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From Iznik to ICARO: A Conversation with Mina Moraitou

24 MAY 2024

In the Spring/Summer 2024 collection by Zeus+Δione, you’ve probably noticed standout patterns featuring tulips, pomegranates, cypresses, and carnations, rendered in vibrant hues of copper, terracotta, Mediterranean blue, and turquoise. For these timeless designs, Marios Schwab drew inspiration from the iconic "Natura" motifs of the ICARO ceramics of Rhodes, which flourished between 1928 and 1988. But the story of these ceramics traces back even further, originating in the late 15th century in Iznik (formerly Byzantine Nicaea) in Asia Minor.

 

Today, the Benaki Museum’s (herecollection, one of the best in the world, showcases rare and significant Iznik pieces: 112 objects, 59 tiles and panels, and 223 sherds, some bearing Greek inscriptions. To delve deeper into the rich history of these ceramics, we turned to Mina Moraitou, curator of the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art. She shares insights on how these ceramics began and evolved, the meanings behind their vibrant patterns, and how they journeyed from Iznik in Turkey to influence the ceramics of Rhodes and beyond.

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Benaki Museum, inv. no. 12
Benaki Museum, inv. no. 50

Iznik Ceramics at the Benaki Museum
Iznik Ceramics at the Benaki Museum

Seven years ago, you curated a remarkable exhibition at the Benaki Museum titled “Iznik: A Fascination with Ceramics.” Could you share the inspiration and concept behind this exhibition?
The inspiration for the exhibition stemmed from the rich history and lasting allure of Iznik ceramics. At the end of the 15th century, pottery workshops started operating in Iznik (Byzantine Nicaea) in Asia Minor, and the town lent its name to the ceramics produced there. The brightly coloured wares with their vivid designs were admired and sought after, both at the time of their creation and especially in the 19th century when they were among the highest achievements in pottery. This exhibition was dedicated to the interest shown by Europeans during the 19th century, the gradual formation of collections, early studies, and the revival of the style in workshops across Europe, Turkey, and Greece.

 

What distinguishes Iznik ceramics from other pottery traditions?
Iznik ceramics are distinguished by their high-quality fritware coated with a thin glaze, enabling the depiction of intricate decorative themes inspired by arabesques and Chinese motifs. These ceramics served not only functional purposes but also showcased exceptional artistic prowess, embodying the primary theme of Ottoman art: the combination of flowers, typically growing from a common root, with naturalistic representations of tulips, roses, carnations, hyacinths, and cypress trees, which became iconic motifs.

Benaki Museum, inv. no. 21
Benaki Museum, inv. no. 21
Benaki Museum, inv. no. 27
Benaki Museum, inv. no. 27
Benaki Museum, inv. no. 11137
Benaki Museum, inv. no. 11137
Benaki Museum, inv. no. 11145
Benaki Museum, inv. no. 11145

How did Iznik ceramics become so integral to Ottoman art and architecture?
From the mid-16th century, especially during Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent’s reign (1520-1566), Iznik ceramics were integral to Ottoman art due to their use in both functional objects and architectural elements. They decorated the sultan’s palace and various secular and religious buildings in Istanbul and other major cities, embodying the artistic achievements of the Ottoman court’s painting workshops.

 

Can you elaborate on the European fascination with Iznik pottery?
The initial interest of Europeans is recorded during the second half of the 16th century, when they encountered Iznik pottery during their diplomatic missions in the Ottoman territories. Soon after, orders for the manufacture of vessels were placed for export to Italy and other countries. Production in the workshops of Iznik continued until the 17th century, when it gradually declined, while the centre of ceramic production in Turkey shifted to Kütahya. Admiration for Iznik pottery was revived in the 19th century when Europeans began to show a systematic interest in Middle Eastern art, and ceramics took their place within the broader discovery of Islamic art.

 

What impact did the migration of Kütahya potters to Greece have on the local ceramic traditions?
From the beginning of the 20th century, especially after 1922, potters from Kütahya took refuge in Greece. These potters established their workshops in Faliro, blending the decorative repertoire of Iznik ceramics with Greek themes. The revival of the ceramic tradition during the interwar period owed much to the activity of the Asia Minor Greeks; evidence of this activity surviving today is the interior decoration of the Hellenic Parliament building, as well as the Iznik-style façades of a number of National Bank branches in different cities in Greece.

Benaki Museum, inv. no. 66
Benaki Museum, inv. no. 66
Benaki Museum, inv. no. 95
Benaki Museum, inv. no. 95
Benaki Museum, inv. no. 110
Benaki Museum, inv. no. 110

And what’s the story of the famous ICARO Rodi workshop?
During the Italian occupation of the Dodecanese, Italian nationals established the ICARO Rodi workshop on Rhodes, active between 1928 and 1946, with the aim of upgrading the pottery tradition of the island. Inspired by Iznik designs, particularly the plates that adorned the walls of Lindos homes, ICARO Rodi produced high-quality ceramics that combined traditional motifs with innovative techniques. After the incorporation of the island into the Greek state, the workshop passed into Greek hands, changing the name to IKAROS RODOS, further enriching the island’s ceramic heritage.

 

Why do Iznik ceramics continue to captivate artists and collectors today?
Iznik ceramics maintain their allure due to their timeless beauty, intricate designs, and historical significance. Today, many contemporary artists draw inspiration from their elaborate patterns and skilled craftsmanship, while collectors seek authentic wares for their artistic and cultural worth. Serving as a brilliant facet of Ottoman art, Iznik ceramics transcend both time and geography, rendering them indispensable in the art market.