There are a thousand and one ways to look at these miniature paintings of Persia (scheduled to open at the National Gallery of Art and the Freer Gallery today). They can be read for the wonderful tales they tell, of heroes' battles with dragons, of princesses surprised at their baths, philosophers at their meditations. They can be delighted in for their glorious colors, lapus lazuli and gold, silver dust and copper, purple and verdigris. They can be combed for their depictions of a world of domes and arches, walled gardens, tents hung with carpets and flags; of moon-hued rocks and turbaned courtiers in gauzy costumes. And they can be admired for the brilliance of their designs, where graceful line, accurately rendered bits of nature and dynamic pattern are combined in ways studied yet spontaneous, that attracted the admiration of western artists from Rembrandt to Matisse, including Mary Cassatt, who gleaned from her collection of Persian paintings ideas for her own graphics.
Indeed these marvels of eye, wrist and hand speak of a civilization in an early flush of zest. A century later, Safavid genius would be poured into the literal architectural wonders of cities like Isfahan, but in the early 16th century the conquerors were still consolidating their power, forging an entity out of a shifting past. So these works recount, too, the history of this region of salt deserts and bare rocky mountains, crossed by caravan trails between China and the Mediterranean. Through these wastes and rich settlements conquerors had swept from before the time of Alexander the Great. In the 16th century the empire was still prey from both west and east to Ottoman Turks and Mongolian Uzbeks. And where military power was established -- by tribe, horde or imperial legion -- there also artists were cherished: musicians, scribes, leather workers, metalsmiths and masters of the paintbrush.
Shah Tahmasp, son of the founder of the dynasty, was born in the western Iranian city of Tabriz in 1514, only seven years after his father had claimed it for his court. His posthumous and idealized portrait can be seen at the Freer Gallery, but from scattered references, one can catch the essence of a man of his time, torn between love of art and need to do battle, between sensuous appetite and puritanical conscience, between useful enjoyment of the fruits of high birth, and the skepticism and even disregard of old age.
Like his own brothers and also like their High Renaissance counterparts in the West, Tahmasp was raised to be both warrior and nurturer of a civilization. If the Medici kept Michelangelo and Rafael at their labors (the Sistine ceiling was finished just two years before Tahmasp was born), the rulers of Islam also haunted their imperial workshops. There they hovered with their beloved artists over paper and pigments and also the texts of old legends, romances, poems and philosophical discourses that the paintings -- in view of Moslem law against graven images of sacred scenes -- were destined to illustrate.
At the age of 2, Tahmasp was sent to the older, more cultured eastern Iranian city of Herat for a stage as "governor." There, a workshop was in flower under a painter of fabled genius named Bihzad. Only three or four of his works are known today. One is owned by the Freer and is on view now: a naturalistic view of a ruminating philosopher in a peaceful landscape. Tenderly, it seems, Bihzad welcomed the little future ruler to his atelier, so that when, later, Tahmasp returned to Tabriz, and then, at the age of 10, succeeded his father to power, he had the old master brought west to run his Imperial Library. With him, Bihzad brought some of his own artists, who in years to come would lend their more refined influence to the style of the Tabriz masters. For the art of the western capital, closer to the realm of the Turks, was as one might expect, more "barbaric" in feeling, visually startling and expressionistic, an art of bold pattern and emotional, even mystical inspiration. Master of the Tabriz atelier was the famous Sulan-Muhammad.
From around 1524 whenTahmasp came to power until around 1550 when Sultan-Muhammad died and the Shah, impelled by more practical necessities, turned away from the arts, the masterpieces of his reign were produced. And of these the greatest -- indeed one of the greatest illustrated manuscripts ever produced in the world -- was a Shahnameh, or history of the legendary kings of ancient Persia.
The text was old even then, a compilation from all history transcribed by the poet Firdawsi in the 10th century. His epic, in thousands of rhymed couplets, placed these mythic rulers in the same environ from which also had come many of the images of the Old Testament.
So one can see in these pages images familiar to Christian art in the West: winged beasts, angels with rainbow-hued wings, Gardens of Eden and laden fruit trees. Shahnameh paintings are also replete with romantic, jovial and bloodthirsty events like polo games and battles fought upon horses that leap like ballet dancers doing "arab-esques." In one, we see old Firdawsi himself biding his time in a garden. In another, we see the legendary first ruler, Gayumars, whose subjects dressed in animal hides and lived in harmony with the beasts.
In all, Tahmasp's Shahnameh contained 258 paintings by 15 different artists spanning two generations. Saved from holocaust and depredation for three centuries, it was as complete and complex in its inner structure as, some scholars have maintained, that Sistine Chapel with which it was practically contemporary.
Gradually, however, Tahmasp, it seems, lost his interest in art. When he was but 20, he had already renounced the pleasures of "pulverized emerald" and "liquefied ruby" -- hashish and wine. Disciplinary measure followed measure, now against extremist mystical Sufis and invading Ottomans, now against Uzbeks. Tahmasp's own brother defected to the Turks and took his artist to Istanbul. The artist "Dust Muhammad," who could not live without liquefied ruby, went off to India and there lent his influence to the emerging Mughal style of painting. Indeed, a full gallery of Mughal works at the Freer shows the influence upon them of the art of Tahmasp's court.
In 1556, six years of Sultan-Muhammad death, Tahmasp ended his affair with visual delight by banning secular art throughout his empire. But by then he had nurtured a spiritual heir, his favorite brother's son, to whom he gave his daughter for a wife, whom he appointed governor of the city of Mashhad and allowed to take his court artists along with him. Twelve years later Tahmasp made a gift of his Shahnameh to the Turkish Sultan in Istanbul, whence it was transported by caravan, an event so festive it was rumored throughout the courts of Europe.
In Istanbul, the Shahnameh was preserved in the Topkapi Library until the late 19th century when it was somehow acquired by Maurice de Rothschild in Paris. Eventually, almost all the other great illuminated books of Tahmasp's time was dismembered and sold piecemeal, so that of these 130 paintings to be on view in Washington only a few remain bound in their covers, and those at the Freer. Dr. Esin Atil, curator, has heard urgings that she dismember these volumes to exhibit their illuminations seriatim. But she prefers to retain the books' integrity. One must be grateful to her.
By sad contrast, the great Shahnameh has been dismembered in this very decade by its owner, the American collector Arthur A. HougtonJr., donor of the Houghton Library to Harvard, bibliophile, trustee or officer of many cultural institutions including the Library of Congress. Houghton purchased the book for a relative song, in the light of today's market, in 1959. Shortly thereafter, he began his incursions upon it, first with a gift of 78 pages to the Metropolitan Museum, then by a public auction sale in London and since then by private sales to individuals. Fourteen of those sold have been borrowed back for this exhibition, after which they risk vanishing out of the reach of scholarship or public enjoyment forever. Pages from that quondam entity, now ironically known among scholars and dealers as The Houghton Shahnameh, were being marketed only last summer when 17 were offered for sale again in London. Considering that pages are thus being "actively traded," it seems questionable that the National Endowment of the Arts should have contributed federal funds to the handsome presentation of those still in the collector's possession.
When Tahmasp died in 1576, a rival murdered the favored nephew and claimed the power. Tahmasp's daughter destroyed the last great manuscript of the era that was now closed, lest it fall to enemy hands. There are many forms of destruction. As political turmoil gathers beyond the seas, and economic turmoil persists here, bringing moral turmoil in its wake, may one not even think with some nostalgia of the harsh times of old, when masterpieces were made and traded for prideful love and, tragic as it was, destroyed out of prideful will, not for mere private gain?
For all these many reasons, here are two exhibitions to imbed in one's memory.