Among the most invaluable collections in the Topkapı Palace Museum is its Chinese porcelain collection, displayed in the palace’s Imperial Kitchens (Matbah-ı Âmire) together with the Japanese porcelain collection. This unique collection, which consists of more than 10,000 pieces, is the largest porcelain collection outside of China and is particularly important in that it showcases the uninterrupted historical development of porcelain from the 13th century to the early 20th century. The collection is made up of porcelains manufactured in China for the Islamic markets of the Middle and Near East and in this way resembles the Ardabil collection at the Archaeological Museum of Iran in Tehran. The palace collection is made up primarily of porcelains and celadon ware produced in the kilns of Longquan and Jingdezhen in China during the Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (13681644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. The largest part of the collection consists of richly decorated large bowls and plates suitable for the food cultures and eating habits found in Muslim countries. The current palace collection has been assembled largely by means of war plunder, gifts, and unclaimed inheritances; there are also several purchased works. Although no archival documents concerning orders or direct purchases from China have been found, it is clear from price and auction records from the second half of the 16th century onwards, that Chinese porcelains began to be purchased by court dignitaries and the wealthy.
The pieces in the palace’s Chinese porcelain collection can be classified into four basic types: celadon ware, bluewhites, monochromes and polychromes. Celadon Ware The celadon ware collection of Topkapı Palace is the world’s largest, consisting of 1,354 pieces of which nearly all were made during the 14th and 15th centuries under the Yuan and Ming dynasties. Ottomans, like those in other Islamic countries, preferred celadon tableware because it was believed to reveal the presence of poison. Celadon tableware continued to be used in Ottoman mansions in the 19th century, and was sometimes included in dowries.
Blue-Whites The Topkapı Palace collection includes 5,373 pieces of blue and white porcelain dating from the middle of the 14th century to the 19th century. Nearly all of these were produced in the kilns of Jingdezhen. Among the most important pieces in the collection are the approximately one hundred blue and white pieces dating to the Yuan Dynasty (when China was administered by Mongol rulers and blue and white porcelain was first made) and the early Ming Dynasty. An inscribed Vietnamese vase is also included. The blue and white porcelains of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) reflect not only Chinese culture but also the cultures of the countries to which they were exported. It was at the beginning of the 16th century that products designed specifically for Muslims began to be produced. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), blue and white porcelain began to be produced in Monochromes The palace collection includes 31 pieces of white porcelain; these, which date from the early 15th century, are decorated with either underglaze reliefs or scored embellishments. There is also a very small number of yellow porcelain bowls produced for China’s imperial palace. How these pieces, which are glazed with “imperial yellow” and bear the imperial seal, came to be in Topkapı Palace remains unknown. However, it is thought that they may have either been official gifts or war plunder. As their colour resembles gold, they may also have been used by the sultans during the month of Ramadan. The collection also includes 53 glazed monochrome pieces fired at a low temperature and coloured in various tones of yellow, emerald green and iron red. Also found in the collection are 18th-century examples of Longquan monochrome porcelains featuring celadon glazing and scored embellishments.
Blue and white ewer, Qing Dynasty, China greater numbers but the quality gradually declined: what had been expensive products during the Yuan and Ming dynasties became cheaper and more accessible. The palace’s collection contains 2,680 examples of blue and white porcelain from the Qing Dynasty. Among these are numerous varied pieces from the time of the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1661-1722).
Japanese Porcelains The Topkapı Palace Museum contains approximately 700 Japanese porcelains. Nearly the entire collection consists of pieces produced specifically for export in the town of Arita, on the northern part of the Japanese island of Kyushu. A large number of these pieces were transferred from Yıldız Palace (the residence of Sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876-1909)) to the Istanbul Museum of Ancient Artifacts (İstanbul Âsâr-ı Atîka, currently the Istanbul Archaeology Museum) and from there to the Topkapı Palace Museum in 1927. The Imari blue and white porcelains have an important place in the palace collection. It was in the town of Arita that the Kakiemon, Nabeshima, and Imari styles were developed based on enameling techniques imported from China in the middle of the 17th century. The Kakiemon style, which formed the basis of traditional Japanese porcelain, is represented in the palace collection by a single plate. The collection also features numerous pieces of Imari and Ko-Imari porcelain, most dated to the period between 1690 and 1740. In addition to these, the collection also features Kutani porcelains which were typically produced for export to Europe and in which brick red is the dominant colour; Hirado porcelains, noteworthy for their extremely fine glaze; late 19th-century examples of Seto ceramics, which had first gone into production in 1810; Satsuma bowls whose dominant colours are gold and red; and ceramics made in Arita and known by that name, produced during the Bakumatsu period (18531868).
Polychromes In China, porcelains decorated with polychrome enamels were first produced and exported during the middle period of the Ming Dynasty but it was during the Qing Dynasty that they reached their zenith. The most important group of early Qing porcelains is the group known as Famille verte (Green variety). Green was dominant among this variety’s enamel colours and the palace collection contains 226 examples of Famille verte porcelain as such. Another group was Famille rose (Pink variety), which were produced in the late Kangxi period using rose pink and matte white enamels and were exported in great quantities during the reigns of the emperors Yongzheng (r. 1722-35) and Qianlong (r. 1735-96). The palace collection contains 527 examples of Famille rose porcelain. A set of about 130 pieces of the second half of the 18th century, with enamel decorations and verses in gold leaf from the Qur’an inscribed within cartouches, makes up an important part of this collection.
At the palace in Edirne in 1457, Chinese porcelains were used during the banquet celebrating the circumcision of Sultan Mehmed II’s sons Bayezid and Mustafa. The first record of the use of Chinese porcelains at Topkapı Palace is found in a treasury inventory record of 1496, which mentions six porcelain pieces. From the 17th century to the early 18th century, the number of porcelains found in the palace steadily increased. When, in the time of Sultan Abdülmecid (r. 1839-1861), the imperial family relocated from Topkapı Palace to European-style palaces-first to Dolmabahçe Palace and later to Yıldız Palace. The relocation led to many different changes, among them a change in eating habits as members of the imperial family took on European habits such as eating from separate plates, sitting together around a dining table, and using forks and knives. The European porcelains found in the Topkapı Palace collections date from this period.