“Iznik Ceramics at the Benaki Museum”, edited by John Carswell and Mina Moraitou

An image from Iznik Ceramics at the Benaki Museum An image from Iznik Ceramics at the Benaki Museum

Travelers to Turkey often return with a ceramic plate or tile as a souvenir of their sojourn, many of these have designs based on or inspired by the ceramics from Iznik (the ancient Nicaea, across the Marmara from Istanbul), a major center of production between the 15th and 17th centuries, a history probably unknown to most of the buyers.

But Iznik ceramics have been a target of collectors since the 19th century. And one the earliest collections ended up in Athen’s Benaki Museum, a collection laid out in detail in Gingko’s recent eponymous coffee-table format catalogue. This is undoubtedly a book for specialists—the book contains illustrations not just of complete plates, vessels and tiles, much also hundreds of shards—but, as is Gingko’s wont—the photographs are so extraordinary and the text (brief as it is) so clear, that anyone with even a modicum of interest (or who has one of those souvenirs) is likely to come away engaged and illuminated.


Iznik Ceramics at the Benaki Museum, John Carswell (ed), Mina Moraitou (ed), (Gingko, June 2023)
Iznik Ceramics at the Benaki Museum, John Carswell (ed), Mina Moraitou (ed), (Gingko, June 2023)

The story of the museum is almost as interesting as its contents:


Antonis Benakis, the founder of the Benaki Museum, was born in Alexandria in 1873 into one of the most important Greek families engaged in the cotton trade… Antonis Benakis was a man of many interests: he was an ardent supporter of scouting, loved sailing, played polo and was a car enthusiast. He was impeccably dressed. But he is best known for his passion for the arts and especially for collecting … included important examples of Iznik ceramics which were mainly acquired in Egypt and later prominently exhibited at the museum when it first opened in 1931.


Greek, not Turkish, sourced from Egypt, not Turkey. But Iznik were long believed to have originated in Rhodes (a misattribution due to purchases of Iznik ceramics for the island by the Cluny Museum between between 1865 and 1878).


What makes the Benaki collection of Iznik ceramics so intriguing compared to the great collections in Paris and London is how it both responded to and, in its modest way, promoted Greek national identity… The early association—albeit legendary—of Iznik ceramics with the island of Rhodes engendered a Greek interest and pride… Christoforos Nomikos, who was a much-respected scholar in the Alexandrian community, debunked the notion that many of the ceramics were produced in Rhodes, but the growing attribution of the pottery to Iznik, the ancient Nicaea, a city that was so important in the history of Early Christianity and Byzantium, and the presence of Greek inscriptions on some examples served to underscore the sense of a major Greek quotient in the production of Iznik ceramics.


Iznik ceramics probably owe their fame to their use in some of Ottoman Istanbul’s iconic mosques and palaces; they were a particular favorite of the great architect Mimar Sinan. But Iznik also manufactured plates and vessels and various shapes and sizes, all in designs—an abundance of flowers, especially tulips, which when used in tiles, repeat to infinity—and colors that are instantly recognizable to anyone with the remotest acquaintance with Turkey and Turkish design.

But this virtuosity arose all of a sudden: a combination of underglaze cobalt blue decoration on a white (rather than red earthenware) body.


The pottery and tiles made in Iznik were composed of silica, finely ground lead-rich glass (frit) and pale-coloured clay. The addition of lead oxide to the body distinguished it from other contemporary siliceous bodies… A white slip (a diluted form of the body material) was applied to the surface and when dry the decoration was painted on with pigments composed of oxides including cobalt, copper, manganese and lead. The colourless glaze applied over the painted decoration contained silica, lead oxide and soda. This combination of a lead-rich siliceous body and a lead-oxide glaze created a strikingly white ware to show off the coloured pigments and brilliant highly reflective surface.


A very large dish (cat. no. 3) is based on a well-known Chinese prototype of blue and white porcelain of the early 15th century and with a central design of three bunches of grapes.
A very large dish (cat. no. 3) is based on a well-known Chinese prototype of blue and white porcelain of the early 15th century and with a central design of three bunches of grapes.

The earliest ceramics were monochrome cobalt blue in deliberate emulation of Chinese porcelain.


Spiralling patterns and many other motifs in Ottoman pottery can be traced back to the impact of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. Porcelain was imported at least as early as the fourteenth century to the Near East, and the impact of Yuan and early Ming wares is significant.


As time went on, the potters innovated:


But the genius of the Iznik potters was to extract themselves from all these influences and evolve something completely novel.


Iznik ceramics can be dated with considerable precision on the basis of the colours and designs. The book contains enough examples of the various periods to explain how this is done.

The industry went into decline in the 17th century, but the artistry continues to inspire contemporary potters and artists. The beautifully-illustrated volume provides ample evidence as to why.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.