This luxuriously published catalogue is that of an exhibition of international dimension on Safavid court art, organised in the Louvre Museum with participation of numerous public and private collections from the whole northern hemisphere, including that of state museums of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The result of a project driven from its beginning to its achievement by the famous historian of Iranian art Asadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani, the exhibition itself is distinguished by the presence of works of art of an exceptional quality and resonance. The catalogue is introduced by several important historical chapters: on the main figures of sixteenth-century miniature painting in the schools of Herat and Tabriz (Behzad, Sultan Muhammad, Mir Musawwir, Mir Sayyid ‘Ali, and Dust Muhammad); on the gnostic symbolism and literary references of banquet (bazm) scenes, in miniature painting and metal ware; on the gradual “discovery of reality” in miniature painting from the mid-sixteenth century onwards, partly under the influence of European easel painting; on the role, influence and personal evolution of Iranian painters exiled at the Mughal court.
The catalogue properly said is composed, for each exhibited item, of a large colour photograph and a short descriptive notice followed for many of them by the author’s considerations on their respective style, origin and symbolic content. As usually in his numerous previous publications, the organizer has selected key pieces bearing a clear testimony of the substantial relations between craftsmanship and learned culture in the Persian world. Particularly relevant for the readership of the Central Eurasian Reader are A. S. Melikian-Chirvani’s considerations on the lasting impact, as far as miniature painting is concerned, of the late Timurid school of Herat. The catalogue attests of this school’s extension throughout the sixteenth century under Safavid and Shaybanid domination, especially under the Governor Qulbaba Kukaltash (see for instances notices Nr. 14, 32, 33, 49, 76-8). Besides the illustration in Herat of themes linked with the Shaybanid court, the catalogue also offers interesting testimonies of the Iranian popularity of miniatures from Bukhara, showed by their sporadic presence in sixteenth-century Safavid albums (muraqqa‘s: e.g., notice Nr. 169).
More generally speaking, the author’s insisting questioning on the boundaries of “historical Iran”, on what is Iranian and what is not find their illustration in A. S. Melikian-Chirvani’s overall aporia as to the regional attribution of some major works of art, still very much disputed between eastern Khurasan (out of present-day Iran, in the remembering realm of Turan) and the western or central, so-called ‘Turkmen’ schools of Persian miniature painting (see the notices Nr. 6-7, on illustrated pages of a manuscript dastan of Jalal and Jamal preserved in Uppsala). From the viewpoint of this delicate, strictly apologetic issue of court art as support for national identity, the most telling of the author’s digressions is probably made by his paragraphs on the figure of Rustam, a key character of Firdawsi’s Shah-nama and the embodiment par excellence of Iranian virtues and identity, though himself a hero originating from Sistan, the former kingdom of the Sakas outside Iran’s trans-historical territory. And the most telling item of the catalogue is perhaps its very last exhibit (Nr. 189), a light-green glazed ceramic ewer (aftaba), the form of which is directly inspired from Hindustani metal ware, its decoration being an interpretation of Chinese celadon porcelain of the Ming era: Nothing perhaps could be more Iranian (or at least more Safavid) than this genuinely moving, surprisingly coherent and sober piece of art, the result of technical borrowings and stylistic adaptations of elements of varied geographical origins outside Iran, imported in great number during the Safavid period through the open, avid emporia of the Persian Gulf.