westernization. The corpus I have
drawn together—from early-seventeenth-century work to that of the mid-eighteenth
century—covers a wide span of existing trends, styles, and genres. In this way, this
study considers various levels of style, genre, geography, material, and illustrative
function. It largely concentrates on works executed in the imperial atelier (Chapter 2,
3, 4, and 6). Yet I also include a miniature in the provincial style of the seventeenthcentury Baghdad school (Chapter 5), as well as a work by an independent local
painter, most probably from Istanbul (Chapter 1). The miniatures encompass diverse
genres, encompassing the historical (Chapter 3 and 5), the literary (Chapter 6), the
religious (Chapter 1), portraiture (Chapter 4), and the nude (Chapter 2). Three of the 10
miniatures were part of illustrated manuscripts (Chapter 3, 5, and 6), two were
conceived as single-page miniatures that were bound in a codex later on (Chapter 1
and 4), and one was executed as an independent miniature (Chapter 2).
Most of the extant illustrated manuscripts from the Ottoman period are now
preserved in the Library of the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul. Other museums and
libraries in Istanbul (such as the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum and the
Süleymaniye Library) also house rare manuscripts. In addition, Ottoman miniatures
can be found in museums, private collections, and libraries around the world, most
notably the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin and British Library in London. All
these manuscripts are kept in special sections in these museums and, with few
exceptions, they have no public visibility except when they are displayed in special
glass vitrines for specific exhibitions. In this sense, the contemporary viewer’s
encounter with miniatures is not only historically but also physically mediated.
Michael Camille, one of the most stimulating art historians writing about
Medieval European art, suggests that when manuscripts are exhibited, the viewer
“can only peer through the glass at one opening.” This means that one has to
“relinquish the crucial dynamic of the turning page, and usually ha[s] access to only
one frame from a complex cumulative experience of seeing and reading” (1984:
509). For this reason, the viewer can never encounter the miniatures in the ways they
had once been experienced. For Camille, this discrepancy presents a challenge that
must be overcome. He suggests that “[u]nlike the largely defunct visual orders of
icon, altarpiece and, some would even say, easel painting, we still all utilize and
learn to deal with this form of communication in the ways that our ancestors did”
This study, however, starts from the impossibility (and ineffectuality) of
reenacting such an authentic encounter with miniatures. Instead, it proposes to revisit
the tradition in order to investigate and complicate ways in which we look at images
 I have not included cartographic and scientific miniatures because both have resolutely illustrative
and descriptive functions. I have also left out the vast collection of illustrated manuscripts known as
costume books produced by local painters for European travelers. Even though they are noteworthy in
terms of quantity I consider them to be mass-produced souvenirs. However, in the second chapter, I
discuss a nude miniature painting produced in the imperial atelier that appropriates the style and the
content of miniatures found in costume albums.
 Miniatures are also reproduced in museum catalogues and scholarly publications, on souvenirs of
different kinds as well as on websites.11
Miniatures as Theoret

Re-reading Seventeenth and Eighteenth
Century Ottoman Miniature Paintings - Begum Ozden Firat

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