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An Italian Portrait of Mehmet–the Conqueror

Invented in Iraq in the ninth century, the luster technique enjoyed long and wide popularity. Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Islamic-controlled Spain all developed important centers for luster production—and so eventually did Renaissance Italy. This plate is an interesting illustration of exchange: it was made using an Islamic technique in an Italian workshop, and depicts Ottoman sultan Mehmet II, the Conqueror, who captured Constantinople in 1453.

East or West, the technique for making lusterware pottery was a closely guarded secret. An Italian in 1558 wrote, “Many potters make the luster kilns on the floors of houses which are locked and under close guard, for they look on the manner of making the kiln as an important secret and say that in this consists the whole art.”



Lusterwares made in Valencia, Spain, began to be imported to Italy in large numbers in the fifteenth century. They brought much higher prices than local pottery and inspired Italian craftsmen to develop their own wares. Because the island of Majorca was one of the trading centers that brought these goods into Italy, lusterware came to be called maiolica. Major centers of Italian maiolica grew up in the towns of Gubbio and Deruta, where this plate was probably made.

Pious Muslims followed Muhammad in eschewing vessels and tableware made of gold or silver. Probably this is one reason for the highly developed artistry of Islamic ceramics, especially the costly and difficult technique for producing the metallic sheen of lusterware. Vessels were fi red with an opaque glaze. Then designs were painted in oxides of silver or copper and the vessel was fi red again in a smoke-filled kiln. This oxygen-free (reduction) atmosphere drew off the oxygen from the metallic oxides, leaving behind a thin fi lm of metal. Probably the process was first developed by glassmakers in Egypt and Syria. From the mid thirteenth century until about 1340, Kashan in northwestern Iran was the major center for lusterware vessels and tiles. Tiles, in fact, were more important than dishes—

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