The complex history of Safavid ceramics is due in part to the geographical position of Persia, placed as it was between the Ottoman Empire, the lands of Uzbek rulers, the Mughal empire and the Indian Ocean. The Safavid dynasty ruled over Persia (1501-1722) for over two centuries, with the first century proving to be a challenging time on all borders with intense military disruption on the Ottoman frontier.
Collectors in the earlier part of the nineteenth century tended to confuse Iznik and Iranian productions. Later travelers and collectors drew a distinction between Ottoman Turkey and Safavid Iran, and after World War I both collectors and historians concentrated on the long history of Iranian ceramics through the study of archaeological finds from the bronze age up to the thirteenth century when Rayy succumbed to the Mongols in 1220. Even before World War II Arthur Upham Pope in his important Survey of Persian art was mostly concerned with the early Islamic period reaching as far as the fifteenth century, the Timurid century.
A few recent studies have shed some light on Safavid ceramics through petrography, the study of the body fabric, and through the publication of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Safavid blue and white ceramics. A number of buildings with tile revetments such as the tomb of Harun-i Vilayat in Isfahan (1512) and a few dated pieces have provided some help towards a tentative chronology. Without archaeological studies, to this day it has not been possible to provide specific locations of production, yet Safavid potteries can be assigned to certain areas in the provinces of Azerbaijan, Khurasan, Fars, Kirman and presumably around Isfahan.
Whereas a certain unity of style prevailed in ceramics across Timurid lands of the fifteenth century, this was no longer the case in the sixteenth century when the Ottoman court imposed a new style of decoration based on preliminary drawings. In the sixteenth century the shifting of capitals away from Ottoman borders could not have be conducive to the creation of a specific style of decoration. Only the same crackled glaze, three spur marks in the center and free hand painting, appear to unite the production of the so-called Kubachi wares, likely to have been produced in the area of Tabriz. The Timurid style survived for a few decades on large blue and white dishes; they recall the bold flower motifs drawn from Chinese export wares of the Yongle period (1403-1424) until echoes of Iznik designs such as groups of flowers on a pale blue or light beige ground are visible on a few dishes as well as a type of saz leaf used as a repeat.
Some tiles must have been made for the Safavid buildings in Qasvin in the middle of the sixteenth century. Later and well into the reign of Shah ‘Abbas I, further dishes and tiles respond more closely to the court style in manuscripts, as busts of courtiers and even foreigners decorate them. Yet the influx of Wanli (1573-1620) Kraak export porcelain also imposed its designs of panels round the wall, and birds in the center of dishes, both in blue and white and polychrome.
All of a sudden it seems, the entire sixteenth century type of ceramic decoration disappears towards the end of the rule of Shah ‘Abbas I and potteries start responding with great gusto to the arrival of an increasing quantity of Kraak wares on the Persian market with the result that the quality of the white stonepaste and its glaze improved dramatically. The most likely reason for this radical change would be the appearance on the scene of the VOC, the Dutch East India Company, the new international purveyors in bulk of Chinese export wares. Whereas the sixteenth century Iznik production had in no time abandoned Chinese designs, the Persian potter, in his renewed efforts to compete with Chinese wares, made good use of seventeenth century and earlier Chinese models, with his usual freehand approach in adapting original Far Eastern patterns.
At the change of dynasty in China and after the middle of the seventeenth century, new Qing patterns were perceived in Persia throughout the applied arts, when Chinese monochrome glazes influenced yellow, white, green and blue, molded or incised shapes of Persian bottles, bowls and dishes. Some white bowls were carved with “rice pattern” ornaments following the Chinese manner. This is done by cutting the kernel-shaped hole with a small flexible steel lancet. By contrast a group of large dishes strikes a note of elegance which recalls Mughal patterns on jade and encrusted metalwork, as well as earlier Chinese models.
A further new style of decoration, coming closer to textile repeats of flower sprays, included the introduction of pale red, yellow and some green colors alternating with blue patterns on the usual white ground for dishes, qalyans and flattened bottles. Yet a most striking group of bottles, bowls, small cups and jugs, brought to the last half-century of the Safavid dynasty an original touch which owes nothing to Chinese export wares. It is a large series of luster painted pieces where the luster is applied overglaze either on a white or blue glazed ground. These may alternate on one piece, usually a long neck bottle. Most of the decoration relates to the motifs on the golden borders for manuscript paintings. It is the world of peacocks, gazelles, flowers recalling poppies or lotuses, and river banks with trees.
Safavid tiles in Persian architecture remained closer to traditional designs than the variety of ceramic patterns and shapes already described. The tile mosaic tradition is thus carried on from the time of the Aqqoyunlu Blue Mosque (1465) in Tabriz. Yet by the seventeenth century the use of whole tiles has become the faster way of decorating the surfaces of larger public and religious buildings, especially in the new capital of Isfahan, although in Kerman the architectural complex built by its governor Ganj Ali Khan around 1600 was still in part decorated with tile mosaic. Whereas the cuerda seca technique was soon to be discarded by the Ottoman potters in the sixteenth century, this technique held good in Persia throughout the seventeenth and early into the eighteenth century. The numerous religious and formal buildings on both sides of the Zayendeh Rud, the river of Isfahan, were decorated with polychrome tiles, with yellow being used more and more besides blues of several shades, browns and sage green.
One may well ask what happened to Persian ceramics after the fall of the Safavid dynasty. Later potters may have attempted to imitate Chinese peacock feather or robin’s egg glazes of the Qianlong rule, yet two important discoveries took place in Europe in the eighteenth century which curtailed the production of traditional ceramic shapes. In the first place kaolin, one of the two components of porcelain, was discovered in Saxony during the rule of the king Augustus the Strong. In the second place, transfer printing was invented in England by John Sadler in 1755. Specialized painters were no longer required to decorate ceramics, and these cheaper goods could then compete favorably with local Persian production.
Nevertheless under the rule of Karim Khan Zand in Shiraz, elegant tile panels in the style of Famille rose were designed for private houses, madrasas and the Vakil Mosque in 1766. The tile tradition was carried into the Qajar era. Without any doubt and to conclude, Persian ceramics under Safavid rule reached a degree of excellence which was never surpassed in the land of Hafiz and Saadi.