Art and Culture in Safavid Iran

This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals


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The late Safavid interest in early Safavid history is a phenomenon that we are only beginning to understand. Three illustrated manuscripts of the historical romances known collectively as ‘Âlamârâ-yi Safavi provide an interesting angle from which to approach it. The Jahângushâ-yi Khâqân (formerly known as the “Ross Anonymous”) in the British Library, the Târikh-i jahânârâ-yi Shâh Ismâ’il in the Chester Beatty Library, and a semi-dispersed manuscript now in Tehran’s Reza Abbasi Museum all contain stories about the life and derring-do of Shah Isma’il I and his Qizilbash companions, stories that are clearly related but whose precise origin, evolution, and recension present difficulties. Moreover, all three manuscripts are illustrated, and the colophon of one even appears to suggest that it was made for Shah Sulayman (r. 1666–1694) himself. The appearance of three illustrated versions of the “Anonymous Tales” of the founder of the Safavid dynasty in or around the late 1670s or 1680s is remarkable, and attests to a lively interest not only in the early history of the dynasty, but in a particular version of that history which emphasizes Hollywood-style action and heroics over the dry niceties of historical fact. This paper will examine some of the salient features of these manuscripts as they serve as a window on the late Safavid mental landscape. These include the relation of the texts to oral storytelling (naqqâli), the nature of the values being projected back onto the past, and the different styles of the paintings in these manuscripts, which point to the diverse and evolving visual culture of late seventeenth-century Iran.

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Using five single-page folios, and the Muraqqa‘-i 1633 of Golestān Palace Library this paper focuses on Safavid paintings in the sixteen and seventeen centuries and argues for a direct relationship between text and image. In this paper, I will argue that while some folios demonstrate a disconnection between text and image, others can demonstrate a direct relationship between the two; and draw attention to the channel of communication where the image demonstrates the outer allure, and the text highlights the inner refinement. The result of the added literature, inscribing poetry with a moral message, creates an idealized man who could serve as a model of perfection, not only visually but also in character. Viewing these paintings through a lens of voyeurism and spectatorship elicited the patron’s desire to observe and be observed in return. The poetic text accentuates the importance of gaze in the Lacanian sense, constructing portraits in these paintings as “objects of desire.”