From Persia – with love

Posted on March 26, 2012

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La Trobe scholar curates largest exhibition of Persian manuscripts ever in Australia

Royal picnic. Exhibition images courtesy of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

La Trobe University PhD scholar in art history, Susan Scollay, is guest  co-curator of the largest exhibition of Persian illustrated manuscripts ever shown in Australia.

Titled ‘Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond’, the exhibition is a partnership between the State Library of Victoria and the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, UK.

It celebrates stories of human and divine love from the Persian world over many centuries and has attracted about a thousand visitors a day during its first week.

The show is on display in Melbourne at the State Library until July 1 and will then be shown again in Oxford from December 2012 until April 2013.

Ms Scollay says the historic works tap into the West’s long-standing fascination with the idea of Persia. They provide insights into the world of medieval court life, mystics, and poets, telling age-old stories of love and romance, and suggesting past eras of cultural parallels between East and West.

Unlike the illuminated handwritten and largely religious manuscripts of Europe, the exhibition works are secular in origin, equally beautifully illuminated and copied, but made in workshops attached to princely courts. Many of the stories they tell were embraced not only by royalty, but in all sectors of society, and told within families and at community gatherings, says Ms Scollay.

Persian Sufi poet and mystic Rumi

Cultural dialogue far more common

She says during the time of Persian Sufi poet and mystic Rumi in the 13th century – several copies of whose works are shown in the exhibition – dialogue and exchange between cultures was far more common than we might think.

‘It was an exchange whose resonance in the West we can still discern, which is no wonder given that shared traditions between Persian and European poetry date from classical times,’ she said in an interview with ‘The Age’ newspaper before the exhibition opened.

Victorian Premier and Arts Minister, Ted Baillieu, said the exhibition ‘shows the remarkable parallels and intersections between the literature of the East and West and reminds us of how cultures enrich each other, transporting and sharing ideas to expand our understanding of the world.

‘In Melbourne, Australia’s most multicultural city, we understand that idea better than most,’ Mr Baillieu said.

The exhibition includes about seventy rare 13th- to 18th-century Persian, Mughal Indian and Ottoman Turkish illustrated manuscripts and miniatures from the Bodleian Library. These, says Ms Scollay, constitute the largest number of works ever released for extended loan from the oriental collections of the 400 year old Bodleian Library.

They are accompanied by others from the State Library of Victoria’s precious holdings of European travel literature and works inspired by the Persian literature.

Exhibition based on research

Gateway to another world: the ruined main entrance at Edirne Palace 1451- 1877.
Photo: Susan Scollay

From the Middle Ages, knowledge of Persia gradually expanded as a result of increased contact through trade, travel and diplomacy, says Ms Scollay.

Writers in Europe, such as Chaucer, Dante and Shakespeare, reflected this understanding in the parallels with Persian literature and shared symbolism in their own plays, poetry and prose.

The idea for the exhibition came out of Ms Scollay’s research into the history of a 500-year-old summer palace of the Ottoman sultans in Edirne in Thrace, near the current Turkish borders with Greece and Bulgaria.

She says this was a key site for the ‘good life’ – a place for the enjoyment of love poetry written and recited in Persian as well as local languages.

‘The Ottoman elite at that time looked to Persianate cultural models, just like all the other royal courts of the vast area of Asia that stretched from the borders of southeast Europe right across Iran and northern India as far as the borders of China. 

‘The palace at Edirne, though primarily used for hunting and launching military campaigns, played an important cultural role as it was often the very first part of Ottoman court life that western travellers saw as they crossed from Christian Europe into the world of Islam.’

Edirne Palace was the Ottoman Empire’s second largest palace. It once comprised about 100 structures. Only a small section of architectectural ruins survive today and they are undergoing restoration.

Susan Scollay, right, with members of La Trobe’s Art History Alumni group.

See here for more details about the exhibition and accompanying publication edited by Susan Scollay.

Conference co-incides with exhibition

A conference dealing with cultural convergence in literature, art and architecture, history and philosophy from the 11th century within the various Persian empires – Ottoman Turkey, Mughal India and Europe – will be held from 12 to 14 April 2012.

Click here for conference details.