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Miniature is the descriptive paintings put to enlighten the text in handwritten manuscripts. The root of the word is based on the word to paint with red, which is miniare in Latin. In Ottoman language, miniature was called as “nakis”, and the artist of it was called as “nakkas”. The earliest examples of the Turkish miniature art are seen in the Uighur period in the 8th-10th centuries. In the Uighur miniatures describing the texts of Mani religion; the priests, the people establishing foundations, musicians had been pictured. After the year 750, the Uighurs concentrated on the portrait in their miniatures and tried to reflect the personal features in the human face. Instead of the former schematic pictures; the Indian, Chinese and Persian people were reflected with their features. The wall pictures in the cities of Kizil, Bezeklik and Hotan where the Uighurs had lived, make us to think that the source of the miniature art is this region.
The miniature manuscripts belonging to the Seljuqs between the 11th-13th centuries are varied in the subjects as science, positive sciences and literature. The book named De Materia Medica, as to mean “On Drug Information” of the famous scholar Dioskorides (40- 90), the astrological book Kitab Suvar-el-Kevakib-es-Sabita (964) , as to mean “The Fixed Stars” of the Arabian astronomer Es-Sufi, Otomata of the Artuklu Engineer Cezeri (12th – 13th century), the book Kitab-i Tiryak (1199) about the antidotes attributed to Pseudo-Galenos are the books which had the subject of positive sciences; Makamat, Kelile and Dimne, Kitab-el-Aghani, as to mean “The Book of Songs”, Varka and Gulsah are the works which have literary subject. In the miniatures of these manuscripts, the types of Christian, Habes, Sami and Seljuq people are seen together.
After Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror conquered Istanbul (1453) and made it the capital of the Ottoman Empire and after settling in the Topkapi Palace, he established a palace miniature workshop here. In this workshop, the figure program of the period had been determined by the master miniaturist, a team of miniaturists of more than one had worked under the master miniaturist for the miniatures. From the uncompleted miniatures, it is understood that first the figure was painted on the paper and then the details were painted. Fatih inviting to the palace the important painters of the 15th century like Gentile Bellini and Costanzo de Ferrara from Italy and making them paint his portrait, had affected the palace miniaturists and changed their point of view about the portraits in the miniatures. In the album called as Fatih Album in the Topkapi Palace Museum Library, there are miniatures with the signature of Muhammed Black Pencil. These miniatures, in which the effects of China and Uighur are seen, are the miniatures that were freely made without basing them on a manuscript. It is thought that they are related to the sects, because of the clothes, features, demons of the figures and the subjects that are dealt with; and they are produced by more than one artist in the sect workshops. It is observed that the miniatures have both literary and historical subjects in the classical period. Most of the literary manuscripts are the miniature copies of the Farsi classics or Turkish works of Ali Sir Nevai, Hamdi Celebi, Fuzuli. The historical miniatures developed mainly with the history manuscripts; show that one of the most important characteristics of Ottoman miniature is the effort to reflect the history. The first Ottoman history is the Tarih-i Al-i Osman written by Fethullah Arifi, the sehnameci, as to mean the history writer in the period of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. These miniatures depict the Ottoman state structure and social atmosphere, the civilians and military staff circling the Sultan; the composition schemes and iconographic characteristics in these miniatures guided the succeeding periods. While documenting the historical events, the Ottoman miniaturist had headed for the topographic miniatures and they had pictured the nature and the residential areas with all their details. The famous miniaturist Matrakci Nasuh had gone to Hungary and Iraq military expeditions with Sultan Suleyman and in his most famous work, Mecmua-i Menazil he depicted more than 100 cities and towns from Istanbul to Bagdat and Tebriz with all their details. Another famous miniaturist of the Sultan Suleyman period, Nigari had developed the portrait mentality coming from the Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror period and pictured I. Francois and V. Karl other than Sultan Suleyman. After the second half of the 16th century, the miniature art has attained its classic state with the Nakkas Osman and his school in the palace miniature workshop. Nakkas Osman and his school had been assigned in a great number of manuscripts as of the reign of the Sultan II.Selim (1566- 1574). The primary works are: Hunername, Sehname-i Selim Han, Tarih-i Sultan Suleyman, Sehinsehname, Nusretname, Surname depicting the festivals of the circumcision feast of the Prince Mehmet, the Sultan portraits album Kiyafet-ul-insaniye fi Semail-el-Osmaniye, Zubdet-ut-Tevarih depicting the history of the prophets, Siyer-i Nebi depicting the life of Hazreti Muhammed which have all historical subjects. Nakkas Osman and his school preferring a plain arrangement without details in the miniatures; had arranged the people around the Sultan, who was always portrayed on a big size, according to their importance with a circular arrangement. They pictured the figures in connection with their looks and hand movements. In the Topographic depiction, all the details and the unrealistic colours like pink, green and purple in pastel tones used for the depiction of the nature are again the continuation of the topographic picture tradition. In the miniatures, they pictured every kind of person with different expressions and movements, away from monotony. At the beginnings of the 17th century, the historical subjects were replaced by the album pictures including one-page miniature. These miniatures, in which different subjects and people had been pictured, had been done with a free arrangement without a hierarchic order. The engravings and similar equipments coming from Europe at that period had compelled the miniaturists to perspective practices. Naksi, one of the miniaturists of the Sultan II.Osman period (1618- 1622) had worked on portrait and perspectives in the miniatures of Sakayik-i Numaniye and had been copied by the successive miniaturists. One of the famous miniaturists of the 18th century is Levni. Levni and his school had created a new style by using perspectives, light-dark shades and the real colours in the nature in the miniatures. One of the most famous works of Levni is Surname which depicts the circumcision feast of the children of the Sultan III.Ahmet. Levni had also pictured figures from different sections in different clothes as single. Both Levni and Buhari, another famous miniaturist of the period had worked on single figures; they pictured the figures in the clothes of the period while they are holding a flower, playing, taking a bath in the bathhouse in a realistic way. Ali Uskudari had also depicted flower pictures fitting the Tulip Period; the poetry books of the period had been decorated with flowers like tulip, rose and hyacinth. At that period, the clothes albums had popularized and they continued to be pictured in the 19th century. Moreover, the sultan portraits and Mekka, Medina, the holy relics, tuba tree in the prayer books had been pictured in three-dimensional way and perspective had been applied.