Beyond “Ottoman Baroque”: The informal assemblages of domestic environments of 18th century Wallachia

Author: Roxana Coman

13 May 2022

Is it Westernization? The historiographical debate

A close look at 18th century Wallachian archival records for house sales, wills and dowry lists provides insight into the owner’s social status, aesthetic and personal preferences, but also about various social and cultural conventions. Another way of looking at the material culture of the residential or the domestic environment of the so-called “Phanariot period” would be to navigate between localism and trans-regionalism, and between formal and informal.

The Romanian historiographical discourse still delineates between East and West as two opposing and reified notions, and I have previously approached this binary as one that divides. A paradigm shift is evident in the Wallachian society and can be traced in all of society, but is it still possible only to think in an East vs. West dichotomy? When it comes to the East-West dynamic of the 18th century, a comparative overview of Romanian vs. Turkish historiography would reveal both similarities and differences. One of those similarities is how in the Romanian academia the presence of Western material culture has been used to argue in favor of perceiving the 18th century as less backward, corrupt, and dark, and how the Turkish one demonstrates a similar endeavor.

Can Erimtan demonstrates how the notion of the Tulip Age came to be the epitome for a Westernization of the 18th century Ottoman society avant la lettre: “The idea that the reign of Ahmed III witnessed a break with Ottoman tradition also seems to have taken root in the West, as illustrated by the case of the prestigious Encyclopedia of Islam.”[1] Harold Bowen, in his entry on “Aḥmad III” in the Encyclopaedia of Islam, claims that “the twelve years ensuing on the peace of Passarovitz [1718–1730] witnessed a remarkable change of taste in poetry, music and architecture and a new inclination to profit by European example”[2]. Selim Karahasanoğlu, challenging the paradigm of the Tulip Age as a time of hedonistic and overly lavish consumption in the Ottoman Empire, introduces another aspect relating to 18th century elite households’ consumption[3]: the presence and expenses of servants, minor employed administrative officials, friends and family that were always a part of the daily expenditures and, most importantly, beneficiaries in the household’s owner testaments. Moreover, his study, using expense lists of the Nevșehirli Ibrahim Pașa, demonstrates that the latter’s household actually ended up spending less and less with each year that passed.

With Romanian art historians such as Adrian-Silvan Ionescu who consider the similarly constructed historiographical period known as the Phanariot period or century[4] as an anomaly in the history of Romania, and historians such as Bogdan Murgescu[5], Nicoleta Roman[6] or Constanța Vintilă-Ghițulescu[7] who provide a more nuanced perspective on the social, economic and political dynamics as they are reflected in material culture, it is worth to reconsider the 18th century household beyond the dividing concepts of East and West. As I mentioned above, both Turkish and Romanian historiography have witnessed a continuous interest in the 18th century, and a comparative approach reveals some similar historiographical formulaic patterns.

In an earlier study, Rhoads Murphey, questioning if and how can we speak of a Westernization of the 18th century Ottoman society during the Tulip Period, states that “indeed, when the Ottomans did begin their institutionalized response to the challenge of the West in the 1771’s with the creation of entities such as the Hendeshane-i Hümayun, founded in 1773, it is clear that these entities themselves were not truly European imports, but hybrid creations bearing a distinctly Ottoman mark which the superficial veneer of European-style organizational structure masked only imperfectly”[8]. Therefore, a possible approach to domestic, household environments of 18th century Wallachia would go beyond the debate whether the presence of Western-produced objects alongside with Ottoman material culture could be a sign of Westernization and view them as by-products of the economic and social dynamics. One possible interpretation, significantly explored in research until now, will be to approach them as items of prestige, of social status. Another one would be to follow patterns of consumption in a center-periphery dynamic. I would argue in favor of viewing them as informal assemblages where the elements are not as significant as the relations between them.[9] One of the possible arguments against using the concept of Westernization would be the fact that when it comes to 18th century Ottoman society is that research does not and cannot use styles to describe/ascribe interiors, but rather prefers “patterns of consumption”. A possible question regarding the informality of interior assemblages in the Ottoman Empire would be if we could look beyond patterns of consumption and determine if the presence and preference for certain items could be seen in the framework of trends or phenomena, but without having to use Western concepts of style and cultural trends to analyze the processes.

Beyond “Ottoman Baroque” and into the worldly goods

Jane Hathaway analyzes Ottoman households, implying that, if for the viziers the imperial model was the one that provided the standard, when it came to local, provincial notabilities, the ayans, would follow in the footsteps of the vizier households.[10] This type of pyramidal approach could be understood also in the framework of the Ottoman system of allegiance, were the vizier, acting as the representative of the sultan, was owed submission and respect by those who served him. Since Hathaway considers that “ayan were a more fluid and diverse category of people at various stages of localization, reflecting the manner in which the household allowed for exchange between the Ottoman imperial center and Ottoman provinces”[11], could we view the local Wallachian political and economic elites as belonging to this fluid social class? If so, could we view their households as reflecting the taste and consumption of the imperial center? By appealing to the 18th century documents and analyzing their contents, we could consider their assemblage as more than a Westernizing trend and symptomatic of a prestige type of approach, but also as a form of belonging and creating common ground with the imperial center.

Suraiya Faroqhi defines the Ottoman Empire’s consumption as “everything that is acquired with the intention of use, as opposed to resale, regardless of the manner of acquisition”[12]. Additionally, when it comes to the dynamic between production and demand in the Ottoman empire, the consumer can dictate or influence production. Faroqhi, using the example of a certain preference in Ottoman 18th century society for Venetian velvets or French silks, emphasizes the need to see the Ottoman consumption patterns as more fluid than in other cases. Regarding the gender dynamic of consumption, women are seen mainly as the consumers, in terms of textiles, jewelry and slave women or hajj associated services, whereas men can be both producers and consumers.

In terms of the East-West impact on consumption patterns, Faroqhi, after discussing Hatice Sultan’s 18th century Sahilsaray (built in collaboration with Antoine Ignace Melling and sporting a classicist façade similar to the popular 18th century French one), she continues to use the same paradigm shift frame to speak about the Westernization of Ottoman society in the late 19th century. Faroqhi used the example of Hacı İbrahim, a tanner from Bursa, with an estate inventory in the will dated at the end of January 1790: “There were four velvet cushions (yasdık) (1600 akçe) and a second lot of the same, but of greater value (10 cushions worth 8100 akçe); two velvet cushion covers were also in evidence. These items were complemented by six sofa spreads, some of them from woolen cloth (four pieces worth 5250 akçe), while two others had been made out of the more modest cotton known as yemeni. All these textiles were brand new. Hacı İbrahim’s house also boasted a new carpet (5252 akçe), two prayer rugs of probably modest dimensions and/or quality (550 akçe and 170 akçe respectively) along with a third one, new and more valuable (2050 akçe). There was also a fairly expensive kilim […], a carpet in the Uşak style […], a clock that struck the hours (çalar saat […]) and another with a visible pendulum (pendül saat […])”[13]. This demonstrates the informality of the Ottoman households’ assemblages in terms of material culture with items having diverse geographical provenance and varied values.

When it comes to the study of consumption and material culture of 18th century Wallachia, researchers have relied mostly on written sources, while using the material evidence present in Romanian museum collections as supporting what the documents revealed. As Jane Hathaway has mentioned that, in the case of local Ottoman elite, there is a significant presence of local products, one cannot help but notice the usage of terms such as German (Romanian nemțesc, sometimes a term used as loosely as a la Franga to nominate Western products), Polish (Romanian leșesc) or from Vienna (Romanian Beci) together with sehan (Ottoman sahan), hataia (Ottoman hatay), peșchir (Ottoman peșkir), etc. when it comes to Wallachian archival sources. However, unlike the Bursa, Istanbul or Van case studies discussed by Suraiya Faroqhi or Amanda Phillips, where the estates and goods were always appraised using the Ottoman akçe and kuruş, Wallachia seems to be using a variety of currencies, starting with the Ottoman ones and continuing with Dutch and Austrian thalers.

In a comparative approach with the Bursa and Istanbul examples discussed by Suraiya Faroqhi or Amanda Phillips, a summary incursion in the 18th century Wallachian documents offers insight into how much emulation existed in the Danubian Principalities for Ottoman imperial center tastes, how many products that could be sourced locally can be found, and what type of Western products were consumed by the local political and economic elite.

On June 13, 1720, Sister Maria, the former wife of the priest from Ghidu, leaves in her last will and testament (Romanian diată) her house to her nephew, and her household objects to various relatives and acquaintances so that they are able to perform certain prayers for her soul (sărindar – a prayer that is performed during the first 40 days after the death of a person to ensure the soul’s rest and its ability to pass through the heavenly borders). “To the church where I will be buried, I gave a carpet, a scoarță [piece of textile that was weaved in home], a silver shield and a silver bracelet. (…) I have left for another sărindar to Vasile the priest, 2 large pewter tepsi, and two small ones, and a pewter gourd [Romanian clondir], and a large sehan [quite possibly Ottoman sahan], and 30 yards [Romanian coți] of cloth [Romanian pânză].”[14]

A few years later, in Bucharest on May 18, 1726, Iordache, the son of Ion Botezat, leaves his house to the Metropolitanate for his burial arrangements. “Iordache asks for his horses and horse equipment to be sold for 20 thalers and for a blue conteș without fur lining to be sold as well as for 12 thalers to pay for sărindare [prayers recited by a priest in the first 40 days after death]. He leaves a number of debts to be paid to several people and merchants, and items among which a clock (Romanian ceasornic) that was left as a guarantee for a debt of 9 thalers, another broken clock (Romanian ceasornic) to Batestii clockmaker for 3 thalers, to give the money and take the guarantees.”[15]

In a study from 2004, Gheorghe Lazăr speaks about the merchants of Wallachia as a distinct elite class, one that similarly to the bourgeoisie sought to emulate the habits and lifestyle of the aristocracy, in this case, the boyars. Lazăr considers that the merchant class aspired to “acceder à l’honorabilité” therefore, the impulse to create domestic environments that combined certain items of material culture transpires from archival documents.[16] For a house that the merchant Teodor Ciuncu wanted to build near Bucharest at the end of the 18th century, he placed an order to fellow merchant associate Hagiopol from Timișoara for three iron heating units (Romanian sobă).[17] A significant number of Romanian historians have engaged with and focused on the commercial networks between Bucharest and Transylvanian merchants, namely from Sibiu and Brașov, two cities that have actively maintained an intense trade with Wallachia and have been granted a significant number of commercial privileges by a series of hospodars. These trade privileges with the merchants from cities as Brașov or Sibiu allowed and accounted for the presence of Western produced items coming from Leipzig or Vienna.

On April 17, 1781, Barbu Știrbei, a serdar, asks” for a crate of plates, meaning a table set for 24 persons, with everything necessary, and 24 napkins and their table, and a German tent, of the ones that you will see fit. (…)” Three years later, in Râmnic, on August 10, 1784, Gheorghe Jianu, Șătrar places an order with the Hagi Popp merchant house from Sibiu for “for the porcelain service, I’ve written to sor Raicovici to Vienna (Romanian Beci) to buy them to be from one set of 48 persons, so that I put them in three crates.”[18]

When it comes to the dowry lists, the number of household items increases since the dowry was both a transmission of goods, but also a document that emphasized prestige and exhibited the wealth of the bride’s family. The dowry list of Ruxandra Krețulescu, dated March 22, 1779, contains, among others, the following items: “four pillows made of Brocard (Romanian frînghie), one duvet made of silk (Romanian atlaz), one duvet made from hatay (Romanian hataia) embroidered with flowers in metallic thread, two large pillows with metal embroidery, four small pillows, and one bed cover embroidered with metallic thread, (…) a special table with a peșkir [embroidered tablecloth], 12 tablecloths embroidered, a tablecloth made from Polish fabric, […] 12 pairs of knives with silver handles and their spoons, one silver saltshaker, 12 silver plates, 12 brass plates, 12 brass trays (Romanian tepsii), a mirror with embroidered cover with metallic thread, one ewer with its basin, two candlesticks”.[19]

A few years later, the dowry list (Romanian foaie de zestre) of Elenco Bălașa for her marriage with Doctor Constantin Darvari in Bucharest in 1791 notes the presence of quite a significant quantity of silver items. “160 thalers – silverware, with six pairs of knives with their silver spoons, and six zarfs, and the silver small jam plate with its teaspoon, and tray, everything made of silver. 50 thalers – a table set, for a big table of 8 meters (Romanian 18 coți) and another small one of 2,60 meters (Romanian 6 coți), and 24 napkins, wide and thin, and a sewn towel and 2 face towels (Romanian peșchir). 200 thalers – A set of bed sheets and covers. 20 thalers – a ewer and its basin. 6 thalers – 2 candlesticks.”[20] The informal assemblage of Western, Ottoman and local products is quite evident in both cases. The use of informal as a concept in these cases is even more appropriate because in dowry lists, it was truly important to follow certain unspoken social and cultural conventions, and the items that were passed down from one family to the other were intended to be useful in the new household that was formed through marriage, often as alliances between elite families.

Therefore, discussing the presence of Western sourced items only through the economic lenses would ignore the buyer’s agency, the particular context of the empire in the 18th century, and certain social and cultural conventions. I would argue that the informality that demonstrates similar patterns in 18th century household assemblages would benefit from seeing them from the social and cultural dynamic of the empire, their contents reflecting the imperial court’s tastes, the accessibility of certain items, Ottoman legislation targeting the non-Muslim population, the social pressure for the owner to display a certain status, personal preferences, etc. A comparative and more in-depth analysis would reveal significantly more information on the Wallachia/Moldavia- imperial center dynamic and would perhaps re-phrase the discourse on reified geographic constructs of East and West. Since current research tends to focus more on using entanglements instead of cross-cultural exchange or paradigm shifts, and against seeing the Ottoman empire as a monolithic, uniform entity, I would argue for an approach that explores the fluid interactions between the center and the provinces, and between Muslim and non-Muslim population.

[1] Can Erimtan, Ottomans Looking West? The Origins of the Tulip Age and Its Development in Modern Turkey, London et al.: Tauris Academic Studies, 2008, here: 1–5.

[2] Harold Bowen, “Aḥmad III”, in: Encyclopaedia of Islam (Second Edition), 269–271, here: 270.

[3] Selim Karahasanoğlu, “Challenging the Paradigm of the Tulip Age: The Consumer Behavior of Nevşehirli Damad İbrahim Paşa and His Household”, in: Living the Good Life. Consumption in the Qing and Ottoman Empires of the Eighteenth Century, edd. Elif Akçetin & Suraiya Faroqhi, Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2018, 134–163.

[4] Adrian Silvan-Ionescu, Mișcarea artistică oficială în România secolului al XIX-lea [‘The Official Artistic Movement in 19th Century Romania’], București: Editura Noi Media Print, 2008.

[5] Bogdan Murgescu, Țările Române între Imperiul Otoman și Europa Creștină [‘The Romanian Countries between the Ottoman Empire and Christian Europe’], Iași: Editura Polirom, 2012.

[6] Nicoleta Roman, “Iordache Filipescu, the ‘Last Great Boyar’ of Wallachia and His Heritage: A World of Power, Influence and Goods”, in: Cyber Review of Modern Historiography, 21 (2017–2018), 106–122.

[7] Constanța Vintilă-Ghițulescu, Patimă şi desfătare: Despre lucrurile mărunte ale vieţii cotidiene în societatea românească (1750–1860) [‘Passion and Delight: On the Small Matters of Daily Life in Romanian Society (1750–1860)’], București: Humanitas, 2015.

[8] Rhoads Murphey, “Westernisation in the Eighteenth-Century Ottoman Empire: How Far, How Fast?”, in: Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 23/1 (1999), 116–139; here: 118.

[9] On this particular discussion on whether Westernization can be used to analyze the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century, see the studies of Artan Tülay who calls the term “Ottoman Baroque” a misnomer, while Ünver Rüstem in his recent book Ottoman Baroque: The Architectural Refashioning of Eighteenth-Century Istanbul argues that instead of seeing 18th century Ottoman architecture as derivative, we should view it as the empire’s cross-cultural exchange with its Byzantine legacies and as a rebranding in terms of intensified East-West contacts. That is why an approach beyond the use of a Western concept as the Baroque could provide a different understanding of the East-West dynamic of the 18th century Ottoman Empire.

[10] Jane Hathaway, “Households in the Administration of the Ottoman Empire”, in: Türklük Bilgisi Araştırmaları. Journal of Turkish Studies, 40 (2013), 127–149; here: 130.

[11] Hathaway (see fn. 11), 134.

[12] Suraiya Faroqhi, Stories of Ottoman Men and Women. Establishing Status, Establishing Control, Istanbul: Eren Yayıncılık, 2002; here: 125.

[13] Faroqhi (see fn. 13), here: 124–125.

[14] Copy Condica de zestre (1699–1841) a familiei Darvari [‘Dowry Registry (1699–1841) of the Darvari Family’], doc. 137.

[15] Academia Română [‘Romanian Academy’], CCCLXXV-38.

[16] Gheorghe Lazăr, “Lux și ostentație la negustorii din Țara Românească (secolul al XVIII-lea – începutul secolului al XIX-lea)” [‘Luxury and Ostentation at the Merchants from Wallachia (18th Century – Beginning of the 19th Century)’], in: Revista Istorică, 15/3–4 (2004), 171–178.

[17] E. Limona & D. Limona, “Negustori bucureșteni la sfârșitul veacului al XVIII-lea. Relațiile lor cu Brașovul și Sibiul” [‘Bucharest Merchants at the End of the 18th Century. Their Relations with Brasov and Sibiu’], in: Studii. Revistă de Istorie, 13/4 (1960), 123.

[18] Nicolae Iorga, Scrisori de boieri și negustori olteni și munteni către Casa de negoț sibiiană Hagi Pop [‘Boyars and Oltenia and Wallahia Merchants’ Letters to Sibiu’s Hagi Popp Merchant House’], Bucharest, 1906.

[19] Foaia de zestre, ANR, fond Cretulescu Lahovary [‘Dowry List, National Archives of Romania, Cretulescu Lahovary Fund’], d. 4, f. 58.

[20] Copy after the Condica de zapise (1699–1841) a familiei Darvari [‘Document Registry (1699–1841) of the Darvari Family’], doc. 42, Al. Saint-Georges collection.

Dr. Roxana Coman is a researcher working on the topic of Ottoman material culture and private 19th and early 20th century collections in Romania. After obtaining her PhD in 2016, Roxana Coman continued to research the dynamic between the presence of Ottoman material culture in Wallachia and Moldavia, and the national state of Romania’s strategies to deal with its Ottoman legacy. She is currently a Post-Doc fellow at the Orient-Institut Istanbul and a member of the “COST Action EuroWeb: Europe through Textiles: Network for an integrated and interdisciplinary Humanities”.

Citation: Coman, Roxana, Beyond “Ottoman Baroque”: The Informal Assemblages of Domestic Environments of 18th Century Wallachia, Orient-Institut Istanbul Blog, 13 May 2022,


Ottoman Empire; Balkans; 18th century; research project; material culture; households; wills; dowry lists; consumption studies; historiography; informality; OII-History & Life Narratives