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Topkapi Palace :: Chinese and Japanese Porcelain

Chinese and Japanese Porcelain

The palace collection contains a total of 10,700 pieces, ranging from the late Sung (13th century) and the Yuan Dynasties (1280-1368), through the Ming (1368-1644) to the Ch'ing period (1644- 1912). A number of these are currently on display in the palace kitchens.

It is known that Chinese porcelain was exported to the Middle East as early as the 9th and 10th centuries, where it was widely known and used. It retained its place as ware of considerable value throughout the Orient in subsequent eras, being particularly favored in the Ottoman Court. Known as Fagfur (Fagfuri) to the Ottomans, this being a word of Persian origin referring to the Chinese emperor, we know that such ware -fagfuri vessels- was used to hold sherbet during the celebrations held in honor of the circumcision of Crown Princes Bayezit and Mustafa, sons of Mehmet II, Edirne in 1457, according to an account of the occasion given in Tursun Bey's History of the Ottomans. The Ottoman treasury is also known to have contained Chinese porcelain during the reign of Bayezit II, while the court acquired more porcelain of Chinese origin with the treasures of Shah Ismail brought from Tabriz by Selim I, according to an account dated 1514. Slightly later, the same sultan followed his Iranian Campaign with his 1516-17 campaign in Egypt when, renowned as he was for his love of Chinese porcelain, he undoubtedly acquired considerable amounts of it. It was under the same sultan that a merchant known as Seyyit Ali Ekber brought to the court two China bowls bearing Arabic inscriptions as gifts to Selim from the Chinese Emperor Chengte (1506-1521). The same merchant recorded his travels in a manuscript entitled 'Hitayname'.

Generally, Chinese porcelain reached the palace either as gifts and trophies, or some of it was purchased. A certain amount of ware was acquired by the reversion of the estates of deceased statesmen and members of the court, or of those who had fallen from favor. Most of it was kept in the palace kitchens, although some pieces were allocated to the treasury. Much of it was used regularly at the sultan's table, whereas a Porcelain Warehouse or Cini Hane was built in the kitchens by the architect Sinan especially for Chinese wares. Nevertheless, many pieces were damaged during a fire that broke out in the kitchens in 1574, during the reign of Murat III, and were later replaced by new wares.

The best known of the early Chinese ware are the celadons, famous for their grayish, bluish or brownish-green glaze consisting mainly of feldspar. some silica and a small amount of iron (1-3 per cent) . First called 'Celadon' during the 17th century after the green costume of the shepherd Celadon in the French pastoral of Honore d'Urfe -'l'Astree', performed in Paris in 1610, quantities of this ware dating to the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries can be found in the palace collection.

The palace ware has the characteristic grayish -white paste of Lung-ch'uan Celadon, from the province of Chekiang, which turns to a warm, burnt red upon firing, a feature most noticeable at the base of vessels where the glaze trails off, which is due to the oxidation of ferrous material either during or after firing. Celadon was known by the Ottomans and other Near East countries as Mertebani. This was used to describe large heavy jars with dark-brown glaze dating from the Tang to the Ming period, of which there are three examples in the Topkapi Palace dating from the 16th century. The term Mertebani actually derives from the port of Martaban in Burma where the ceramics of China and Siam were dispatched to India, Africa and the Middle East.

The majority of the palace collection consists of blue and whites dating from the 14th to 19th centuries. Painting with blue cobalt underglaze was first employed in Iran towards the end of the 12th century, and later both the cobalt and the underglaze painting technique used to apply it were taken to China by merchants, where it served the needs of Chinese porcelain craftsmen until the discovery of cobalt in China about a century later.

Of the early blue and whites in the palace, the best-known examples are large plates with unglazed bases, some with fluted (cavetto) rims and decorated around the rim with waves, or floral and lozenge motifs and a floral motif in the center. Fish, ducks or similar fauna and mythical creatures such as the phoenix, ch'i-i-Lin and dragon also shared the central part of pattern.

Another popular type of ware was the vases of the Mei p'ing type dating from the Sung period to the 18th century. Kuan ware, in the form of massive pots, waisted, lob-necked vases and flasks dating to the 14th and 15th centuries are among the typical products of Chinese kilns of the period to be found in the palace. The most important 15th century piece, one that is widely known, is the sc called Annam vase, which bears the date 1450. Made in Vietnam, the vase bears to name given to Vietnam during the T'ang period, when it was a Chines protectorate.

There are few examples of Yuan ware in the collection, and the majority of Ming ware is blue and white, there being number of blue and whites but also polychrome ware dating from the reign of the Ming emperor Chia-ching (1522 1566) , most of which bears hi monogram. As may be seen, the Chin blue and whites are notable for their brilliant blue.

Although there is very little ware from the Wan-li period (1573-1619) bearing the monogram of that emperor, a ware which was particularly popular in the west, the collection possesses a number of large plates and other vessels of the 'Kraak' group. This group was exported in large numbers to the West, especially to Holland, from the beginning of the 17th century onwards.

Kraak ware, was the first Chinese ware to reach Europe in any great quantity and was extremely influential on European, particularly Dutch ceramics. The name came from a Dutch term for a form of Portuguese ship, one of which, bearing a load of Chinese ware was captured by the Dutch in the Straits of Malacca and taken to Amsterdam in 1603.

The majority of the Mings in the palace collection are from the Ching-te Chen. kilns in the province of Kiangsi. There are some from the kilns of Fukien, mainly inferior patterned blue and white plates and lugged pots -four round lugs on the shoulder, brown glazed ware decorated with white slip brushwork, ware of Celadon tones and white ware. Named 'Swatov ware' by Chinese merchants after a port in southeast China opened to foreign trade after 1860, when it became an important trade center, this ware was made for export and tended to follow market trends. Hence the pieces inscribed in Arabic with verses from the Koran in the palace collection.

The earliest examples of Ming white ware in the collection date from the beginning of the 15th century. These are either plain white glazed porcelain or slightly incised under the glaze to form a pattern. Another group of monochrome ware of the Ming period also represented here is the mainly plain yellow glazed porcelain, a certain number unmarked, but some of which bear the marks of Hung- chih (1488-1505) and Cheng-te (1506- 1521). Polychrome ware with blue underglaze and red, yellow, green and turquoise overglaze brushwork dates from the beginning of the 16th century to the 17th century. It was a practice in Istanbul to encrust Chinese porcelain after the second half of the 16th and 17th centuries with precious stones mounted in stylized metal floriate forms such as the rose, tulip, carnation, pomegranate and plum blossom.

A group of transition ware mad (export in the first half of the 17th century is worth mentioning. Dating from period between the death of Ming Emperor Wan-li in 1619 and the reopening of imperial porcelain factories by the se ( emperor of the Ch'ing dynasty- K'ang'hsi (1662-1722) , this was a semi-opaque white glazed ware with motifs of a pictorial nature-views, figures flowers-wrought in the purplish-blue underglaze pigment known as 'violet milk' characteristic of this ware. Gene in the form of vases, this ware has distinction of being the first Chinese porcelain to bear a tulip motif.

Alongside blue and whites, o K'ang-hsi ware, namely 'famille vert', produced at a time when the Ch'ing Dynasty had established stability UI the second Emperor K'ang-his (1662 1722) after a period of unrest, and v the imperial porcelain factories had been re-opened in 1683 after a period of idleness.

Famille vert, combining underglaze and overglaze enamel tones, and named after the propensity for green as predominant palette color, is represented in the collection.

Chinese 'Imari' ware of the s period is not to be overlooked. Influenced by the polychrome Japanese Imari porcelain named after the Japanese near Arita from which the porcelain of that region was exported, the Chinese derivatives are characteristically painted in underglaze blue, overglaze red and gilt.

Later blue and whites produced during the reigns of K'ang-hsi's subsequent successors Yung-cheng (1123-1735), and noticeably under the influence of K'ang-hsi and early Ming blue and whites are also represented in the collection, as are porcelain of the 'famille rose', a group of ware in which the palette of enamels was expanded to include rose pink, and which appeared, noticeably influenced by European ware, in the mid- 18th century.

The numerous pieces of porcelain in the collection were used during the Ottoman period to create composite ware, which was embellished with metalwork or encrusted with precious stones in accord with Ottoman taste, or even transformed into vessels of an entirely different sort with the addition of metal parts. The gold, silver and gilded copper or tombak lids attached to Chinese vases are typical of Ottoman metalwork of various periods.

Among the various types of ware in the collection are up to 730 pieces of Japanese porcelain dating from the 17 - 19th centuries. These are mainly Imari ware produced in and around Arita in southern Japan, a polychrome ware made solely for export and to western taste. (Imari being the port of shipment), although there are also some Japanese blue and whites, also from Arita, which bear the influence of the so-called 'Kraak' ware of the Wan-li period.

 



Above text and pictures are from the book titled "Topkapi Palace Hardcover".

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