15th century CE
Materials and technique
Ceramic; fritware, underglaze painted in blue and black
Height 30.7 cm
This albarello has large inscriptions painted in black and blue and written in thuluth style with very slender downstrokes against a background of fine, rolled stems with foliage. A piece comparable to the calligraphic vase is known and housed at the National Ceramic Museum in Sèvres. It is an albarello with a thicker shape, decorated in blue and white only and presenting the same kind of writing stretched in length adapted to the vertical form of the base. The inscription was deciphered by Kalus who suggested that it was a text relating to impotence and erection, no doubt in connection with the pharmaceutical content of the vase. It might be that the inscription - unread - on our albarello also related to the substance which it contained. This type of high, narrow cylindrical vase seems to have appeared in Iran, in the eleventh or twelfth century, before spreading around the Near East. The elegant hourglass shape profile was readily adopted from the end of the twelfth century in Syria. It is generally thought that these albarelli were used to store pharmaceutical substances or perfumes and could be exported - especially to Europe - with their contents. Various French, Spanish and Italian inventories of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries mention ceramic items “from Damascus”. Thus, the Medici archives indicate the presence of albaregli damaschini in Florence. These albarelli were part of a blue and white design production, with borrowed Chinese references, which developed in Syria, but also in Egypt, probably from the end of the fourteenth century on, under the influence of mostly imported Yuan porcelain. The Syrian production is exemplified in a small blue and white plant-decorated bowl, kept in the Louvre museum, which bears on its underside “Made in Damascus”. Excavations in Fustat also unearthed a significant number of blue and white fragments, sometimes with the addition of black, often bearing signatures of potters. This sort of blue and white Chinese-type decoration is also often seen on wall tiles in Syria, Egypt and Anatolia, taken from monuments dated between 1425 CE and the end of the fifteenth century, which help to establish a date for this production. It should be noted, however, that the calligraphic albarello exhibits a colour scheme that includes black in addition to the blue and white. Ceramic wares decorated in these colours have a history of production in Iran during the Il-Khanid period (1256-1353 CE). While also almost certainly inspired by Chinese blue and white porcelain wares, the use of black appears to be an Iranian addition to the decorative scheme, found on numerous ceramics as well as in the architectural decoration of some Il-khanid tombs in Yazd. With the close contact existing between the Mamluks and the Il-Khanids in both times of war and diplomacy, it would not be far-fetched to suggest the additional possibility of Chinese inspiration through an Il-Khanid filter.
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