Calligraphy Illumination

Although calligraphy can be regarded as an art form in itself, it was often used in conjunction with the arts of tezhip (illumination) or ebru (marbling). Since calligraphy employed a limited range of colours, most often black, the colourful effect of illumination or the use of marbled paper enhanced the appearance of the finished work.

Although the word tezhip literally means "gilding" it refers equally to manuscript decoration in various different colours. Gold paint was prepared by the laborious process of grinding gold leaf with gum arabic, then straining off the gold powder and adding a solution of gelatine according to a specific formula. The suspension thus obtained was applied to the paper with special brushes. But before the stage of applying gold or other colours could commence, the illuminator had to drew the designs, which had to complement the type of script, its scale, and even the contents of the text.

Turkish illumination reached its highest degree of perfection in terms of colour and form at the end of the fifteenth century. The designs consisted of geometrical, floriate and zoological motifs, the two latter stylised rather than naturalistic, which were arranged on a field according to certain rules. Another style of decoration was outlining (tahrir) of the motifs with watered-down gold paint to produce a shadowed effect known as halkârÎ.

The art of illumination remained at its zenith until the early seventeenth century, before entering a period of stagnation, and from the eighteenth century onwards as tastes were increasingly influenced by western art, fell into decline. In the nineteenth century particularly, illumination displays such an artificial veneer of western style that the incompatibility between the writing and the decoration is disturbing. Only from the 1940s onwards, as artists sought to rediscover classical values, did illumination once again recover its original character.

Ebru, a term based on the Persian "ebri" meaning "like a cloud", and known as marbling in English, provided an alternative and cheaper form of embellishment to tezhip. Water thickened with gum tragacanth is placed in a rectangular pan, and various earth pigments dissolved in a solution of gall (which ensures that they spread over the surface of the water) are either sprinkled over the water or poured on, and then shapes created by stirring a thin wire. Once the pattern has been completed, the paper is placed flat on the water, then lifted off and set aside to dry, after which it can be cut to the desired size.

Ferman, Berat And Mensur

Imperial decrees (fermân), warrants (berat) and patents (mensur) bore the tugra of whichever sultan was then on the throne. These documents, which used to be kept in the form of scrolls or folded, have become highly esteemed collectors' items in recent years, and are now often seen framed as a wall decoration. I will not examine the substance of these documents, but confine myself to a brief discussion of their calligraphy and illumination.

The tugra completed the first phase of its evolution during the second reign of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror (1451-1481), and then went on to achieve the culmination of its classic form during the reign of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566). The execution of the tugra itself in gold ink with shadowing in black ink, and in some cases the illumination of the spaces between the strokes is a form of which the first surviving examples date from the reign of Mehmed II. Until the early seventeenth century, the tugra was a motif on which illuminators lavished all their skill, to the point where the monogram itself was sometimes barely distinguishable under its elaborate finery, like a bride behind her veil. From the first quarter of the century onwards, not only did the quality of the illumination decline, but so did the tugra's form. This deterioration became particularly evident during the eighteenth century, as the western influence on art became stronger. However, with the readjustment of the tugra's proportions by Mustafa Râkim at the turn of the nineteenth century, the imperial monogram was transformed into a masterpiece of graphic design, and from then on illumination of the tugra was no longer felt to be necessary, although under western influence, they were sometimes gilded to create an effect of sun rays emanating from the monogram. While the new form of monogram designed by Râkim is frequently found on monument inscriptions, it is rarely encountered on documents drawn up by the Council of State. The loveliest examples of the tugra, although plain and entirely devoid of illumination, are those dating from the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1909) up to the end of the Ottoman dynasty.

The only scripts used to write these documents in the early Ottoman period were tevki' or rika', which can be read without any difficulty. It was only with the emergence of Ottoman divâni inspired by the classical ta'lik script of Persia at the end of the fifteenth century, followed by the vigorous and elaborate form of divâni known as celi divâni in the sixteenth century that it became impossible for anyone not educated in these ornate scripts to read such documents. In terms of their calligraphic qualities, both scripts attained their greatest perfection during the nineteenth century. Although calligraphers normally set their signature to their work, no signature was ever set either on the tugra or on the text of these important documents. It is said that the calligraphers who worked for the Council of State had to swear on oath never to use either divâni or celi divâni outside the Council.

The use of black, red, green, blue and gold ink; the choice of divâni or celi divâni; and whether the ground is stippled with gold or not were all matters strictly dictated by state protocol. It is cause for regret that no serious study has yet been undertaken of the artistic aspects of these documents, which reflected the prestige of the state.