Persian Illuminated manuscripts
Posted: 01 Jul 2012 | By: Sasha Grishin
Love and devotion: from Persia and beyond
State Library of Victoria
Until 1 July 2012
The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit,
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
This is the immortal seventy-first quatrain of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the most famous piece of Persian poetry in the West.
Omar Khayyám (1048–1131) was a Persian poet, mathematician and astronomer who was virtually unknown until a fifteenth-century manuscript of his verse came into the possession of the Bodleian Library in Oxford and caught the eye of a Persian scholar, FitzGerald, who, encouraged by his teacher and friend EB Cowell, produced a free translation of a selection of verses and published it as a modest pamphlet in 1859.
He gave these verses the title Rubaiyat (ruba’i is a two-line stanza) and although subsequently many of FitzGerald’s translations have been discredited on grounds of accuracy, where he conflated the verses and rearranged them for the purposes of his own narrative, these became the most famous Persian poems in the Western world and the FitzGerald verses were translated into numerous European languages.
In this exhibition we have FitzGerald’s original source, the fifteenth-century manuscript acquired by the Bodleian from which he selected his verses, his transcriptions and his publication of the verses which went through several different editions. For many, this became the holy grail of Anglo-Persian literature and in the European imagination it gave birth to a great thirst for the exotic Orient. It is always interesting to remember how much the European imagination has been inspired by ideas of dubious authenticity — not only by what has been dubbed The Rubaiyat of FitzOmar, but the whole Ossian fabrication which played a vital role in European romanticism.
Love and devotion: from Persia and beyond is a strikingly beautiful exhibition drawn largely from the collection of the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford. Some of the profusely illustrated illuminated manuscripts go back a thousand years and are sympathetically displayed thematically, according to the writings of the great Persian poets, including Firdausi, Nizami, ‘Attar, Rumi, Sa’di, Amir Khusrau, Hafiz, Nava’I, Jami, the fantastic world of their narratives, the broader context of Persian culture and its position in the world, including in Mughal India and in mediaeval and Renaissance Europe.
Persia traditionally lay on the crossroads of trade, religion and culture and over its long history saw the development of disparate historic and mythological narratives and artistic traditions. It was rich in its diversity, ethnically, religiously and culturally as it developed from Sassanian rulers to the Muslim conquest, the Turkic Ghaznavid rulership, the Seljuqs, the Mongol invasion, the Ottomans and through to the Safavid Dynasty and the adoption of Shi’ism as the state religion of Iran.
Love and devotion: from Persia and beyond is a timely exhibition which in a stunning and unforgettable manner presents something of the beauty of Persian art and culture and reflects on the cultural debt that the West owes to Iran.