More Than the Odd Rug or Miniature

In the eyes of the general public, Persian art begins and ends with rugs, manuscript painting and the architectural remains of Persepolis. It is, therefore, refreshing to find a book that, by being objective and thorough, ends up talking about "Polonaise" rugs, vernacular architecture and the mass-production of pottery in the fourth millennium BC, rather than repeating the conventional treatments of rugs and miniatures.

In THE ARTS OF PERSIA (Yale University Press: $60; 334 pp.), editor R.W. Ferrier makes clear that when we talk about Persian art, we are not just referring to works created in the geographical domain defined by present political boundaries known as Iran. This book presents the art of the Iranian plateau, and points out the controversies regarding dates and origins of items and styles typically considered Persian.

A major attribute of this book is its completeness in presenting the great diversity of Persian arts. Although there are excellent books on specific art forms, "The Arts of Persia" is unique in including articles on archeological findings and architecture; paintings; coins, metalwork and jewelry; books; rugs and textiles; ceramics and tile; glasswork; lacquerwork; and calligraphy. (It is surprising, however, that the book does not include a chapter on the popular and important Persian art form of intarsia--inlaid metal, ivory, and painted wood.)

In a concise introduction, Ferrier sets the stage by discussing how different empires (from Achaemenian to Pahlavi) came to power and vanished during the last 2,500 years. He introduces, in a language accessible to the lay public, the cultural history of the Iranian plateau from about 5000 BC to this century. In a few paragraphs, for instance, he paints a lucid picture of cultures of Mesopotamia and Elam, discusses the disappearance of Medes, the rise of Persians, and the first major architectural monument in Pasargadae (546 BC).

The first third of the book, dedicated to the art and architecture of pre-Islamic Persia, includes discussion of both the pottery of "early art" (about 5000-550 BC) and three major Achaemenian architectural remains--Pasargadae (commissioned by Cyrus), Susa and Persepolis (both commissioned by Darius). We also learn about the appearance of Frontalism (depicting a figure so that there is a "more immediate face to face contact"), initiated during the Parthian dynasty (330 BC-AD 200), and the use of the "colorful tapestry" style of molded stucco decorating the interiors and the exteriors of palaces during the Sasanian dynasty (3rd to 7th centuries). Greek and Egyptian motifs and designs influenced Persian architecture, and Persian motifs in turn influenced Central Asian art.

One of Ferrier's concerns is to trace the pre-Islamic roots of Persian arts. Much historical reconstruction is necessary here because the Arab invasions between the 7th and 11th centuries destroyed much of the fine arts of the area. Although we know from historical records that early Persians prided themselves on their carpets, there are no pre-Islamic samples of this art form, apart from a few cut pieces that have not been authenticated.

This book does more than present the most common examples of particular arts; it includes discussion of oddities that illustrate the liveliness of borrowing among the arts. In the chapter on rugs, we learn that there are gelims with designs most common in textile and miniature paintings, and that "Polonaise carpets" were specially woven for the Polish Royal family--and were believed by Europeans to have been made in Poland.

One of the most intriguing and entertaining chapters is on vernacular architecture: buildings mainly constructed of mud or timber depending on the climate of the area. Here, the essay treats the expressive structures often seen but rarely written about for the simple reason that they are not human dwellings: pigeon towers (designed to facilitate the birds' entrance and exit in addition to collecting and storing dung), ice-houses and cisterns.

Although some of the articles tend to be unnecessarily technical and somewhat tedious, with a bit of effort they become accessible. It would have been wonderful if all the articles were as easily digestible and entertaining as the two written by Ferrier. But this is a minor quibble. Perusing this book is like visiting museums and archeological finds around the world. A useful guide for the collector and an engaging introduction for the novice, "The Arts of Persia" will do more than hold the coffee table down.

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