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MIDEAST CARPETS IN RENAISSANCE PAINTINGS

Niki Gamm


In the 1970s archeologists uncovered a mosaic floor during excavations at ancient Anamur (100 BCE - 600 AD) in southern Turkey that resembled pile carpets produced centuries later in Anatolia. Evidence for pile carpets with geometric designs in Anatolia doesn’t appear until the thirteenth century at a time when the Seljuks of Rum were masters of Anatolia and had begun trading with Venice (1220). In particular, the carpets being produced at Konya, the capital of the Rum Seljuks, were lauded by the renowned traveler Marco Polo as the best in the world.

The first depiction of a “Turkish” carpet in European pictures dates to the fourteenth century, when the number of carpets imported into Europe was increasing. European paintings began to show images of carpets that came from Anatolia and from Iran. Because these imported carpets were so expensive, they were mostly to be found in Catholic churches and kingly palaces. In fact these textiles were at first seen in religious scenes. For example, the depiction of St. Louis of Toulouse (1274-1297) shows the saint as a bishop holding out a crown to Robert of Anjou, an event that happened in 1295 but was not painted until 1317, when Louis was canonized. Underneath the bishop’s throne is a carpet from Anatolia.

Carpets were also produced in Spain by the Moors and one was depicted in a fresco from the 1340s in Avignon, France.

Following the expansion of the Ottoman Empire into the Balkan area in the fourteenth century and the growth of trade between it and other European countries, carpets appeared more and more frequently in portraits. For example, Fatih Sultan Mehmed II sent King Ferdinand of Naples 100 carpets in 1464 according to Nurhan Atasoy and Lale Uluç in their book, Impressions of Ottoman Culture in Europe: 1453-1699. Diplomatic gifts such as these ranked high and it wasn’t just the Ottoman rulers who were sending carpets as gifts. Genoa and Venice sent the Habsburg rulers carpets in the sixteenth century. Documents support the pictorial record in the form of inventories from palaces, churches and houses.

Hans Holbein (1497-1543), “Ambassadors of Framy.” (1533) The National Gallery,
London, inv. no. 1314. (Turkish Carpets from the 13th-18th Centuries. Istanbul, 1996, p. 49.) 

The paintings show that these carpets were not used as floor coverings but as decorations hanging on walls or covering furniture.

They might also be used in religious scenes in which the Virgin Mary was depicted, as mentioned above, under the thrones of important ecclesiastical figures or displayed on ceremonial occasions. In other words, the carpets shown in paintings and frescoes in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were owned by people or institutions of high social and economic status.

European artists took great pains in depicting the carpets from the Mideast so it is possible to determine their sources in many cases. The most popular types are the “Lotto,” “Bird,” Indo-Isfahan, and “chessboard” carpets.

Lotto carpet on a table. William Duyster (ca. 1599-1635) “A Couple playing trick-track.” The National Gallery, London, inv. no. 1387. (Turkish Carpets from the 13th-18th Centuries. Istanbul, 1996, p. 109.)

Bold, stylized vegetal arabesques in yellow on a red ground characterize “Lotto” carpets, which are named after a famous altarpiece by Italian Renaissance painter Lorenzo Lotto (c.1480 - c. 1557) that depicts a similar carpet. Early examples of Lotto carpets exhibit borders, thought to derive from a rectilinear form of Arabic script known as kufic, this type of interlaced border is characteristic of many early Turkish carpets.

The Lotto carpets were previously known as Small-pattern Holbein Type, although Hans Holbein the Younger never painted one, unlike Lotto did so several times, though he was not the first artist to show them. Though they look very different from Large-pattern Holbein Type carpets, they are a development of the type, where the edges of the motifs are in yellow on a red ground with arabesques suggestive of foliage and end in branched palmettes.

 
Small pattern Holbein carpet. Usak, first quarter of 16th century, 192 x 115 cm, Budapest Museum of Applied Arts, inv. no. 8.546. (Turkish Carpets from the 13th-18th Centuries. Istanbul, 1996, p. 72.)   Carpet with large and small octagons. Bergama, late 16th century, From Şeyh Baba Yusuf mosque, Sivrihisar, Eskisehir, 202 x 130 cm, Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, inv. no. 700. (Turkish Carpets from the 13th-18th Centuries. Istanbul, 1996, p. 51.)


The “bird” carpets originated in Uşak in western Anatolia in the sixteenth century. The design on a white background has sharp angles which can be identified as the head, wings and tail of a bird although the images are actually rosettes and leaves.

Indo-Isfahan carpets range from small to extremely large floor coverings. These densely knotted textiles feature a very rich and nuanced color palette and were handmade in India, primarily in the 17th century, imitating Herat (Afghanistan) designs. Many were exported to Europe, especially to Portugal and Holland, by East India companies and are frequently seen in 17th-century Dutch paintings. The usual field design consists of elaborate vine-leaf and floral palmettes in pairs, pointing in opposite directions and connected by scrolling vines, together with curving, feathery lancet leaves, cloud bands, and a host of small floral motifs. Stylized peonies and lotuses alternate in the border.

Chessboard carpet, Ottoman-Egyptian. Late 16th-early 17th century, 415 x 217 cm. Donated by Wilhelm von Bode, 1905. State Museum of Berlin, Museum of Islamic Arts, inv. no. I. 14. (Turkish Carpets from the 13th-18th Centuries. Istanbul, 1996, p. 116.)

“Chessboard” carpets are so named because of the grid-like arrangement of the motifs. They are often called Mamluk or later, Damascus rugs, because they were produced in Damascus in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Mamluk rugs have complex designs with large medallions containing intersecting compartments based on geometric forms. The borders are made up of oblong medallions or cartouches. Aside from the designs, they are made of finely woven, lustrous wool. It is easy to see the continuation of the Mamluk carpet in the Damascus rug of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The usual Damascus field pattern is a grid of small squares or rectangles (hence the European term chessboard carpets), each of which includes a hexagon or octagon filled with tiny radial motifs that surround a star interlace. Those with squares can actually be used to play chess. Among the other field patterns that occur is a large one with several medallions. Damascus was a major center in Mamluk Syria and when the Ottomans conquered and annexed the Mamluk territories in 1517, Mamluk carpet production continued. It is known that the Ottoman court commissioned carpets from the Cairo workshops and these had a florid arabesque style.

From the seventeenth century onwards, Ottoman and Persian carpets were no longer the exclusive property of the very wealthy and the well-connected. Rising wealth amid the middle class allowed for significant numbers of purchases. One also sees these carpets in the homes of the wealthy, draped on tables. Various countries such as Spain, Portugal, France and the Netherlands were able to produce their own carpets using the patterns of Turkish carpets that had become popular and continued to call them “Turkish” carpets.

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