Opening "Letters in Gold"
- Opening "Letters in Gold"
* Sakip Sabanci, head of Turkey's leading financial and industrial
conglomerate Sabanci Holding, sees fine art as a bridge to human
and international relations
* This is the first time that an exhibition devoted exclusively to
Ottoman calligraphy has been shown in the New World
* Islamic calligraphy has always occupied a central position in the
arts of Islam
Istanbul - Turkish Daily News
The "Letters in Gold: Ottoman Calligraphy from the Sakip Sabanci
Collection, Istanbul" opens today at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in
New York, giving visitors a chance to see some of the best examples in
the largest private collection of calligraphic work in Turkey.
Sakip Sabanci, head of Turkey's leading financial and industrial
conglomerate Sabanci Holding, sees fine art as a bridge to human and
international relations and is very proud to offer this first
exhibition dedicated exclusively to Ottoman calligraphy.
The exhibition has been made possible by Sabanci Holding/Akbank of
Attending the opening are Berna Yilmaz, the wife of Turkish Prime
Minister Mesut Yilmaz, State Minister Cavit Kavak and Culture Minister
For the next three months the Sabanci Calligraphy Collection will show
American art lovers one of the historic and cultural treasures left
from the Ottoman Empire. The collection includes works ranging from
the 15th to the 20th century.
The opening starts with the raising of the exhibition banner on the
front of the museum, where it will remain over the main entrance door
for the three months that the exhibition is up. In the evening the
exhibition will be viewed by specially invited guests. This will be
followed by a cocktail party, a performance of the Mevlevi Dance Group
and a gala dinner in the Egyptian Temple of Dendur recreated within
Seventy-one exceptionally fine examples of Ottoman Calligraphy are
included in the exhibition, such as Kuran manuscripts, albums, large
scale decorative inscriptions and firmans (decrees by the Ottoman
sultans). This is the first time that an exhibition devoted
exclusively to Ottoman calligraphy has been shown in the New World.
In addition to the calligraphic works, three very valuable paintings
from the Ottoman period will be shown. These are "Mosque Door," by the
last caliph Abdulmecit Efendi; a self portrait of Osman Hamdi Bey
reading a Kuran; and Sevket Dag's "Inside the Mosque," in which he has
portrayed the Aya Sofya.
Calligraphy -- spiritual geometry
An aesthetic dictum found in early Islamic sources says that
calligraphy is "a spiritual geometry produced by a material
Experts at the Met say that because it was originally formalized from
the need to transcribe the Kuran in the seventh century, Islamic
calligraphy has always occupied a central position in the arts of
Islam. One could define it as writing of aesthetic value in characters
based on the Arabic alphabet and script.
Through the centuries, the greatest master calligraphers developed
different styles, always striving for balance, elegance and harmony in
their work. From the early, angular so-called "kufic" script,
calligraphy later evolved mainly into a cursive style (generally
called naskhi) in the 11th to 12th centuries. According to the various
calligraphic styles that developed, cursive script was assigned
different names often based on the relationship between the height and
the width of the letters and of their endings.
Development of Ottoman calligraphy
As Ottoman calligraphy evolved from the 15th century, soon after the
Ottoman army captured Constantinople and the sultan made it his
capital, this art form flourished and was embellished by great
masters. Featured in the exhibition are works by the most important
masters including the highly celebrated Seyh Hamdullah.
Among the variety of works in the exhibition are lavishly illuminated
copies of Kurans and other manuscripts with religious contents;
murakkaas (calligraphic albums, often of horizontal format and
sometimes mounted in an accordion-type binding); and individual leaves
from such albums (called kit'as), frequently framed with marbleized
The exhibition also includes large calligraphic compositions of pious
inspiration, called levhas, including one by Sultan Mahmut II from the
19th century, which were intended for framing and were usually hung in
religious buildings (they were written in large script in order to be
legible from a distance and were ornamented with artistically
decorated borders); another type of large, vertical panel for the same
purposes as the levha, called hilye, which were usually mounted on
wooden boards; and finally a number of long scrolls containing
official documents such as imperial edicts or firmans, warrants and
patents. These scrolls always included a tugra, the splendid and
imposing imperial monogram of the sultan currently on the throne, at
The exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art continues until
December 13, 1998. After that it will travel to the Los Angeles County
Museum of Art where it will be on show from February 25 to May 17.
Thoughts on my collection*
I would like to express my gratitude for the opportunity to exhibit a
selection of Ottoman calligraphy from the Sakip Sabanci Collection at
such prestigious, world-renowned institutions as The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The
Sakip Sabanci Collection of Ottoman Calligraphy includes works dating
from the 15th through the mid-20th century and is the largest such
private collection in Turkey. It is particularly satisfying for me to
be able to share with an American audience this remarkable art that is
so emblematic of my own national heritage, but which is still little
known in the West.
Among the many glorious arts of the Ottoman period, pride of place was
given to calligraphy, which was regarded as the most prestigious form
of art. The Ottoman sultans, some of whom were themselves accomplished
in the art of writing, supported calligraphers in much the same way as
princes and wealthy patrons in the West sponsored painters. Again, as
in Western painting through the 19th century, Turkish calligraphers
shaped their art through study and emulation of the works of earlier
masters. Apart from the obvious beauty of Ottoman calligraphy, what
most appeals to me is the important relationship between master and
apprentice and the infinite capacity for this art to renew itself from
one generation to the next. This notion of respect and veneration for
earlier generations has special resonance for me.
My father, Haci Omer Sabanci, was born in the village of Akcakaya, in
central Anatolia, the son of a poor family of farmers. He did not have
the opportunity to go to school; he did not learn to read and write.
At the age of 20, he left home in search of work, walking 125 miles to
the city of Adana, where he began working as a laborer in the cotton
fields. He took advantage of the opportunities offered to him and
finally became the owner of a cotton yarn and textile factory. In
time, his business grew, and he moved to Istanbul. Although Istanbul's
cosmopolitan environment gave my father a healthy appetite for art and
culture, and he began to collect antiques, he never forgot his roots.
My father instilled in his children a pride in our heritage; we are as
closely linked to our past as we are to one another. He also
inculcated in us a deep appreciation for education and a love of art.
As part of the modernization movement initiated by Mustafa Kemal
Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, the Latin alphabet was
introduced in 1928 and the Arabic alphabet was virtually abandoned. I
belong to the generation that learned to read and write modern
Turkish. Although I do not know the Arabic alphabet, Ottoman
calligraphy has become my main focus as a collector. Initially I was
attracted by the beauty and majesty of this art form, later on I came
to understand the importance of protecting and preserving Ottoman
calligraphy so that it might be appreciated by a new generation in
Turkey and elsewhere.
I am enormously pleased to offer the first exhibition in the New World
dedicated exclusively to Ottoman calligraphy and to introduce to an
American audience the rich culture exemplified by these works of art.
*From the introduction to the catalogue for the exhibition "Letters in
Gold: Ottoman Calligraphy from the Sakip Sabanci Collection,
On becoming a calligrapher
Imagine a small boy growing up in Istanbul in, let's say, 1600. The
Ottoman Empire is still the biggest one in the world and all the world
comes to its capital, Istanbul. This little boy would go with his
father and older male relatives to a local mosque every day to pray,
and on special occasions they might attend prayer services at one of
the imperial mosques such as that of Fatih Sultan Mehmet, Sultan
Beyazit II or Suleyman the Magnificent, or of one of the grand viziers
or other important officials at the Ottoman court. In any case, he
would see the names of God, the Prophet Mohammed and the caliphs who
led the Muslims after the death of the prophet painted on the walls.
Many Kurans, some of them quite ordinary, but perhaps some beautifully
decorated and skillfully written, would be available for those who
could read them.
All of these books would have been handwritten, because we are talking
about a time before the printing press was available. Writing these
books was a labor of love, a means of showing one's skills and
discipline and a way to earn money for the truly talented.
Of course, this young boy could easily learn the Arabic alphabet,
which was adopted and adapted to the Turkish language, and the Kuran
at the many schools that were run by the various mosques. But suppose
he wanted to learn to be a calligrapher.
First, his father would have to find a calligrapher who was willing to
take him on as a pupil. Then the boy would have to demonstrate that he
had some aptitude and the capacity to learn the script in which that
particular calligrapher was an expert. And this wouldn't be easy.
While he was learning to draw the letters and unlearning the bad
habits he had picked up at the school he attended, he would also learn
how to choose the reeds which made good pens, how to make his own ink
and where to find the ingredients with which to make it. He would
learn about the different qualities of various paper, their
durability, possibly even bookbinding, and he would learn the various
traditions of how to treat the material to be copied and how to
decorate the manuscript pages in pleasing ways. For instance, a reed
pen and the shavings left from sharpening it could never be thrown
away if it had been used to write even just one line of the Kuran.
The secret behind good calligraphy is attributed to the skill of the
writer, who may have taken four years or more to become good enough to
qualify for a diploma certifying his ability. A well-designed
calligraphic work of art or even a good "hand" is based on the space
given to each letter and ligature, the length of the lines of the
letters and words and the thickness of each stroke of a letter.
Then one is faced with the knowledge that there is more than one style
of writing to be learned, so it is no wonder that the strict
discipline of each style militated against experimentation.
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