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Arts of the book – 1600-1800

The technical aspects of calligraphy, painting, and bookbinding are important facets of the study of Islamic art. Treatises by sixteenth-century Persian authors Qazi Ahmed and Sadiqi Beq are the major sources on the working methods of artisans in the Islamic world. Further information on the organization of manuscript workshops and the division of labor within them is recorded in court annals and payrolls.

Workshops supported by rulers and members of their extended family produced copies of famous literary works, histories, and Qur’ans.

The production of illustrated books was concentrated in royal workshops because of the large expense involved. Many rulers were connoisseurs who collected books and paintings by famous artists. Books were also financial investments, donated toward the endowment of charitable foundations, and status symbols, presented as gifts between heads of state.

Page from an Album of Calligraphies of Prophetic Traditions (Hadith), ca. 1500; Ottoman Signed by Hamdullah ibn Mustafa Dede Turkey (Istanbul)

Page from an Album of Calligraphies of Prophetic Traditions (Hadith), ca. 1500; Ottoman Signed by Hamdullah ibn Mustafa Dede Turkey (Istanbul). This album consists of calligraphic works of hadith (prophetic traditions) by one of the most celebrated Ottoman Turkish calligraphers, Shaikh Hamdullah (died 1519), who developed the naskh and thuluth styles from the masters of the past to suit Ottoman taste. Shaikh Hamdullah, son of Mustafa Dede, came from a family of mystics in Amasya, Turkey. When his former pupil Bayezid II ascended the throne in 1481, Hamdullah followed him to Istanbul and was greatly honored by him. These pages demonstrate his mature phase and show control, exactitude, gentle flow, but also exaggeration of certain letters that create a lively rhythmic pattern. Marbleized paper developed in Turkey and came to be much favored for calligraphic works.

Workshops supported by rulers and members of their extended family produced copies of famous literary works, histories, and Qur’ans. Once a patron decided on a project, the director of the workshop saw it through to its conclusion. He laid out the pages, decided which parts of the text to illustrate, and chose scribes and artists based on the particular project.

The first step in creating a book was to make the paper. In the Islamic world, paper was made from rags of linen and hemp, not tree pulp. The rags were cut into strips and softened in limewater, then pounded into a pulp and soaked in a vat. To form a sheet of paper, a rectangular mold was placed into the vat and then left to dry. The water seeped out and the page hardened in the mold. Decorative touches were often added to the paper: some were tinted, some were sprinkled with gold, and others were marbled. Marbled papers were created by dispensing drops of colorant onto the surface of a water bath and running combs through the drops to create a pattern; a sheet of paper was then laid on the surface of the bath to absorb the colors. After drying, the paper was prepared to receive ink and paint with the application of a starchy solution that rendered the surface smooth and nonporous.

A scribe then prepared his ink (made of carbon boiled with gallnuts), made his pens, and pressed guidelines into the paper. He then copied the text, leaving spaces for illustrations where the director of the workshop had indicated.

After the text was completed, the pages passed to the painters. Most manuscripts were the work of a number of artists, each chosen to illustrate a particular scene; some artists, for instance, were known for their portraits, others for their battle scenes. A single page might also represent a collaborative effort, as junior artists were called upon to fill in backgrounds and landscapes. Before starting to paint, the artist laid out the composition with a very fine brush. Some elements might be copied from preexisting sketches by means of a device called a pounce. To create a pounce, the artist laid a piece of transparent paper or animal skin over the sketch to be copied and pricked holes into the top sheet around the outlines of the image below. To transfer the image to his new painting, he laid the pounce on top of the fresh sheet of paper and dusted it with charcoal powder from a cloth bag.

To create his pigments, the artist turned to nature. Mineral sources were gold, silver, lapis lazuli, ground cinnabar (for vermilion), orpiment (for yellow), and malachite (for green). These materials were expensive and substitutes were often used. Indigo was a common source of dark blue and azurite was used for a lighter blue. Verdigris produced green, and lead or a combination of mercury and sulfur created red. (Because a number of these materials are unstable or corrosive, the colors of many illustrated manuscripts have faded or tarnished, and some paints have eaten through the paper.) The pigment had to be suspended in a medium that allowed it to be brushed on to the page. Originally this was albumen or glue, which gave a glossy sheen to the paintings; after the sixteenth century, gum arabic, with a more matte finish, was used instead.

After the paintings were completed, illuminators and gilders added flourishes to the text, such as chapter headings, colored frames, and rulings. They also created frontispieces and end pages. Finally, each sheet was burnished with a hard stone or glass.

At this stage, the leaves of the book were ready to be sewn and bound. The covers were joined to a spine and a fore-edge flap that folded over the ends of the pages and tucked under the top cover. Bindings were decorated with simply tooled geometric or vegetal patterns, until the fifteenth-century Persian development of a design with a central oval medallion, pendants, and corner pieces created by the use of a mold. Half the binding was stamped and then the mold was reversed, forming a mirror image of the design in the other half. Surrounding the central medallion were arranged rich floral motifs, arabesques, and cloud bands. This style soon spread to India and Turkey. Through the sixteenth century, designs became more elaborate, with the addition of miniature figures and landscapes, and the doublures (interior covers) also came to be decorated. Patterns for these were created in cut-out leather, colored papers, and gilding. In the nineteenth century, lacquered bindings with painted designs replaced these elaborate leather works.

Binding: From a manuscript of the Mantiq al-Tayr (The Language of the Birds) of Farid al-Din cAttar, ca. 1600; Safavid Iran (Isfahan)

Binding: From a manuscript of the Mantiq al-Tayr (The Language of the Birds) of Farid al-Din cAttar, ca. 1600; Safavid Iran (Isfahan). This is an elaborate example of the most common type of Safavid binding. Based on the Timurid-style binding, it contains a central medallion, quadrants, and a border of panels. The field pattern was created by stamping a mold on the surface of the cover made of leather and paper; first the upper half of the binding was stamped and then the mold was reversed to stamp on the lower half. The border pattern was also created by stamping. The doublures are decorated with delicate leather filigree work dividing compartments with orange, brown, blue, and green ground.


Board for ruling paper, 17th–18th century Paper, cotton

Board for ruling paper, 17th–18th century Paper, cotton. Before the scribe could begin copying text onto folios, he had to rule the sheets in some discreet manner to produce lines to follow when writing the text. These lines could be made in a variety of ways. The most common method was to prick tiny holes with a needle or knife along the outer edges of the unfolded bifolios. The horizontal ruling lines were then made by connecting the prickings with a stylus that had a carbon or lead point. Ruling lines could also be produced in a faster manner, using an instrument called a ruling frame, a board with parallel strings or wires fixed across it. The slightly dampened paper would be pressed against the frame, and the strings would cause tiny raised ridges on each leaf, forming raised lines.

Mounted Hunter with Dog, 16th century; Safavid Iran

Mounted Hunter with Dog, 16th century; Safavid Iran. The tiny holes around the figure of this hunter chasing game birds indicate that this sketch was used as a pounce, to copy the image onto another work. In Islamic paintings, stock figures that filled court or battle scenes or natural elements that elaborated landscape backgrounds were often copied into a number of compositions from preexisting sketches such as this. Holes were pricked around the image to be copied and transferred onto an underlying paper by dusting charcoal over it.

Pen box, late 17th–early 18th century Signed by Haji Muhammad Iran.

Pen box, late 17th–early 18th century Signed by Haji Muhammad Iran. This pen box is signed by the later Safavid artist Haji Muhammad. The Europeanized landscape depicted on the inside cover of this box is associated with the style of this artist and other members of his family, most famously his celebrated brother Muhammad Zaman. The high status accorded to the arts of calligraphy and writing in the Islamic world led to the production of many handsome accessories such as this pen box.

Pen box, 13th century Western Iran or northern Iraq (al-Jazira) Brass inlaid with gold and silver.

Pen box, 13th century Western Iran or northern Iraq (al-Jazira) Brass inlaid with gold and silver. Muslim metalworkers produced large numbers of pen boxes, many of which were richly decorated with inlays of gold, silver, and copper. A typical medieval Islamic calligrapher's pen box is an elongated rectangular object with rounded corners, about ten inches long, three inches wide, and two inches tall. In its simple construction, it is composed of a main body and a lid with two hinges along one of the long sides and a clasp on the opposite side. The interior includes a receptacle to hold the inkwell in one corner while the remaining space is reserved for a variety of reed pens and penknives. The present pen box shows a typical overall silver-inlaid decoration combining calligraphic, vegetal, and figural designs both on the exterior and the interior surfaces. It is, however, unique in that the main field on the lid is occupied by three roundels depicting the Moon flanked by the planets Jupiter and Venus in the zodiacal signs of Pisces and Libra, respectively. The box therefore also had an astrological significance, being most likely associated with the owner's birth, whereas the moon took on a talismanic relevance, since its image symbolically protected the entire object.

About the Author
Works at Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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