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The Silver Treasures at Topkapi Palace
2003 / AUGUST

On its hilltop site overlooking the Golden Horn and the district of Galata, the Bosphorus and its Asian shore, the Marmara Sea and its islands, Topkapi Palace guards over one of the most remarkable collections of royal treasure in the world. Of these priceless works of art, silver is only a small part, and is outshone by the quantity of gold, but in terms of craftsmanship and beauty these pieces are no less deserving of remark. Most of the silverware in the collection was made by palace silversmiths from the 16th century onwards, and is decorated in diverse techniques, sometimes being set with diamonds and other precious stones. The many silversmiths, goldsmiths and jewellers at the palace were members of the palace guild of craftsmen, the ehl-i hiref. They worked under the auspices of the chief treasurer, producing exquisite pieces for the sultan and other high-ranking members of the royal household. The palace also assayed gold and silver ware made by the craftsmen of the city, and these were struck with the sultn'se monogram to indicate that the gold and silver used was of the correct purity standard.

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The Silver Treasures at Topkapi Palace
2003 / AUGUST

The earliest of all the silver in the palace treasury are a circular tray and bowl bearing the monogram of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566). The collection includes sets of ewers and basins, rose water sprinklers, censers, writing boxes, candlesticks, candle snuffers, food trays, coffee trays, filigree coffee cup holders that belonged to Behice Sultan, the daughter of Sultan Abdülmecid, a child's rattle and water cup, dessert sets, sherbet jugs, bowls, braziers, hand and wall mirrors, Koran cases encrusted with diamonds, lanterns, dishes of many shapes and sizes, jewel boxes, and cutlery. Many of these works of art bear the monograms of sultans such as Ahmed III, Mahmud II, Abdülmecid and Abdülaziz. Among the pieces in the collection which were not made by palace craftsmen are gifts presented to Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876-1909) on the 25th anniversary of his accession to the throne. Some of them are jewelled and bear the Ottoman armorial device and inscriptions.

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The Silver Treasures at Topkapi Palace
2003 / AUGUST

Among the most interesting are silver models of Ottoman monuments, such as the Fountain of Ahmed III and Izmir Clocktower, and of an Ottoman ship, the Sükran. The German emperor Wilhelm II, who visited Istanbul three times during the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid II, had the German Fountain erected in Sultanahmet Square as a memorial to his second visit in 1898. At the inauguration of this fountain in 1901, a large silver vessel in the form of an asure jug containing water from the fountain was presented to the emperor. The twin of this jug, with an inscription around the neck, is today on display at Topkapi Palace. The pieces in the silver collection extend to the reign of Mehmed V (1909-1918). Palace records and inventories show that the pieces in the collection today are only a fraction of what once existed. The reason for this depletion is that when the state was pressed for money, either in times of war or to meet the expenses of accessions and other celebrations, resort would be made to melting down some of the silver and gold ware in the treasury for minting coins.

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The Silver Treasures at Topkapi Palace
2003 / AUGUST

Most of the silverware on exhibit today consists of gifts presented to the sultans by members of the dynasty, statesmen, officers of the court and wealthy citizens on such occasions as religious feast days or accession ceremonies, and as gifts from foreign monarchs presented by ambassadors. There are therefore numerous examples of European silver, particularly French, in the collection. The Ottoman Turkish love of flowers is reflected in the decorative arts, and silverware was adorned with similar motifs. On early pieces dating from the 16th century we find scrolling branches, rumi leaves and chinoiserie blossoms known as hatayi typical of the period, and on later pieces roses, carnations, tulips, narcissi and other garden flowers, cypresses and pomegranates. From the 17th century onwards Western influence gradually became apparent in Ottoman art, first in floral bouquets worked in reposéet, and towards the end of the 18th century in the large curving leaves, roses in baskets, garlands, bows and vertical fluting typical of what is called Turkish rococo style.

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The Silver Treasures at Topkapi Palace
2003 / AUGUST

Characteristic of the 19th century are small flowers on a matted ground, although the classical period carnations and pomegranates (depicted cracking open) are also still found. Another frequent motif is fluted lozenges over a basketwork ground. Repoussé, openwork, engraving and filigree were the most usual techniques of silver ornament. Assay marks stamped on Ottoman silver to show that the metal was 900 fine consist of both the monogram of the reigning sultan and the mark SAH. Silverware imported from Europe was similarly checked and stamped by the assayers, so that we find the imperial monogram next to the European import marks. After Topkapi Palace became a museum in 1924, the collection was enlarged by donations and purchases, and today is of great importance as representing the finest craftsmanship in silver over more than four centuries.

* Göksen Sonat is a silver expert and art historian.

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