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

Preservation & Repair

Ephemerality is not merely a convenient metaphor for the sorry state of many manuscripts found today. Instead, it is a key if overlooked element in the arts of the book as well as the history of libraries.

al-Qurʾān. Cover

Text: likely Iraq, 14th century
Binding: Iran, 17th/18th century
Paint, gold, and varnish on papier-mâché boards
MS Or. 316

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According to the Ottoman writer Mustafa Âlî (d. 1600), the art of book-repair (vaṣṣālī) originated at the court of the Timurid prince Baysunghur (1397-1433). Furthermore, Simi Nishapuri, a calligrapher in the family's employ, is noted as one of its earliest practitioners. Given the antiquity of manuscript production, we can assume that repairs of some kind were in fact made before this time. Yet, just as calligraphers were said to "invent" scripts that in fact they only "perfected," Mustafa Âlî's attribution to this period is hardly accidental, as can evidenced in two ways.

First comes from an oft-cited a workshop report (arzadasht) prepared for Baysunghur by the artist Ja'far Tabrizi, who headed the royal atelier. The document refers obliquely to the "repair" ('imārat) of a Gulistan, presumed by historians to be that now kept in Dublin. This repair, handled by the artists Khwaja Ghiyathuddin and Mawlana Shihab, seems to have been for a manuscript-in-progress; two other artists were simultaneously engaged in new work for the same volume. One might even conjecture that the arzadasht's very composition, both industrious and contrite in tone, emerged in the wake of some embarrassing mishhap.

Second, Baysunghur was also crucial in the development of the album (muraqqa'), a new manuscript format which gathered specimens of calligraphy, painting, and drawing from pre-existing sources. While in later centuries these would be mounted on individual pages (as in Columbia's modest example, assembled in or after the late 18th century), early albums tended to stage several pieces on one page. Such arrangements were delicately assembled using a range of découpage techniques. It is likely that the same skills cultivated in the development of the muraqqa' spurred the parallel practice of wasalliq, or vice versa.

Perhaps in evidence of this latter suggestion, the biographer Qadi Ahmad (d. after 1606) notes that his own teacher, Mawlana Muhammad Amin Mashhadi, was a master in book-restoration as well as the arts of paper: tinting, marbling, and gold-sprinkling. He mentions two other artists, Abu’l-Ma’sum Mirza and Mawlana Yahya Qazvini, who were similarly gifted with both decorative papers and book repair. Abu’l-Ma’sum had a further arsenal of skills that extended to "making cardboard, engraving seals, carving tables and spoons, dissolving lapis lazuli, and other small artistry."

The present Qur'an (MS Or. 316) is the result of at least three production phases, revealing how ambitious book-repair became in the early modern period. The original volume—a relatively small late medieval Qur'an in naskh—was likely discovered in an Iraqi library by Safavid conquerors, who spuriously attributed it to the master calligrapher Yaqut al-Musta‘simi (d. 1298). Presumably to ennoble the work, it was rebound with the minor addition of a concluding supplication, whose striped illumination suggests the period of Shah 'Abbas (r. 1588–1629). Later, this second-state manuscript became damaged. It was thereafter entirely disbound, each individual folio remounted into paper frames with "window" cutouts, and rebound (for a second time) into the present form. Its current boards—using all-over garden motif combining tulip, orchid, rose, hydrangea, daffodil, and other flowers—have a peculiar "old master" hue, found in a number of late Safavid bindings.

This method of remounting became quite common during and after the Safavid period. Folios would be trimmed and painstakingly inset, usually without glue, into their frames. The size of the windows were based on the usual dimensions of the text. Occasionally, if a certain word extended too far into the margin (beyond the size of the window), it would be cut out and mounted separately. Afterward, the new margins might be illuminated in a contemporary style or even annotated. A new binding was the final touch in a restoration process that positioned its patron in a link with the past.

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