I’m pleased to announce that this is the first post in a series entitled A Few of Our Favorite Things, which is especially designed to give you an insider’s perspective on Shangri La and an in-depth look at the staff’s favorite objects within the collection.
I feel it only right to confess that I have a rather serious condition. Its name – Tulip Fever. I adore the Iznik floral tiles embedded in the walls of the Foyer! I love the Iznik dishes in the Syrian Room vitrines! And when I’m alone, I secretly lavish visual caresses on the Iznik pieces resting in the collection storage areas. Alas, this is the nature of my condition. And I’m hoping that by the end of this post, you’ll catch a mild case of it yourself…
I first discovered the glory of Iznik tiles while standing in the Foyer as a visitor to Shangri La (several years before I would become staff), surrounded by over 600 tiles. I was drawn to the jagged, serrated edges of the green saz leaves, the burnt red of the tulips and the tightness of the repeating arabesque design. And I recall distinctively thinking, as I looked at the tiles, “What are tulips doing in Islamic art?!”
As it turns out, the tulip, a flower I casually considered as no more than a candy-colored lollipop, has a much more colorful past than you might initially suspect. Indeed, the tulip has deep roots. To fully understand just how deeply they tangle in Iznik pottery and the greater human experience for that matter, we must first appreciate that flowers began flaunting their beauty long before we as a species were around to appreciate them. In fact, more than 100,000,000 years ago (give or take a few thousand years) the first flowers, members of the scientifc class of plants known as the Angiosperms, began stretching delicate petals to the sky, attracting all sorts of winged admirers.
It would be considerably later that they would attract their first two-legged admirers. Some 50,000 years ago on a summer day in Iraq, between the end of May and the beginning of July, a Neanderthal man was buried at Shanidar Cave on a bed of ramose branches and flowers. Surprised?! You’re not alone! The Shanidar Cave site is the first known documentation of a humanoid species deliberately “picking flowers,” let alone association with a death ritual (Leroi-Gourhan: 564). Clearly, flowers have long held a place of beauty and importance in our lives and those of our distant ancestors.
Shifting focus regionally to the mountains of Central Asia, we find that this is where scientists suspect the first wild tulips sprung up. Under human attention, the wild tulips’ colors diversified and intensified, and before long the tulip was on the move. From Central Asia, the tulip made its way to Turkey and then on to Europe, meeting with great adoration.The Ottoman sultan Ahmed III (1673-1736) famously loved tulips, hosting numerous lavish festivals and celebrations in honor of them. A period of time known as the “Tulip Era” (1718-1730) speaks to the craze that enveloped the Ottoman royal court, with elite members of society planting tulips throughout their gardens. Tulips first appear in Ottoman art in the 1540s and soon were proudly displayed on clothing, hanging textiles and yes, tiles! Here too the tulip became entwined with notions of nobility, privilege and royalty.
This flower wasn’t just for royalty though. In the 17th century, a whole country went mad for it! Between 1634 and 1637, tulips swept the Dutch into a mass frenzy that has become known as “tulip mania.” In the 1600s, the Dutch dominated many of the global maritime exchange and economic systems, pushing many merchants into the upper echelons of society. And what flower says “I’ve arrived” better than the tulip? Soon, gardens all over the Netherlands were filled with blooming tulips. At the height of “tulip mania,” one tulip sold for the equilvalent of an Amsterdam riverfront estate. To put this in contemporary terms, this is equivalent to a New York townhouse on 5th Avenue, on in monetary terms, 10 or 15 million dollars, for a single tulip bulb — how crazy is that?!
As with all good things, “tulip mania,” with its vastly overpriced bulbs, came to an end, or more of an economic meltdown, really. The Dutch passion for the tulip aesthetic had spurred one of the largest investment bubbles in history. Despite this sordid past, few nations today love the tulip more than the Netherlands. Growers, who grow billions of
bulbs a year for export, call thier passionate love for thier work “tulip fever.” I too have “tulip fever,” just as I suspect the sultans of the Ottoman empire and the potters of Iznik, Turkey did; and I think they would concur — it’s quite a lovley burn!
Now whenever I gaze at the Iznik tiles in Foyer, my mind drifts to the curious fact that flowers have attracted our ancestors for millennia and, despite time and distance, that a long-dead Ottoman Sultan and I might both adore red tulips! Today, Turkish potters continue to manufacture high-quality copies of long loved Iznik tiles. These new Iznik tiles are destined for a range of domestic and foreign markets (obviously I’m not the only one who likes staring at Iznik tiles!). So the next time you are taking in a piece of artwork you’ve never seen before, I encourage you to let your mind wander where it will. There’s no telling how deep the roots grow, until you dig!
For those interested in further exploring the above topics, I recommend reading Islamic Tiles by Venetia Porter (Interlink Publishing Group, 1995), The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan (Random House, 2002) and “The Flowers Found with Shanidar IV, a Neanderthal Burial in Iraq” by Arlette Leroi-Gourhan in Science (1975). And please do feel free to post questions or comments regarding your favorite things in Shangri La’s collection!