By Leila Piran
Throughout Iranian history, the royal courts regarded the art of calligraphy as one of the most sophisticated and sublime art, especially the Saffavid rulers whose interest and support for the arts have left many treasures for both historians and art enthusiasts to explore and appreciate. In fact, the Saffavid period (1501-1722) represents the ‘golden age’ of fine arts, particularly calligraphy. Examples of calligraphy adorn both religious and secular settings throughout Iran. In general, calligraphy represents the most revered form of art in Muslim-majority countries including Iran due to its wide use in religious texts, especially the holy Qur’an, histories, poetry, and prose.
The powerful and prosperous Saffavid court allocated resources to promote the arts to assert its political dominance on the visual landscape of the Empire. As a consequence, Persian calligraphers and painters gained more notoriety, obtaining considerable access to patronage during the Saffavid Empire because of the kings’ consistent move toward a unified centralized bureaucracy situated in the new capital city, Isfahan.
Confronted with the Ottoman threat, the Saffavid rulers’ agenda to build a strong centralized nation-state influenced the development of the arts in the sense that a new unitary style emerged, combining preexisting elements of Timurids from Herat and the Turkmans from Tabriz, respectively representing Iran’s eastern and western halves. In calligraphy as well as the visual arts and architecture, the new style was based on the synthesis between the Timurid and the Turkman traditions. While many calligraphers contributed to the art of manuscript making in provincial cities such as Shiraz, their counterparts in Isfahan benefited from the royal patronage handsomely and focused on the art of book making on a larger scale in the palaceworkshops because of the high costs.
In contrast to the previous era when artists had to remain anonymous, the Saffavid patrons tolerated the artists’ self-expression and allowed their works of art to bear their unique signatures. In fact, the historical record suggests that the Saffavid society was tolerant and ethnically diverse where the fine arts flourished. Primarily, rulers of this period supported the formation of a distinct and unified style of art in order to establish a robust centralized nation-state, bearing the visual markers of the rulers’ power and prosperity.
Kings and Calligraphers: Masterpieces
In the beginning of the Saffavid rule (1522), Shah Tahmasp, a young king and patron of the arts, ordered the royal calligraphy masters to design and copy the Shahnameh (book of kings), an arduous and complex project that involved close collaboration between calligraphers and painters that resulted in creation of one of Iran’s finest examples of art. From 1527 to 1543, Shah Tahmasp commissioned the royal workshop to craft smaller manuscripts including Divan-e Hafez, Khams-e Nezami, andDivan-e Mir-Ali Sir Nava’i. In particular, the Khams-e Nezami, became known as the finest book, written primarily by one of Saffavid’s greatest calligraphers, Shah Mohammad Nishabouri who was also known as Zarin qalam (Golden pen) because his splendid script. In addition, the lines in Shah Tahmasp’s Khamse were also adorned and highlighted with fourteen contemporary miniatures by the leading court painters.
Shah Tahmasp’s grandson, Abbas (1587-1629) was also a patron of the arts, but placed his patronage within a broader political agenda. During his long and prosperous reign, Shah Abbas commissioned another shahnameh that critics and historians view as a unique book because of its naturalist paintings and transient calligraphic lines. In addition, Shah Abbas enjoyed his names and titles to adorn coins and the portals of mosques; therefore, he commissioned his favorite royal scribe, Ali Reza Abbasi, whom he appointed as the head of the royal library in 1598, to make inscriptions. When Abbasi was not making inscriptions on mosque portals, he would write single pages of poetic verse for the Shah in the nasta’liq style or accompany the king in his travels.
Undoubtedly, the Saffavid Empire, particularly Shah Abbas’s reign left a rich and profound mark on Iranian calligraphy, and in a broader sense, the art of the book. The role of Iran as a major participant in the world economy created by the European commercial expansion in the sixteenth-century served as another influence in the arts of this era. The Saffavid rulers appreciated the profitable side of production of artistic goods and played a prominent rule in growth of the local arts and crafts, particularly in Isfahan. The economic boom in this period led to creation of a new class of patrons who were wealthy enough to collect valuable manuscripts and helped keep calligraphers employed. Ultimately, the Saffavid patrons’ support for the arts helped to forge a new style in the new royal capital city of Isfahan, replacing the old Qur’ans and Chinese porcelain objects.