For avid collectors during the gilded age Gentile Bellini’s portrait of a seated Turkish scribe came as a revelation, opening a window onto heretofore unfamiliar elegance, hinting at a connection between their beloved Italian Renaissance and the magnificence of contemporary Ottoman court. This same generation read and swooned over Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam. They traveled to Constantinople, Cairo and Damascus, collecting repoussé brass works, calligraphic tombstones, Iznik tiles and Tabriz carpets. In this rarefied milieu of Calouste Gulbenkian, J Pierpont Morgan and Isabella Stuart Gardner (who swooped up the Bellini), no one was more enthusiastic about the arts of Islam than Bernard Berenson, the high priest of the Italian Renaissance.
Bitten by the bug during the first great exhibit of Islamic art, in 1910 in Munich, Berenson began to scour the market for pieces and soon accumulated an extensive collection. These are now in the Tuscan villa I Tatti, bequeathed to Harvard University on his death in 1959. Persian Manuscripts and Paintings from the Berenson Collection addresses the obvious question: just how good was this renowned expert in Renaissance paintings when it came to collecting Islamic art?
Berenson did not come to this field entirely unprepared. Gifted in languages, he had studied Arabic at Harvard and attended a seminar on the civilizations of the ancient Middle East. His was a most discriminating eye. He examined the styles and compared various works to determine their provenance and period. He consulted scholars of the Persian language to help him decipher the texts. He rarely bought on impulse.
The immature market was full of scams, and already prices could induce vertigo. Berenson paid 100 pounds sterling for an illustrated folio page, worth 13,000 pounds in 2022. That is not much less than current prices at auction. A shrewd bargainer, Berenson turned down offers to acquire a folio page by Behzad, already celebrated as “the Raphael of the East” until the seller reduced the asking price from 600 pounds to 200 pounds.
Three or four of Berenson’s manuscripts rank among the world’s most historically significant representatives of the art of the Islamic book.
Lest we be tempted to accuse Berenson of Orientalism, or simply indulging in a fad for the exotic, we should recall how his wife Mary described the Munich exposition:
[we found] new ways of seeing the world, a new standard of values … [an appreciation for] the charm of this particular emphasis on color and decoration, apart from, even in contrast to, representation.
Elsewhere, contributor Eleanor Sims notes how he acquired one great manuscript even though
he had no way of fully appreciating the manifold aspects of Eastern bibliophily in the fifteenth century … perhaps Berenson recognized that this particular painting had some aesthetic relevance to the day—something raw, perhaps, and far from conventionally beautiful.
On the whole Berenson did a fine job. His collection includes works produced for Sultan Baysunghur of Herat or Ibrahim Sultan of Shiraz, who were great patrons of the arts, like their contemporaries in Florence or Venice. Baysunghur, one of the manuscripts reports, “favored artists and loved poets. He strove to create opulence and rewarded his comrades and companions with exquisite objects.” Bellini would have felt at home. Three or four of Berenson’s manuscripts rank among the world’s most historically significant representatives of the art of the Islamic book.
Berenson enjoyed tremendous luck, as well. One of his purchases proved to be the first known copy of a famous 16th-century verse romance, Farhad and Shirin. Produced in Iran, brought to India by Sufis, acquired the great Mughal Aurangzeb, pillaged by the Afghans in 1756, and then spirited out of Kabul in the 1900s, it came into Berenson’s collection in 1911 via the great art dealer Hagop Kervorkian. Sometimes, however, he was unlucky, or rather he fell for the oldest trick in the book: false attribution. He bought a portrait of the Sufi Master Jami by Behzad of Herat, which later scholars proved to be more recent, and from Bukhara.
Berenson’s generation acquired illustrated manuscripts and broke them up in order to display individual folios. One of Berenson’s paintings can only be identified as a fragment of the Shahnameh because the verso side has identifiable, though truncated text from that poem. This practice still generates enormous controversy. A recent tweet attacks collector Amory Houghton for breaking up and selling Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnameh way back in the 1970s. Berenson himself had mixed feelings about this practice, as he wrote:
Illuminated manuscripts are not easily accessible to the public, and for good reasons. Most of them are still in codices and can be shown only two pages at the time. There is no other way unless the leaves are extracted and exhibited separately. This is not to be recommended as it takes away from their character as book illustration and besides makes them liable to lose or change color or fade away from permanent exposure to the light.
This did not prevent him from acquiring illustrated pages from dismembered books, but he did not break up any of the works he acquired for himself.
In 2016, the Harvard Museums carried out a campaign of restoration of the collection with a 13-person team of specialists in art history, Persian literature, chemistry, statistics, paper and book arts. In addition to cleaning and rebinding the manuscripts, they addressed such questions as how the works had been produced, what materials were used, who wrote the texts, how did the albums get bound together, who had owned them previously, how many times they had been repaired and by whom, and what connections exist between these works and other collections. Since Berenson’s death the corpus of manuscripts catalogued and published has exploded, making it possible, for example, to associate individual folio pages from far-flung collections as having once belonged together. The reader comes away with a real appreciation of the effort required to produce these manuscripts, the use of fine paper and colors, the design of the text boxes, the challenge to squeeze the calligraphy into the illuminated pages.
Handsomely illustrated with the highlights of the collection, this book is a must for readers interested in the art of collecting, in understanding the world of Persian painting, and for appreciating how our knowledge of this world has continued to grow by leaps and bounds since the time of Berenson, or indeed since the days of Richard Ettingshausen and Cary Welch. Yet the old man has the last laugh as our additional knowledge only confirms what he already knew. He had a good eye.