Some years before "virtual reality" became a buzzword, a handful of scholars of the Islamic arts of the book were building their own visual pathways into distant times and places.
Painstakingly reassembling centuries-old illustrated books from their long-scattered pages, or folios, these scholars began examining not only the books' exquisite Ottoman, Persian and Mughal miniature illustrations, but also such less commonly noted features as calligraphic style, layout, border decoration and textual content. Though their insights first yielded only academic treatises, they are now are revolutionizing the kinds of exhibitions museums assemble and the way Islamic manuscripts and miniature albums are displayed and appreciated. This "virtual reality" approach has even made its mark in the no-nonsense world of the commercial art market, influencing the prices that Islamic manuscripts command at auction.
This new "contextual" or "holistic" approach demands sophistication and subtlety not only in the scholars doing the work but in the field of Islamic art history itself. As Robert Hillenbrand of the University of Edinburgh explains, scholars from the 1930's through the 1960's "had the task of clearing the ground. As a result, the major aspects of the field began to stand out. You worked out basic chronology, basic schools of art, who the patrons might be. What you didn't do," he adds, "was write a 300-page book about one manuscript."
That kind of specialization is the hallmark of later scholars such as Stuart Cary Welch, curator emeritus of Islamic art at Harvard University. In the late 1960's, Welch collaborated with historian Martin Dickson to produce A King's Book of Kings: The Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp. Published in 1972 by the Metropolitian Museum of Art, it is a landmark study of one sumptuously illustrated 16th-century copy of Firdawsi's 60,000-verse poem. The text is Persia's national epic; the manuscript has York and selling off 62 others. In 1994, Houghton's heirs returned the remaining 118 miniatures and all of the text to Iran in exchange for a painting by Willem de Kooning. (See Aramco World, May/June 1995.)
In the years before Houghton broke up the shahnamah—the word means "book of kings"—Welch spent countless hours examining its miniatures. He recalls staggering upstairs at 4:00 one morning after staring at color slides all night to discover, as he looked in the mirror, that "one of my eyes was literally bleeding."
Welch's intense study of the manuscript allowed him to suggest attributions for individual paintings, determine dates of creation and identify the styles of particular workshops—all the stuff of traditional art history. But beyond that, he became so intimately familiar with this shahnamah that he gleaned insights into a new realm: the book's social and cultural context. He even caught glimpses of individual character and history. "In a moment of poetic enthusiasm and insight," he says, "I wrote that I could see [in one painting] that its author had been to India, and that I could also see from the despair of the composition and the heaviness of it all that he was a very troubled spirit, and I speculated that he was either a drug addict or an alcoholic." "What hogwash," he chided himself later, but he nonetheless related his insight to Dickson, adding that he had identified the artist as the 16th-century painter and calligrapher Dust Muhammad.
A week later, Dickson telephoned. "He had just unearthed a letter from Dust Muhammad," Welch recounts, "in which he said not only that he had gone to India, but that he had gone because [Persia had introduced] a prohibition against wine, to which he was addicted!" The eye-strain had paid off; the insight was real.
Now, museum curators are looking for creative ways to get the public to peer at manuscript illustrations equally closely—though less painfully. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, visitors to the permanent Islamic collection are invited to sit as though before a slanted bookstand and study the folios. London's Victoria and Albert Museum takes a similar tack, placing folios in hip-high standing cases. For temporary shows, the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery of Art now provides visitors with magnifying glasses and what Massumeh Farhad, curator for Islamic art, dubs "leaning rails," mounted underneath the framed folios. "The whole idea," Farhad says, "is to bring people closer to the works. When you have a magnifying glass in your hand, it forces you to lean in." Looking closely makes it possible for visitors to appreciate the individual whiskers of a sultan's beard or the intricate, overlapping patterns that fill the border, and possibly to understand the nature of the time and place that the miniature depicts.
The Sackler introduced the leaning rails and magnifying glasses with its 1996 show "The Art of the Persian Court," and the technique was so successful and cost-effective that the Sackler is using it again for "The King of the World: A Mughal Manuscript from the Royal Library, Windsor Castle." That show, which opened in Delhi in January and traveled to Buckingham Palace before coming to Washington, centers on 44 paintings and two illuminations of the Padshahnamah, a 17th-century Indian imperial manuscript.
The problem with this text, a chronicle of 10 years of the Emperor Shah Jahan's reign, is that it includes flashbacks that complicate the chronology. Moreover, the miniatures were not commissioned for this manuscript, but were cut from existing works and inserted after the completion of the text. So while the paintings, at first glance, seem to illustrate the events described in the adjacent text, closer inspection reveals that they actually depict similar events from a different time, and show different personages.
In putting this show together, the director of the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler galleries, Milo Beach, had to choose between giving visitors either a sense of the period illustrated or an understanding of how the Padshahnamah was assembled. In the end, he made "a slight adjustment" to the order of the illustrations in order to present a chronological visual account of the period. But he also took steps to impart a sense of the manuscript as an integral whole: At the entrance to the show, a low case contains the manuscript's text-only pages, as a visual reminder that the miniatures are part of a larger whole that has been disassembled only for conservation purposes and which, at tours' end, will be rebound into a book. As for the illustrated pages, they hang on the wall like paintings, but facing folios are mounted side-by-side in double frames, to suggest an open book.
This suggestion was carried further with inventive displays by the curators of "Pages of Perfection—Islamic Paintings and Calligraphy from the Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg," an exhibition that opened in Paris in the fall of 1994 and traveled to Lugano and New York. (See Aramco World, November/December 1995.) The show featured what is now called the St. Petersburg Album, its folios mounted in free-standing, double-sided cases that allowed visitors to get almost as close as if they were holding up the open manuscript. The exhibition also featured a 17th-century muraqqa'—a scrapbook of selected texts and illustrations, decorated and bound by or for a particular reader—whose 45 folios are bound in accordion pleats. Curators extended the album like a folding screen so that visitors could view it from beginning to end.
Scholars feel that the holistic viewing experience is more than the sum of its parts. Hillenbrand refers to the placement of illustrations within the body of a text as an example: By highlighting certain passages, the illustrations point out subtle parallels, or drive home particular points, that someone involved in the manuscript's creation probably wanted made. "When you have a manuscript with a large number of paintings, your eyes tell you something when suddenly the illustrations begin to bunch," Hillenbrand says. The effect starts at the subliminal level, and then the parallel or theme "stops being in the outer reaches of the psyche, and comes to the front of your mind."
That delicious moment of insight may happen in the presence of the manuscript or it can take one completely by surprise. Either way, among scholars, it usually marks the birth of a theory.
Collector and historian Abolalla Soudavar was sitting in his home in Houston, Texas when his latest theory was born. He was already intimately familiar with an early-14th-century shahnamah produced for an Ilkhanid Mongol ruler of Persia; its pages had been dispersed—and possibly mutilated—in 1909 by the Belgian-born art dealer G.J. Demotte. Soudavar knew each of its 58 surviving paintings, from the first one, showing Zahhak enthroned, to the last, which illustrated the story of Mehran Setad, King of Persia, sending an envoy to China to select a princess to be his bride.
This manuscript—known as the Great Mongol Shahnamah, or the Demotte Shahnamah—could not have been further from Soudavar's mind as he sat with his son one evening watching a television serial on Marco Polo. At the mention of Persia, however, his ears pricked up, and he listened with mounting interest as the narrator told of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan sending the Chinese princess Cocachin to the Ilkhanid court.
Soudavar immediately checked to see whether the incident appeared in the Persian 14th-century Jami' al-Tawarikh, known as The Universal History. It did. And that sparked his theory that the Great Mongol Shahnamah had been created as a deliberate attempt by the Ilkhanid rulers—invaders and conquerors of Persia less than a century before—to legitimize their regime by assimilating Mongol history into the epic Persian legend. Over the next five years, Soudavar traveled to examine the now-scattered folios in person. At home, he pored over facsimiles and photographs, and he combed texts of the Shahnamah and the Jami' al-Tawarikh and scoured other accounts from the period.
In the end, he emerged convinced that the Great Mongol Shahnamah had indeed been conceived as a propaganda tool for the last great Ilkhanid ruler, Abu-Sa'id. "Intended for the enjoyment of a sophisticated patron," Soudavar writes, this shahnamah "constituted a political manifesto in support of the legitimacy of the Mongols, as well as self-justification for the vizier ... to serve a foreign conqueror."
Art historian Sheila Blair, who did seminal work on the manuscript with Harvard's Oleg Grabar, agrees that the irregular rate at which the illustrations appear throughout the text indicate that the work had a specific purpose. She also agrees that the creators of this shahnamah "were certainly trying to make this point about the legitimacy of the Mongols at the time when the Mongols were ruling Iran." But where Soudavar sees a manuscript designed to set a new standard of quality for future shahnamahs, Blair holds to the conclusions she and Grabar published in 1980: that this monumental work was a one-off literary experiment that was never completed. According to this hypothesis, gaps in the manuscript do not necessarily indicate that certain folios have been lost, but rather that they never existed in the first place.
In speculating on the way the shahnamah was used (or wasn't), Soudavar and Blair touch on what Woodman Taylor dubs the "post-production life of art, where meanings are generated by the audiences who use the work of art." A professor of South Asian and Islamic Arts at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Taylor believes that exhibitions should aim to explore how a work of art "lived" after its publication. This may mean simply mounting folios in double frames that expose both front and back—"to get visitors to think about the fact that this was read," Taylor explains— or staging a "multi-media" exhibition, as he did in 1985 with Hussein Ziai at Harvard University's Fogg Museum. Surrounded by folios from illustrated manuscripts and albums, visitors listened to a musician and a scholar reciting poetry, first in Persian then in English.
In that exhibition, Taylor was bringing together elements of traditional Persian poetry gatherings of centuries past, when poets took turns reading verses, book in hand. "What really got me going was that there are some paan stains [on the manuscript]," he said, referring to the betel-nut concoction commonly chewed in India. For him, the stains illuminated a whole scene: the book read at a poetry gathering, as actually depicted in at least one Mughal miniature, where the poet chews paan while reading poetry, a spittoon standing ready at his side. Each stain was a clue to that manuscript's "post-production life."
Taylor looks at other marks of use, too. Nicked corners imply multiple readings, while a torn corner, meticulously repaired, bespeaks an owner's love for a particular miniature, poem, or passage. Similarly, when Taylor detects overpainting in an illustration, he cares less about the who and when than the why. Had the original been damaged? Did a later user not like something in the original and decide to paint over it? If so, what did he dislike, and why was replacing it worth the trouble?
In this respect, Taylor falls squarely into the camp of the holistic scholars, who look at a work and ask not "who," "where" and "when" but rather "why," "how" and "to what effect"–questions whose answers require, as Welch puts it, "a fanatical devotion over time."
Charyar Adle, an Iranian-born scholar based in Paris, knows it will take even more than that to complete the task he has taken on: To reconstruct a 16th- to 17th-century Mughal album known as the Muraqqa' Gulshan will require not only devotion, but a broad base of knowledge, the resources to travel, the collaboration of fellow experts, and access to private and state collections.
Considered one of the finest Mughal albums ever made, the Gulshan was commissioned by the emperor Jahangir. Its surviving folios are scattered among three museums in the United States, one in Europe, several private collections and the former imperial palace in Tehran. Identifying its various parts is easy, according to Adle: They are just as distinctive in size, style and quality as the folios of the Great Mongol Shahnamah that Grabar and Blair reconstructed. Restoring their original order, however, is another matter.
In the case of the Great Mongol Shahnamah, restoring the original sequence was not merely a matter of shuffling the folios until the text of Firdawsi's poetry read correctly. Not only were some pages missing, but in three places the text skipped from the illustrated front of one folio to the illustrated front of the next, leaving the text on the reverse sides in no relationship to that on the fronts. Out came the magnifying glass, then the microscope—and then Blair saw it. Originally, both front and back of these folios had sported miniatures. Someone had meticulously split each page and pasted the illustrated face onto an unrelated page of text.
"That was a real 'aha' experience," Blair says more than 15 years later. It was also the key to repaginating the manuscript, which laid the foundation for Grabar's and her analysis, as well as that of Soudavar and others.
For Adle and his collaborators, Welch and Beach, repagination of the Muraqqa' Gulshan will prove more difficult. As scrap-book-like compilations of hand-picked paintings, poetry and prose, muraqqa's include no reliable, original page numbers, and the sequence of folios can't be inferred from a continuous text. But there is good news, too. "The more complicated the album," Adle maintains, "the easier it is to reconstitute." This is because it was more thoroughly thought out, enabling Adle and his collaborators to look at such elements as width of the margins, border decorations, composition of paintings, and subject matter to come up with likely matches and sequences.
Even though they can never be entirely sure of faithfully recreating the original, they feel it is worth all the necessary travel, politicking, research, and sheer hard looking to try. "One needs to try to see the art not the way we see it today," Adle believes, "but the way art critics, patrons, and artists of the time understood it." If we succeed in doing that, the works act as windows on the past.
The holistic approach has also had repercussions in the art market. Marcus Fraser, in the Oriental books and manuscripts division of Sotheby's in London, notes that "over the last few decades, there has been a growing attitude that the breaking of manuscripts is not necessary." Furthermore, the price structure has shifted. "From 1979 until recently," Fraser says, "individual miniatures were easier to sell, and they fetched higher prices, than manuscripts of equal importance. Today a manuscript stands a good chance of fetching the same amount, if not more."
Although Fraser attributes the increase in sale prices primarily to the "re-emergence of Persian buyers," there is also a more fundamental reason. To some extent, the market is reflecting what Sheila Canby, an Oriental specialist at the British Museum, describes as a growing awareness "that these [manuscripts] are finite resources and that there is a need to preserve them."
But just as the contextual approach is not universal among scholars, the trend in the art market is neither consistent nor irreversible. London art dealer Oliver Hoare, who brokered the de Kooning deal with Iran, wryly points out that sellers might indeed be inclined to keep manuscripts intact—until they fail to sell that way. After all, he says, "money is the one thing that shifts people's perceptions." He reports that lesser-quality manuscripts are still being split and sold folio by folio, and he sees no evidence of collectors trying to assemble the missing folios of partial manuscripts in their possession.
This is a reminder that, for good or ill, illustrated folios have carved out for themselves a "post-production life" that is independent of the manuscripts they were once part of. And this is not likely to change, for most manuscripts cannot be reconstituted: Their pages are now too widely scattered, and many of them are lost or badly damaged. Even when it is possible, not all art historians agree that physically reconstructing a book or album is the right thing to do, among other reasons because it places the folios out of the view of all but a select few. That is what will happen with the St. Petersburg Album: Beach has been working on determining the original sequence of pages, and when the job is complete, conservators will reassemble the folios and return them to their leather binding.
The muraqqa' from St. Petersburg, how ever, will remain publicly accessible, in a sense, through a high-quality printed facsimile. "We wanted it to be an exact replica," says Francesca von Habsburg, founder and chairman of Art Restoration for Cultural Heritage, which is organizing the project. "But this proved tooI expensive." The 98 folios, which measure 44.7 by 33 centimeters (17.5 by 13 inches), will be reproduced at two-thirds of their original size and printed in four colors plus gold.
Although an expensive proposition, facsimiles are nevertheless a compromise that might become more popular, particularly for famous works. Part of Adle's project, too, would be to produce a facsimile of the Muraqqa' Gulshan.
Another way to retain both the wholeness of a work and its accessibility to the general public are exhibitions in which all the surviving folios of a work are temporarily reunited in a single place. This would be the ideal way to communicate to the public the richness and import of a manuscript like the Great Mongol Shahnameh. Scholars might not agree on how to interpret the manuscript, but they would all love to see its folios reunited, even briefly. Since the Smithsonian's Sackler and Freer galleries own more pages than anybody else, Washington would seem the logical venue.
"Someday it will happen," says Beach. "And it will be a very exciting exhibition."
A free-lance journalist based in Washington, D.C., Lee Lawrence frequently writes about non-Western art and culture for publications in the US and abroad.