Princeton's Great Persian Book of Kings
Composed more than one thousand years ago by the Persian poet Firdausi, the Shahnama, or Book of Kings, narrates the story of Iran from the dawn of time to the seventh century A.D. This sweeping epic spans the reigns of fifty mythical, legendary, and historical monarchs and contains countless tales of Iran’s ancient heroes and villains, triumphs and defeats. Its poetic themes are universal and resonate across the centuries: the inevitability of fate, the power of faith and humankind’s relationship to a supreme being, intergenerational schisms, and morality as a determining factor for human conduct. Other fundamental motifs have a particular “national” or cultural inflection, including the conflict between Iran and the neighboring land of Turan; Iranian kingship as a supreme and divinely sanctioned institution; and dynastic legitimacy as embodied in the notion of farr, or royal fortune, charisma, and God-given glory.
In addition to holding a preeminent place in Persian literature and culture, the Shahnama has been a vital source of artistic inspiration for centuries, and hundreds of illustrated copies of the poem survive today in collections worldwide. These manuscripts allow us to trace the history of Persian miniature painting as it developed during the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries—from late medieval through early modern times. Princeton University’s great Book of Kings, dated to the end of the sixteenth century and bequeathed to the Princeton University Library by Clara S. Peck in 1983, is both a beautiful example of this vibrant tradition and a testament to the enduring appeal of Iran’s national epic.
The last text page of the Peck Shahnama contains a colophon, or scribal note, signed by Qivam ibn Muhammad Shirazi, a calligrapher working in the south-central town of Shiraz in Iran’s Fars province. That the volume originated in Shiraz—long recognized for the quality and quantity of its luxury manuscripts—is further confirmed by the format of its 475 folios, made of large sheets of highly polished paper, and by the style of its forty-eight paintings and its many equally striking illuminations. In terms of its physical and formal characteristics, the Peck Shahnama is a sumptuous example of Persian book arts—calligraphy, decoration, and painting—and of how those arts were practiced in late sixteenth-century Shiraz.
Yet, for all that is familiar to art historians about the manuscript, closer examination reveals certain rare features and, thus, interpretive challenges. The wide borders of many of its folios are inscribed with additional epic verses and—even more unusually—with annotations. All are written in the same elegant cursive script, known as nasta‘liq, used by the volume’s scribe, but in a different hand. The same unknown writer also included a long inscription on the blank verso of the manuscript’s final painting, stating that this copy of the Shahnama was purchased in Iran’s capital city of Isfahan from a widow of the late monarch Shah ‘Abbas I by an envoy from the kingdom of Golconda in India. The extensive marginalia and the equally noteworthy sales record, as well as the volume’s eighteenth-century English binding, have inspired explorations of the Peck Shahnama’s provenance. From Shiraz, where it was produced, the manuscript passed into the hands of Iran’s ruling Safavid family and subsequently traveled from Iran to India in the seventeenth century, then to England, and finally to the United States; today, the Peck Shahnama is one of the finest intact volumes of Iran’s national epic in North America.
The four centuries that have passed since the manuscript’s creation have taken an inevitable toll on its paper and pigments. In fall 2014, the codex was disbound for conservation treatment by the Preservation Office at the Princeton University Library, a meticulous process that has resulted in the volume’s long-term stabilization and preservation. Happily, this work has also allowed the Museum the opportunity to display all of the manuscript’s illustrated folios as individual works of art and to introduce one of the University’s treasures to a broad audience. The paintings and illuminations on display in Princeton’s Great Persian Book of Kings bring the gripping tales and themes in Firdausi’s Shahnama to life and let us experience the visual splendor that Clara Peck must have enjoyed and wanted to share in bequeathing the manuscript to Princeton.
Marianna Shreve Simpson