In the School of Wisdom: Persian Bookbinding, ca. 1575-1890


Mas̲navī-i maʻnavī. Cover

Rumi, Masnavi-yi maʿnavi
Text: Iran, 25 Dhu’l-Qaʻda 1264 AH/23 October 1848 CE, signed by Muhammad Karim al-Shirazi; Binding: contemporaneous with the text, attributed to the Imami School
Paint, gold, and varnish on papier-mâché boards
MS Or. 76

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Bookbinder's lacquer is not made to last. The technique—only distantly related to east Asian lacquerware—emerged in Iran around the late 15th century. According to one view, it was originally invented not for books but rather as a finish for bow-making. Only later was it redeployed to create any number of small objects, whether pen-cases, storage coffers, mirror backs, playing cards, or, of course, manuscript covers.

Persian lak consists only of a thin varnish, usually over a pasteboard support. This provides but modest protection for the underlying painting. Moreover, lacquer boards (with very few exceptions) only covered the front and back of a book—the spine consisted of a strip of leather used to join the two parts. This arrangement offered little for a book's structural integrity: unlike durable leather, lacquer boards could crack or snap if dropped.

On a copy of Rumi's Masnavi (MS Or. 76), we encounter an effaced rose-and-nightengale (gul-o bulbul) motif. Its faux tortoiseshell ground would have been prepared first, being painted and then varnished. This might have been purpose-made for the manuscript or, perhaps, simply pulled from a workshop's standing stock of such boards. Once trimmed to size, the outer borders were painted. (It is possible to spot the underlying ground poking out from underneath some damaged areas of the border, particularly along the left-hand margin.) The bird-and-flower composition appears to have been executed last, painted atop existing layers of lacquer but not well-varnished itself.

This composition has since been substantially abraded. On the rear board (not depicted), all but the faintest traces of the design have been lost—presumably after being stored on its side—leaving only the bare tortoiseshell. This amber-and-brown surface, perfected by the so-called Imami School active in Isfahan during the mid-19th century, is one of the more striking effects in lacquer. (It may have even been a visual pun: a contemporary word for tortoise, lak-pusht, literally means "lacquer-backed.") In better-preserved examples, tortoiseshell covers offer a strong Gestalt effect, the ground catching light while the superimposed painting appears almost to hover in space.

Only rarely do motifs on bindings have any connection to a book's content. The rose and nightengale were a longstanding literary trope, denoting desire and self-annihilation in its pursuit. Appended to Rumi, it becomes subtly suggestive of the Sufi path.

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