The Houghton Shahnameh
introduced and described by Martin Bernard Dickson, by Stuart Cary Welch
Harvard University Press, Vol. II 564 pp., $2,000(the set)
Although it is at once both more and rather less than an exact facsimile of a supremely rich and richly illustrated sixteenth-century Persian manuscript, this publication of the Houghton Shahnameh puts one uniquely into the position of its first recipient, the Turkish Sultan Selim II. On the big scale of the original itself, it has impressive weight both physically and aesthetically, and enough blazing color to have warmed the winter’s day in 1568 when it reached the Ottoman court. Brought from Tabriz to the sultan’s island palace at Edirne, it was in fact only one of the array of “rare and propitious gifts” the chroniclers describe as chosen and sent by the Shah Tahmasb of Persia and carried by thirty-four camels to celebrate the accession of the new sultan, son of the great ruler Süleyman the Magnificent.
It came along with twenty carpets, a painted tent, a couple of good quality pearls, and a remarkably large ruby. Today you receive it on its own, though in two hefty volumes, and as it were wrapped in a fine, lengthy tissue of scholarly commentary—over two hundred pages of two-column introductory text, not to mention full notes and appendixes. Apart from anything else, it is an impressive piece of printing, elegant as well as luxurious, an ornament to any library or home, though almost too heavy to handle unaided and certainly something of a problem for an average domestic bookcase.
And perhaps it raises greater problems. Before getting down to closer consideration of this combined major monument of Persian art and modern scholarship, one may wonder whether many people outside the small circle of experts are going to be interested. It is of course true that compared with the relative neglect and under-appreciation of Ottoman art, Persian art has for long been held in high esteem in the West, been studied by several outstanding Western scholars, and manages to suggest, even to those who barely know it, a refinement and exquisiteness verging on cliché. “Persian” is an adjective likely to be used by Western art historians praising the line and color of early Sienese painters or Pisanello. Indeed, Lord Clark once moved from analogy to influence and suggested a direct connection between Persian illumination and a paradise garden scene by the Veronese painter Stefano da Zevio.
Yet it would probably be a mistake to suppose that Persian art—or any other of the arts of Islam—has any serious hold on the wider public in Anglo-Saxon countries, despite the treasure of such work in our museums. To be told, as we are told in the work under review, that the original book itself represents the “philosophy of the entire culture” only points to the nub of the difficulty. Neither the philosophy nor the culture is likely to make any direct general appeal. And that is scarcely surprising. There are numerous obstacles at all times, regardless of particular political circumstances, and a prime one where Islam is concerned is inevitably religion …