Turkish metal artwork dates as early as the 2nd and 3rd century BC in central Asia. In Anatolia, the oldest existing Seljuk piece of metalwork is a silver tray with the inscription "Alp Arslan is the Greatest Sultan" and a silver candle stick dated 1137. Both pieces are at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Metal artwork reached its pinacle in the Ottoman Empire with the making of weaponry, such as swords, helmets, armour, dagger and knives. For domestic ware, copper or copper/zinc (tombac)was the material of choice although bronze, silver and gold were also used. A mass of copper would be beaten with a hammer (dogme) and turned into a slab, which would then be shaped by an artizan to the desired form.
The choicest specimens of Seljuk and Ottoman metalwork can be seen at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art. Like the other branches of art, the Ottoman art of metal at the outset took over the Seljuk cultural heritage, with the result that it became a melting pot for a variety of trends as befits an empire that combined many lands and peoples. The widespread implementation in the 14th century of the art of repoussé, familiar to us from Seljuk metalwork, is one of the outstanding features of the period
The 15th century, when the Ottomans embarked on the path towards becoming a world power, and the conquest of Istanbul in 1453 especially, constituted a turning point in the art of metal as in many other fields. With the conquest especially of the Balkan lands, which were rich in gold and silver, the Ottomans acquired metalworking artists who possessed not only the raw material resources but also a long-standing tradition. Mamluk influence is observed in the oil lamps in the shape of hexagonal pyramids in a group of works typical of the period. The countless examples of such lamps, decorated with openwork, repoussé and intaglio and adorned with rumî and hatayî motifs, that have survived to our day show that they were produced abundantly in the second half of the 15th century. Candlesticks also occupy an important place among the metal work of this period.
Among the Ottoman metal work that has survived to our day, a plethora of objects dating to the period of Sultan Bayezid II stand out. Although Bayezid II’s passion for valuable objects has been viewed by historians as prodigal, its impact on art was positive, and it is a fact that the creation of new works was a compelling force in the encouragement and patronage of artists. The Ehli Hiref or craftsmen’s organization, which served as a school for every branch of Ottoman art, was established in this period. Subsumed under it were the coppersmiths (‘kazganciyan’), who made metal objects; the goldsmiths (‘zergeran’), who produced jewelry of all kinds including gold; the gold inlayers (‘kûftgeran’ or ‘zernisan’), who produced gold inlay and other decorations, and the ‘hakkâk’ who cut and set precious stones. All these divisions of the Ehli Hiref had a role to play due to the great diversity of decorative techniques employed in the art of metalwork.
As a result of the cooperation and work of the masters who brought diverse traditions and concepts of art to Istanbul from various parts of the Empire following the conquest of Tabriz and Egypt in particular, the Ottoman art of metal was purged of manifest influences in the mid-16th century and found its own unique style. A number of decorative techniques were generally employed on the decorative objects made in this century including intaglio, repoussé, filigree, chasing, niello, embossing and metal plating. But the group that best represents the overall character of the period is without doubt that of the metal objects known as ‘murassa’ (studded with precious stones). It became fashionable in this period to embed precious stones in metal surfaces such as swords, daggers, book covers, slabs of emerald, natural crystal and even porcelain by using the technique of stone inlay. In contrast with the ostentatious style of the 16th century, there are also plain examples which stand out simply for their harmonious proportions and fine workmanship.
Flowers also begin to appear alongside the classical 16th century styles in the decorative motifs of the 17th century. Emerging under Western influence, these are composed of floral motifs worked in Turkish style. Besides the traditional motifs such as the plaited frieze, tree of life, Seal of Solomon and fish observed on copper objects of the period decorated mostly using the intaglio technique, naturalistic designs such as tulips and pomegranate blossoms, familiar from silver objects of the period, are also encountered. The Ottoman art of metalwork, which is observed to have remained bound, in part at least, to the traditional forms at the beginning of the 18th century, continued the naturalistic style of the 17th century as well. Besides the western-oriented quest for form and motif, there was also a tendency to maintain the classical tradition. Late 18th century and 19th century metalwork in contrast appears to reflect entirely western taste.
The classical Ottoman shapes and motifs of the 16th and 17th centuries eventually gave way to Baroque and Rococo forms and designs imported from Europe. The Ottoman art of metal, which was attempting to emulate Western products in this period, is observed to have been particularly successful in the technique of intaglio, of which it created fine examples in pieces such as the coffee sets, ewers, trays, jugs and mirrors that were so popular during the period. When examining the ‘Turkish Rococo’ products of the Ottoman art of metal, we see a transformation in taste. Pearls and cut diamonds supplant colored stones such as the ruby, emerald and garnet of the classical period in jewelry and inlaid work, and enamelling also becomes popular. Similarly, embossing with a mould replaces the more demanding technique of repoussé using a graver, which requires skill. As for the floral compositions, which are still used, these now take the form of sumptuous baskets with enormous bows and garlands made in keeping with contemporary fashions. The changing political and economic fortunes of the 19th century Ottoman world naturally affected Ottoman art as well. The gradual weakening of the Ehli Hiref organization in the palace and its complete disappearance in the 19th century spelled the end of the brilliant evolution of Ottoman art. As the state, with increasing frequency, sent the gold, silver and even copper objects in the Treasury to the Mint to be melted down, the extant specimens of the Ottoman art of metal, which had been based on the recycling of materials for re-use, began more and more to belie the richness cited in the sources. The objects that were able to be preserved in the Palace Treasury and other extant specimens, most of which survive only because they were donated to tombs and mosques.
References: Alev Özay/SKYLIFE, Metin Sozen and Semsi Gonen, 1999, Hurriyet, Istanbul, Turkey.
Some selected examples (please click on pictures to enlarge):