Theater & art

Frame by Frame

Iznik dish demonstrates Ottoman achievement


PROVIDENCE — The center of this dish, from 16th-century Turkey, is dominated by an ogee-shaped “saz” leaf, or reed pen. The motif links the design to the distinctive “saz” style of drawing — noted for its fantastical imagery, feathery, proliferating leaves, and Chinese motifs — that Ottoman artists were developing in the court atelier around the same time.

Just over 12 inches in diameter, the dish is on display at the RISD Museum in Providence, one of many quietly illustrious objects in the freshly installed Asian galleries there.

The saz leaf’s deep blue and green chimes deeply and satisfyingly with the blood-red tulips, carnations, and hyacinths that surround it in a decorative schema characteristic of Iznik pottery. East of Bursa and separated from Istanbul by the Sea of Marmara, Iznik became the center of the Ottoman court’s ceramic production in the 16th century.


During two eastern campaigns in the first part of that century, the Ottoman sultans Selim I and Suleyman the Magnificent had plundered tremendous collections of China’s highly sought after blue-and-white porcelains. But home demand for these Yuan and Ming Dynasty ceramics soon overtook supply, and the potteries at Iznik were tasked with replicating the Chinese designs.

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The techniques they came up with — above all, adding “frits,” or granulated glass, to both the body and glaze — failed to crack the code of chinaware. They nonetheless constituted a breakthrough in the history of ceramics.

Decorative designs, which were originally in shades of blue, expanded in the 1540s to include manganese purple, sage green, and black, and, soon after, a bright green of the kind seen here, and red. The latter was added when it was discovered that a slip known as Armenian bole, rich in iron oxide and usually used as a base for gilding (and to cure diarrhea!), turned a rich tomato red when applied under the glaze.

Unless you are a potter, all this chemistry may have little bearing on the beauty of this dish, which, with its laconic combination of clarion colors, open-ended S-curves, circular forms, and tapering points, approaches, to my eyes, a kind of decorative perfection.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at