Trade was thriving. “Large quantities of glass, expensive fabrics, gold jewellery, glasses, paper, soap and clocks… were exported from Venice to the east,” says archaeologist Lilijana Kovacic of Dubrovnik Museums. “From the Ottoman Empire to Venice came large quantities of cereals, as well as objects of applied arts, raw silk, cotton, silk fabrics, mohair wool, leather, camel-hair fabrics, horse equipment, arabesque-decorated weapons, pottery and a variety of curiosities.”
If the sunken ship off Mljet was carrying such goods, most failed to survive the ravages of time, but much of the pottery seemed to have been carefully stacked in wooden barrels and wrapped in straw or linen, explaining its excellent state of preservation.
“At auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s, prices for such individual items have reached £30,000 and more,” says Igor Miholjek. “I’m pretty sure that the ‘pizza plate’, as we call one of the plates found off Mljet, would earn us at least that much, as it’s very well-preserved, with a nice glaze.”
Some sections of the ship’s belly and its wooden parts remain.
Not that any of the finds are for sale. All the Iznik pottery found at Sveti Pavao is being treated as part of Croatia’s cultural heritage.
Turkish art historian Dr Nurhan Atasoy, probably the world’s leading expert in Iznik pottery, has written that the fact that the finds had been loaded aboard a ship for export to European customers “explains the existence of the coats of arms of selected families on individual examples of Iznik pottery, found in the collections of European nobility.
“A wide selection of patterns in this collection and the intricacy of the paintings indicate the broadness of artistic creativity”.
Experts examining the pottery were surprised to learn that it included as many as four of the five styles of pottery decoration developed by that period in Iznik. Each Ottoman Sultan cultivated his own Iznik master, who developed his own decorative style, and before the wreck was found it had been assumed that these styles were discontinued whenever a new Sultan succeeded to the throne and picked a master.
However, the finds demonstrated that styles survived both master and sultan – probably because of consumer demand.
Following painstaking restoration work, the CCI and the Mimara Museum in Zagreb first exhibited the Sveti Pavao Shipwreck finds in 2015, accompanied by a catalogue that allowed even a layman an insight into their significance.
“Negotiations are now taking place about exhibitions in London, Marseille and Piran [in Slovenia],” says Miholjek. “People understand that this is a unique discovery on a global scale.”