What are the hallmarks of Ottoman style, how did this style originate, and why is it still important today?
The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. is currently featuring the exhibition “The Sultan’s Garden: The Blossoming of Ottoman Art”. This exhibition chronicles how one of the world’s most powerful empires developed a singular artistic style and how that style gained lasting influence, just as modern brands strive to do today. In the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire began representing itself at home and abroad through a single, instantly recognizable visual aesthetic. Their stylized tulips, roses, carnations, and other flowers came to embody the influence of the empire, and even today continue to epitomize the arts of Turkey.
Debut of the “Floral Style”
Ottoman art reflects the wealth, abundance, and influence of an empire that spanned seven centuries and, at its height, three continents. Ottoman court style developed during successions of sultans and changes in the court’s design workshop. Prior to 1550, Ottoman art had primarily employed an artistic language common to the greater Islamic world which frequently depicted geometrical designs, fantastical animals, and flora. However, under Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520–1566), a single artist—Kara Memi—introduced a new design repertoire inspired by forms found in nature. The stylized tulips, carnations, hyacinths, honeysuckles, roses, and rosebuds immediately gained popularity across a broad range of media, carrying connotations of Ottoman court patronage, luxury, and high taste.
A Style that Blossomed Across the Empire
An age-old Turkish (specifically Ottoman) fascination with flowers accounts in part for the widespread adoption of this new artistic style. Flowers and flower gardens were an important feature of Ottoman upper class and court culture. After all, the tulips which were so wildly popular in Europe were originally cultivated in Turkey. In the sultan’s palace, flowers embellished architectural tiles, opulent textiles (such as velvets), and monumental carpets. While abundant at court, trade also introduced far-flung nomadic communities to the floral style. Despite being far from the capital city, and far from ornamental gardens, artisans in small villages and nomadic encampments emulated these stylized blooms. The floral style continues to embody Turkish culture: today Turkey’s tourism bureau markets the nation with a tulip logo.
The floral style on view in “The Sultan’s Garden” has had a lasting impact over the past four centuries on the later Ottoman Empire, modern Turkey, the broader Islamic world, and Europe. Court workshops exported luxury items to European customers whose own economies lacked either the technology, tradition, or access to materials to produce such goods themselves. Floral style patterns also appear on costumes in Italian Renaissance portraiture and influenced designers of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Great Britain, including William Morris.
A catalog titled The Sultan’s Garden: The Blossoming of Ottoman Art is available.