Seventeenth century Ottoman velvet brocade featuring fan-like carnations with a fill of tulips, roses, and hyacinths. Photographs: Lara Mehling, Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Prof. em Christophe Girot | Landscape Architecture

Turkey Red: Ottoman Decorative Arts at the Root of the ‘Parterre de Fleurs’

This dissertation project sets out to trace the transregional and transmaterial journey of the quatre fleurs, four of the most popular flowers featured in Ottoman decorative arts – the tulip, rose, carnation, and hyacinth – as they made their way from the wild desert landscapes of Central Asia to the ornamental flower parterres of European baroque gardens. The project presupposes that until the advent of a large-scale globalized market for luxury goods in the 18th century, decorative floral motifs still reflected not only local traditions in the arts and crafts but also the botanical legacy of an entire region. As such, parallel developments in horticulture and visual culture at the Ottoman court in the sixteenth century led to a new floral style, which reflected the empire’s unique geographic convergence of aesthetics and flora. Through an investigation into both the cultivation and woven representation of the tulip, rose, carnation, and hyacinth along this westward journey, the dissertation suggests that the parterre de fleurs in France has its roots in Ottoman decorative arts.


Understanding the garden itself as one of the decorative arts opens up a rich vocabulary with which to read the Ottoman landscape imagination. Gardens may be rooted in place – bound by the environmental factors of a particular site – but they also grow out of a design culture built on the transmission of a host of portable elements including seeds and plants, gardeners and designers. As bulbs are transplanted and craftsman relocated, floral designs flourished by changing hands; that is to say, they were translated from one material to another. Equally ‘restricted’ by a bounded surface, a garden is nonetheless unique in that it is made up of live material, subject to seasonality, maintenance, and perspective. A shifting foreground and background mimics the skilful nesting of Ottoman surface patterns just as shifting a field of colour into focus reveals more detailed shapes, forms, and perhaps a pleasurable scent or sensation.

While Islamic and European gardens have been well studied in their own contexts, even with a diachronic perspective, they are rarely examined in dialogue with gardens from neighbouring territories. This project aims to tell a shared history by taking an interdisciplinary approach – embracing both garden design and the decorative arts – and a cross-cultural lens focused on the Ottoman Empire as a cultural and geographic bottleneck between Persia and Europe. Taking into account the considerable influence of foreign artists, particularly Persians, on local styles, the research focuses on the role of the Ottomans in synthesizing a great stylistic and horticultural inheritance from Central and West Asia into a new and early modern floral style for Western consumption during the last period of great botanical exploration. The timeframe is thus defined by the productive era of floral transfer in horticulture and visual culture in the second half of the 16th century, from the establishment of the new quatre fleurs decorative style at the Ottoman court around 1550, and the nearly simultaneous arrival of the first tulip in Western Europe, to the first integration of West Asian flora into late Renaissance gardens and nascent baroque flower parterres at the end of the century.


Doctoral student: Lara Mehling
Advisor: Prof. Christophe Girot

Ongoing project