Thursday, 15 July 2010

The World's Most Famous Museum Carpet: The Ardabil

LONDON; July 17, 2010 – The world's museums are full of splendid carpets but the most famous of all is the Ardabil.

One big reason is simply its size: 38 feet long (11.5 meters) by 18 feet wide (5.5 meters).

That is so large that the curators of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London had to make a choice.

They could either keep it on permanent display or not display it at all, because it would be far too much work to just bring it out occasionally.

So, the V&A built a special gallery for it where it is spread in its full glory across the floor and is protected by a glass box.

The Arbabil draws huge numbers of visitors every year and that brings us to the second reason for its fame.

It has a stunning floral medallion design whose center seems to radiate like a sun, transforming the world around it into a sacred-feeling space.

There are very few people who do not feel its power.

On the carpet is an inscription which reads:

I have no refuge in the world other than thy threshold.

There is no protection for my head other than this door.

The strength of the carpet is no accident.

It is one of a pair of matching rugs woven around 1539-50 for a shrine to the spiritual father of Persia's Safavid Empire. It was intended to be, and is, a symbol of power, respect, and holiness on an imperial scale.

How the Ardabil survived almost 500 years and finally came to a London museum is a fascinating story in itself.

But telling it means first describing the origins of the Safavid Empire and the man whose shrine it was made for.

The shrine, in the northwestern city of Ardabil, not far from Tabriz, honors Shaykh Safi al-Din, who died in 1334.

The Shaykh was a plain-living Sufi mystic who inspired a large following at a time when Tabriz was the center of a powerful Turkic state.

His followers remained loyal to his family after his death and the movement grew until, 150 years later, one of its leaders was strong enough to launch a revolution.

That leader was Shah Isma'il, who seized Tabriz in 1501 and, within a decade, all of Persia.

He and his followers, known as Qizilbash (Redheads) for their distinctive turbans with a tall and slender red cone, were messianic warriors who made their brand of Islam, which by now had become mainstream Shi'ism, their empire's state religion.

Ismail and his warriors were Turkmen and spoke a Turkic dialect close to today's Azerbaijani.

But they also were fluent in Persian, the empire's administrative language, making them acceptable to much of the landed gentry.

They dubbed their empire the Safavid – after Shaykh Safi – and it lasted until 1722.

The Safavids inherited the court workshops of Tabriz, Herat, and other leading cities from Persia's previous dynasties and soon began creating their own royal masterpieces.

The design of the Ardabil carpet, woven under Ismail's son, Shah Tahmasp, shows many of the artistic trends already evident in the earlier Timurid era.

Most striking are the resemblance of its medallion design to the format of contemporaneous book covers and the resemblance of its floral pattern to floral designs in miniature paintings.

Here is a miniature painting by one of the most famous artists of Shah Tahmasp's time, Mirza Ali.

It depicts the musician Barbad who hid in the branches of a tree to audition for one of Persia's legendary early shahs after he had been barred from the court by the ruler's jealous leading singer.

The artist has given the figures from ancient times the distinctive Qizilbash turbans of the Safavid court.

Many art historians believe that some miniature paintings not only inspired carpet designs but that some illuminators may also have directly designed carpet patterns.

That is because leading court artists freely crossed between artistic disciplines to help create or influence a unified "court style" identified with a particular monarch.

According to E. J. Brill's comprehensive First Encyclopedia of Islam (published 1913 – 1936), "under Shah Tahmasp excellent painters were employed to sketch carpet cartoons and they introduced human figures and genies into the designs, especially of the large hunting carpets." (see Portable Paradises: The World Of Safavid Garden Carpets)

Interestingly, Shah Tahmasp himself was an accomplished amateur artist who is often said to have designed carpets. He was trained, like many Persian nobles in "the arts of the book," including calligraphy and illustration, and kept a retinue of artists around him.

The twin Ardabil carpets were woven, most likely in Tabriz, when Shah Tahmasp undertook the expansion of the shrine in the late 1530s.

The goal was to expand it as a place of pilgrimage but also, some historians believe, to provide a burial chamber for Tahmasp himself.

Here is a diagram of the floor plan of the Ardabil shrine showing the two carpets' placement.

In fact, Tahmasp was not buried at the shrine, but the idea of creating a mausoleum might help account for the inscription which appears on both carpets.

The inscription (quoted above) is a couplet by the fourteenth-century lyric poet Hafiz. Under it appears the name of the master artist who apparently oversaw the massive weaving project, Maqsud of Kashan.

But how did one of the splendid Ardabil carpets come to rest in a London museum?

In fact, both of them arrived in England around 1893 virtually in tatters. For centuries they had withstood heavy wear in the shrine but as Persia's fortunes rose and fell both they and the shrine were badly neglected.

Carpet historians believe – though no documents prove it -- that both pieces were sold around 1890 to the English carpet producer Ziegler & Co., which had workshops in the northwestern Iranian city of Sultanabad.

The shrine's curators are presumed to have sold the carpets to pay for repairs to the building after it suffered heavy earthquake damage

A British carpet broker then acquired both pieces and used parts of one to repair the other. The result was one 'complete' carpet and one incomplete.

The complete carpet came to the attention of the V&A. There, William Morris, the pioneer of the British Arts and Crafts Movement and one of the V&A's Art Referees, pressed hard for the museum to buy it.

The V&A did so partly by using a public subscription to raise the then vast sum of £2,000.

The existence of its incomplete twin was kept secret by a succession of private owners for many years. It was only revealed publicly in 1931 at an exposition in London.

The "secret" carpet – smaller than the V&A's and borderless – eventually passed into the hands of American industrialist J. Paul Getty and from there to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

It too, is a marvel but due to the ironies of fate, must live forever in the shadow of its better-known twin.




Thursday, 1 July 2010

Portable Paradises: The World Of Safavid Garden Carpets

TABRIZ, July 3, 2010 – There are few things more appealing than a portable paradise.

So appealing, in fact, that in the early decades of the Safavid dynasty in Persia, portable paradises were not only created, they were taken to the highest level of royal art.

The paradises were lush gardens full of trees and animals and they were portable because they were carpets.

They could be rolled out at will in a noble's tent as he campaigned in dry and parched landscapes and instantly the setting would be transformed into a dreamscape of the highest refinement.

The Safavid paradise carpets contained forests of cypress trees and flowering trees teeming with leopards, lions, deer, peacocks, and flying birds. There were fantastic creatures as well, including Chinese phoenixes and sometimes houris.

Some of the carpets were with medallions and some without. When there was a medallion, it might be transformed into a pool with ducks floating on its surface.

How appealing the gardens were can be easily seen in the picture of one of them above. It is a part of a carpet that today exists in two halves, one in a Paris museum and one in Cracow.

Exactly why so much attention and expense was lavished upon garden carpets at this moment in Persia's long history is unknown. But the answer may be in the fact that the times were tumultuous and the first Safavid Shahs, who were still consolidating their empire, had to spend much of their lives in the field.

Here is a photo of a now lost fragment of another Persian carpet which once belonged to Hungarian tycoon Baron Hatvany. It was lost in the turmoil of the 1930s.

The central medallion of the carpet fragment depicts the encampment of a shah on a military campaign or hunting party. The garden around it is fanciful but the details of the royal pavilion are true to life.

Venetian traveler Michele Membré described the encampment of the second Safavid Shah – Shah Tahmasp - in his account 'Mission to the Lord Sophy of Persia (1539–1542).' He describes a ruler who spent so much of his time campaigning that it was his camp, not the capital city, that was the focus of royal life:

“The tents which Shah Tahmasp had in his company were many, according to what I was able to count with my own eyes he seemed to have 5,000. Of horsemen, as it seemed to me, he had 14,000 in number, without counting servants. Of horses and mules he had so many that they could not be counted. All the plains were full of animals.”

He goes on to say that the royal tents or pavilions were “made of sticks of gilded wood in the form of a dome and covered with scarlet. Upon the cloth is foliae, cut out and sewn with silk. Within, on the ground there was a red felt, lined with a kind of wool canvas, and over the said felt there were very fine carpets of silk, on which appeared figures of many animals and foliage.”

The complex of royal pavilions included an audience chamber -- or divan -- a bath, sleeping quarters and not far away a tent for the miniature painters who were part of the Shah's retinue. The presence of the painters allowed the Shah, who was an amateur painter himself, both to enjoy painting as a pastime and to receive reports on the progress of the royal illuminated manuscripts he commissioned.

In other words, this was a time not only of portable paradise carpets, but of portable court life in toto. The miniature painters whose company the Shah enjoyed produced what was the most valued art of all: illustrated books of poetry or tales of past kings. The books, too, were a moveable feast for the eyes.

Here is a miniature painting showing precisely the sort of royal encampment seen in the medallion of the garden carpet and described by the Venetian traveler. The painting is part of Shah Tahmasp's Shahnameh, the book he commissioned to illustrate the poet Firdawsi's epic saga of Persia's kings. It was painted circa 1525.

It is interesting to note that the first two Safavid shahs – Shah Ismail and his son Shah Tahmasp – were so busy campaigning that they, in fact, largely neglected their official capitals.

Art historian Sussan Babaie describes how much so in the book "Hunt for Paradise: Court Arts of Safavid Iran 1501-1576" that accompanied a major exhibition of early Safavid art in New York in 2003/2004.

She writes that “in the historiography of late medieval and early modern Persianate architecture, the 16th century appears to be an anomaly. No single building from the period, for example, could remotely compete with the monumental achievements in the arts of the book (the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp) or of weaving (the Ardebil carpet).”

One reason why both Shahs may have neglected their capital Tabriz was that it was on the frontline of their continual struggles with the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottomans captured and looted the city several times, so making investments in the usual fixed forms of royal art – large monumental buildings – was decidedly risky. Tahmasp finally moved the capital to the safer city of Qazvin but remained more interested in the portable arts than in architecture.

At the same time, both of the earliest Safavid shahs may have preferred the relative privacy of portable art for both religious and political reasons.

Babaie notes "the war-ravaged state of affairs in the newly minted empire and the messianic zeal of the young Ismail whose dream of establishing a divinely inspired utopian empire on earth precluded public displays of wealth and consumption."

Later Safavid Shahs settled down to a more traditional royal life and built great monuments. Most notable of all was Shah Abbas I, who moved the capital to Isfahan in 1598 and created a model of urban beauty.

But throughout the Safavid period, which lasted until 1736, garden carpets remained highly popular. So much so, that their changes in design to some extent reflect the changes in Safavid royal life itself.

Here is a carpet from the 1600s which contrasts dramatically with those of the century before. The free-ranging forest dreamscape has given way to an orderly orchard with irrigation canals and a central pool.

The carpet, named the “Wagner” Garden Carpet after a German collector, is said to be reminiscent of the royal gardens in Isfahan. It is filled with fruit trees, leopards, gazelles, and even pigeons and butterflies, but it is definitely not portable. Its size is immense: 5.5 meters by 4.3 meters.

It would be wrong to leave the subject of garden carpets without noting that – while they reached a peak of refinement in the Safavid era – both gardens and their depictions have always been part of Persian culture and remain so today.

The first recorded garden carpet can be traced back to the 6th century AD and the Ctesiphon Palace of the Sassanian King Khosrow I.

His carpet – in fact a huge embroidery – used multi-colored jewels to depict flowers and stones bright as crystal to depict running streams. The branches of the trees were of gold and silver thread and leaves were of silk. Unfortunately, the carpet was destroyed in the Arab conquest of Iran, when it was torn up and shared out as war booty.

Here is a photo of another garden carpet, from the second half of the 16th century. It is the Mantes carpet, named after the Church of Mantes outside of Paris where it was discovered before being moved to the Louvre Museum.

Interestingly, the use of the word "paradise" in connection with a garden can be traced back very far indeed – to the time of Cyrus the Great.

Around 540 BC, Cyrus built the largest and most beautiful garden ever recorded at his capital Pasargade, northeast of Shiraz. It was enclosed to keep certain animals in and others out and had rows of fruit trees, shrubs and flower beds. Some of its stone watercourses survive to this day.

Cyrus called his garden a “Paradaiza,” or literally an "enclosed park." The word passed into ancient Greek and from there into most European languages.