Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 19, 2006
David J. Roxburgh The Persian Album,1400–1600: From Dispersal to Collection New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. 384 pp.; 51 color ills.; 125 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (0300103255)

From Dispersal to Collection, the subtitle of David Roxburgh’s The Persian Album, 1400–1600, cleverly alludes to several different aspects of this beautifully produced book on the albums of the court elite in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Iran. Its multivalent resonance hints at the text’s intellectual richness. Building on the foundations of codicology, Roxburgh shows that the albums themselves reveal how aesthetics and art history were understood in Timurid and Safavid court culture.

At the simplest level, “from dispersal to collection” refers to the process by which the albums as material objects were produced. These albums are bound codices containing previously dispersed works on paper ranging from calligraphies to paintings to drawings and patterns. The first step in producing an album was to collect such works; these were then reformatted before being bound together. Equally, as a direct quotation from an album preface, “from dispersal to collection” foregrounds one of Roxburgh’s core arguments: that in their original historical milieu, the albums were understood not as random gatherings of materials, but as collections. Further, the subtitle aptly describes the critical shift in methodological approach to albums ushered in by Roxburgh’s work on this topic, which culminates in this book. Traditionally, the contents of these albums have been considered for their relevance to a dispersed range of topics other than the albums themselves. Roxburgh instead attends to the albums as whole objects, as bound collections of works on paper. By recognizing that they were originally understood as collections, and by approaching them as such, Roxburgh reveals the albums’ unique potential as sources for the study of how art history and aesthetics were theorized in premodern Iran.

The first chapter, “The Persian Album,” begins by situating the albums with respect to various other kinds of collections. An initial discussion of some of the precious objects of antiquity kept in Timurid collections establishes that art collecting did indeed exist in fifteenth-century Iranian court culture. This is important because the fifteenth-century Timurid albums have traditionally been considered as random assemblages in comparison with the later more obviously coherent Safavid and Mughal albums. This demonstrates how a positivist linear trajectory of album development (ironically, a possible misreading of the subtitle) can form misguided assumptions about each individual album. Carefully avoiding such a trajectory, Roxburgh explains why the codicological and literary analysis he has presented in previous publications are the prerequisites of this book. They here allow him to consider each album in its entirety, integrating the works each contains with consideration of any preface it may have had.

The second chapter, “First Sighting: Baysunghur’s Calligraphy Album,” concentrates on an album made for the Timurid prince Baysunghur sometime between 1426 and 1433 (Topkapi Saray Museum [TSM], H. 2310). This album contained specimens by the thirteenth-century calligrapher Yaqut al-Musta’simi and six of his students. Roxburgh points out that the album enables one to see canon formation in progress, as Yaqut and his six students did indeed become canonical calligraphers mentioned repeatedly in later texts. Strips of paper cut so as to preserve their calligraphic specimens were arranged and reformatted on new folios, which were then illuminated in a historicizing style. The historicizing style of the illumination indicates an awareness of art as something that changes over time. In Baysunghur’s calligraphy album, art historical consciousness was clearly expressed in art before it was expressed in writing.

The third chapter, “In the Workshop: Timurid Albums,” tackles two albums made for the practitioners of the Timurid workshop, or kitabkhana (TSM, H. 2142 and B. 411). These contain many unfinished works, parts of works, sketches, models, and other byproducts of workshop practice. Their form, which Roxburgh describes as “ad hoc,” has invited modern scholars to mine their contents for parts to be placed piecemeal into discussions of other topics. But, Roxburgh points out, “the impetus to gather and preserve overrode the fact that numerous materials in the albums are eminently discardable remnants of artistic processes” (90). To explain why this was so, he undertakes an in-depth consideration of the kitabkhana as an institution, and of how art was produced therein. It has long been recognized that these particular albums contained models central to workshop practice. Going beyond the identification of such models, Roxburgh treats them as visible traces of an artistic practice built around imitation. He weaves an analysis of that imitative practice together with a consideration of how imitation was theorized. Regardless of the unfinished state of many of the pieces preserved in them, these albums attest to a consciousness of what is copied, emulated, or reworked—in other words, to a consciousness of what becomes part of a history of art.

The fourth chapter, “Reinventions of the Book,” turns from albums (bound codices in which the reader’s experience is fundamentally visual) to books (in which, regardless of the level of visual complexity, text ultimately organizes a reader’s movement through the bound space). Roxburgh examines changes in books that occurred in the fifteenth century, such as increasingly complicated page layouts and the use of diverse papers. He argues that a growing interest in anthologies drove these changes. Once the general changes in fifteenth-century books are articulated and connected to anthologies, it becomes obvious that differences in earlier and later albums cannot simply be explained in terms of a linear progression of album development. Rather, these differences relate to changes in the broader context of book culture. The way this chapter falls in Roxburgh’s book reinforces the point. This chapter breaks from a focused analysis of particular albums, constituting a structural disruption that undermines whatever temptation might otherwise exist to read the more focused studies of particular albums into a linear progression.

The fifth chapter concerns “Three Safavid Albums of the Mid-1500’s.” Each of these articulates the particular nexus of personal relationships in which it was produced and viewed. In so doing, each also articulates how individuals and the links between them mark a history of art that was theorized in terms of biography. The first of the albums was assembled for Shah Tahmasp by Shah Quli Khalifa, from 1558 until just after 1562/3 (Istanbul University Library, F. 1422). The second, dated 1560–61, was made for Amir Husayn Beg by three artists, and it contains a preface by Malik Daylami (TSM, H. 2151 and mixed into other remade albums). The third, dated 1564–66, was made for Amir Ghayb Beg, who according to a preface by Mir Sayyid Ahmad supervised the details of its assembly (TSM, H. 2161). The variety among the three albums draws attention to the multiple ways in which a collection can reflect its collector and his social relationships. Notably, the relationships articulated here were forged across different social levels within court culture, including members of the royal family, amirs, and artists.

The sixth chapter treats the best known of the Persian albums, “Bahram Mirza’s 1544–45 Album” (TSM, H. 2152). This album has a special place in previous art historical scholarship. Its preface, by Dust Muhammad, has been read as a normative presentation of the history of Persian painting until the sixteenth century. The album itself has been taken as the standard against which other albums are judged. Roxburgh shows that more is at stake than whether Dust Muhammad’s preface is reliable (fully factual) or unreliable (erroneous). Rather, the preface and the album emphasize different aspects of the web of biographical relationships that the whole object presents as a history of art. The preface is constructed to lend textual authority to the history of painting. At the same time, the choice and arrangement of the works in the album invites comparisons between the works of different masters. These comparisons indicate that within the Persian painting, authorship was understood in terms of the outline rather than the gesture.

The book concludes with a seventh chapter, “Coda: New Orientations.” Here, Roxburgh revisits why the differences between Timurid and Safavid albums are not to be understood in terms of an independent evolution in the history of the album, but rather as part of a broader story of changes in books and arts of the book, changes themselves linked to anthologies. The refreshing suggestion that the later Safavid albums may be connected to the rise of single page Safavid painting offers an initial example of how awareness of this interconnectedness could continue to expand an understanding of other albums, such as Ottoman and Mughal ones.

The Persian Album, 1400–1600: From Dispersal to Collection is obviously required reading for Islamic art historians, who will particularly appreciate the well-developed index, notes, and bibliography. It unearths much new information on albums, arts of the book, workshop practice, and the social contexts of album viewing. More importantly, it offers with breathtaking intelligence the first real consideration of the development of art historical consciousness in premodern Iran. The methodological inventiveness with which this is done also make this required reading for anyone interested in collections, canon formation, and the ways that awareness of art history have historically emerged. There are tantalizing hints scattered throughout the book that, when it comes to these topics in Renaissance Italy, the relevance may not be only methodological. One of the precious antique objects in Timurid collections, Roxburgh convincingly suggests, was a cameo-carved bowl later owned by Lorenzo de Medici. Further, the parallels between Dust Muhammad’s approach to writing about art history as a series of biographies, and the approach of his contemporary Vasari, are striking. One of the marks of this immensely rewarding book is that it opens up new areas of inquiry. The present reader found herself wondering whether the histories of art historical consciousness in Iran and Italy may in fact have intersected in ways that we, as art historians, have yet to fully explore.

Persis Berlekamp
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, The University of Chicago

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