Strolling Isfahan: Masters, Merchants and Monarchs - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Strolling Isfahan: Masters, Merchants and Monarchs

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MA History of Art Special Option

Strolling Isfahan: Masters, Merchants and Monarchs

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Nashmi the Archer, signed by Riza ‘Abbasi (c. 1560/70-1635) and dated 25 February 1622. Isfahan, Safavid period. Ink, colour and gold on paper, 7 1/2 x 3 15/16 in. (19 x 10 cm). Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller 1960.197 © President and Fellows of Harvard College
Nashmi the Archer, signed by Riza ‘Abbasi (c. 1560/70-1635) and dated 25 February 1622. Isfahan, Safavid period. Ink, colour and gold on paper, 7 1/2 x 3 15/16 in. (19 x 10 cm). Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller 1960.197 © President and Fellows of Harvard College

Strolling Isfahan offers a conceptual ‘walk’ in the city through interdisciplinary investigations into the arts, material culture, and built environment of seventeenth-century city in central Iran. We focus on the artists, architects, patrons, monarchs and merchants who made Isfahan one of the most vital cities in early modern Eurasia, and look at the city as a ‘happening’, a historical site activated by the sensory experiences of art, architecture and urban spaces. Our sources of study and research are diverse in nature ranging from historical and scientific treatises, to guild documents and manuals of craft, poetry and epigraphy, decrees and memoirs, treatises on painting, calligraphy and the culinary arts, as well as artist/poet biographies. Our case studies on things—portable objects and built environment, quotidian or luxury, public or royal, guide us through interdisciplinary investigations.

We are as interested in this course to learn about the language of style and of technologies as about complex intersections of the making and the writing, the practices that elucidate dominant theories of ‘art’ and of ‘taste’, and of the meaning of being an Isfahani cosmopole, a self-conscious urbanity that imbues all the arts and practices of life in Isfahan. The course is furthermore integrated into a larger interest in early modern urbanity with shared teaching and field trips with other MA Special Options where we come together to consider such themes as mobility, knowledge formation, economies of production and consumption, issues of temporality and periodisation.

This MA Special Option ordinarily takes field trips to major collections in London and nearby but also to farther destinations. In 2020/21, students will undertake two trips, which will either be fully subsidised or mostly subsidised depending on the chosen locations (options range from Copenhagen and Dublin, to Istanbul and Doha). We visit public museums and libraries, auction house storage spaces, and private collections.

Knowledge of Persian is not required but commitment to devote substantial effort to learning Persian is crucial (language training courses to be arranged).


What our students say:

Tabriz, MA History of Art (2019)

Having completed Dr. Babaie’s MA course, I not only have a comprehensive understanding of the early modern Safavid empire, but I also had the opportunity to pursue dissertation research in Iranian modern art, an area I now plan to study at PhD level.

Dr. Babaie’s wide-reaching expertise in Iranian art history supported my own exploration into the modern period, as did her encouragement that we enhance our specialized study of the Safavid empire by familiarizing ourselves with issues relevant to the wider field of Islamic art.

Especially impactful for me were our visits to auction houses, where we were able to handle the objects. Having only seen such works in museum settings, I was shocked to see a pile of 16th-century Persian carpets heaped haphazardly on a table and 14th-century Moroccan doors leaned casually against an office wall. Even this hardly prepared me for a later visit to a private collection, when the collector pulled a cardboard box of Ottoman silks from under a bed and mused that she might make a dress of them. Seeing the art we studied in the classroom in settings outside it introduced me to the commercial forces that influence what objects are collected, displayed, and studied.

Dr. Babaie’s commitment to supplementing our seminars with these visits helped me think critically about the canonical objects of our discipline, and what they exclude, which ultimately directed my interest to the paintings that became my dissertation topic and inspired me to pursue further study.


Course Leader: Dr Sussan Babaie

Go to the MA History of Art Course Overview

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