Topographies of Taste: Aesthetic Practice in 18th-Century Persianate Albums

Anastassiia Alexandra Botchkareva


Given the tumultuous political climate in eighteenth-century Iran and India, and the related falloff in imperial patronage of the arts of the book, it is perhaps unsurprising that the history of Persianate albums of this period remains largely unexplored.[1] While a number of Indian albums commissioned or acquired by European patrons, particularly in Lucknow, are well known, works from the late- and post-Safavid period (1700-early 1800’s) in Iran are essentially uncharted in scholarly discussions.[2] Yet there is important material evidence of album-making in eighteenth-century Iran that deserves our attention. My aim here is to trace a broader topography of eighteenth-century Persianate collecting practices through a corpus of albums now scattered across various institutions.

I am not setting out to offer a comprehensive codicological overview of these albums, but rather to bring them into the spotlight and position them as a group vis-à-vis one another. In so doing I hope to begin to trace potential patterns and relationships that would open up possibilities for further analysis of such concepts as genre, patronage, and aesthetics. For the purposes of this discussion, my focus will be on the figural representations in these albums (the paintings and drawings) rather than their calligraphies. A meaningful engagement with the calligraphy collections of later Persianate albums (including the ones addressed here), and their connection to the paintings of those albums, is an important project that demands attention beyond this essay’s scope. Their exclusion here is methodologically justified by their strict segregation from the paintings in the albums themselves and by their distinctly disparate identities from those figural representations qua collections. The relative homogeneity of the calligraphy with regard to provenance contrasts with the emphatic heterogeneity of painting styles represented in the albums. Most importantly, however, the glosses on codicology and the omission of calligraphy are motivated by my essential interest in studying albums as repositories of visual habits as well as sites for the manipulation of modes of visual representation. As such, an analysis of patterns of visual selection among figural compositions forms a starting point to reconstructing broader aesthetic practices and intentionalities across Persianate album production.[3]

Fig. 1. Selection of bifolios from E-14 showing an emphasis on royal iconography and Europeanizing stylistic modes. Clockwise from upper left: plates 132-133, 60-61, 52-53, 204-205, 168-169, 64-65. Composed in the second half of the eighteenth century. Opaque watercolor on paper, 33 x 47.5cm (each folio). Institute of Oriental Studies, St Petersburg, Russia. © Institute of Oriental Studies, St Petersburg, Russia.

Of all eighteenth-century albums, the so-called St Petersburg Album, E-14, has garnered by far the most scholarly attention, due first and foremost to the quality and quantity of its contents. The album includes imperial Safavid and Mughal paintings from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries nested in one of the most lavish codicological framing productions in the entire history of Persianate book arts (Fig. 1). Comprised of 100 folios in its current state, and housed in St Petersburg’s Institute of Oriental studies (with several more folios cannibalized and dispersed among collections around the globe), the album alternates single-page paintings with bifolios of calligraphy arrangements by the famous sixteeth-century Persian calligrapher Imad al-Hasani (1554-1615). Its Mughal paintings and 17 late-Safavid paintings in the so-called farangi-sazi (Europeanizing) mode make this one of the most important extant collections of late-Persianate painting. However, its current fame is perhaps due just as much to its publication in facsimile format, ensuring accessibility and distribution for contemporary scholars and audiences not afforded to most other albums.[4] To gain a fuller understanding of eighteenth-century aesthetic priorities and collecting practices, however, we would do well to consider the St Petersburg Album in context, that is to say alongside related contemporaneous album production.

Fig. 2. Selection of bifolios from Dorn-489 showing intimate iconography, stylistic hybridity, and heterogeneous provenance. Clockwise from upper left: 75v-76r, 83v-84r, 38v-39r, 81v-82r, 52v-53r, 77v-78r. Composed in the second half of the eighteenth century. Opaque watercolor on paper, 43.5 x 27cm (each folio). National Library of Russia, St Petersburg, Russia. © National Library of Russia, St Petersburg, Russia.

Perhaps the most important album to explore in this comparative context is Dorn-489, now housed just a few blocks away from E-14 in the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg. Although dubbed a “sister-album” to E-14, it remains virtually unknown to the broader scholarly community, and has been scarcely and only fragmentarily published.[5] The album is comprised of 86 folios of alternating single-page paintings and tinted drawings, as well as calligraphy bifolios, including works dating as far back as Timurid Herat and reaching from Central Asia and Iran to Mughal, Deccani and Rajput India (Fig. 2). Because many of the folios combine several smaller compositions, and because these folios are separated from the album’s current binding, the number of compositions in the original collection is well into the hundreds, making this an even more comprehensive collection of Persianate works on paper than the St Petersburg Album. This profusion is interestingly belied by the stark minimalism of the codex’s borders and margins, each of which is decorated with a thin dark blue or pinkish red band with delicate gold floral motifs and an outer plain framing line situated on large empty margins.[6]

Despite the disparity of E-14’s fame and Dorn-489’s relative anonymity, the two collections rival each other in the scope of their contents. Broadly speaking, both combine imperial Safavid, Mughal, and some Deccani material from the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries with a narrower repertoire of classical sixteenth-century calligraphy compositions. Furthermore, the codicological evidence of their alternating calligraphy-figural painting formats, their arrangements of calligraphy, and the style of their border decorations all suggest that the same group of artists worked on their compilation.[7] The common source of their production has been comprehensively discussed by art historian Olga Vasilyeva in her recent articles detailing the history, codicology and provenance of Dorn 489.[8] Here, I will build on this groundwork to explore the implications of the two albums’ joint lineage.


Eighteenth-Century Persianate Collecting Practices

Through its contents and dedicatory inscriptions on its binding, we know that the St Petersburg Album was formed in the aftermath of Nader Shah’s sack of Mughal Delhi in 1739 and commissioned by his official court historian and chief vizier, Mirza Mehdi Khan Astarabadi (d. 1759) to be compiled and decorated by a workshop of artists over more than a decade.[9] We can postulate that Dorn-489 and E-14 emerged from a common corpus of material looted from the Mughal kitabkhana (library and workshop). This material may have been in various stages of album formation already—that is, some compositions mounted in folios, some perhaps organized into preliminary album prototypes. Upon their arrival under new ownership these folios would have been combined with a number of paintings and drawings which may have survived the political upheaval of the collapse of the Safavid dynasty and remained with the vestiges of the former kitabkhana under Afsharid rule (1736-1796).

Hence the albums are related through multiple vectors: their joint compilation history, common sources of component materials, parallel scope of collection and scale of production. Furthermore, since in combination the codices encompass over three hundred folios of works on paper from nearly three centuries and multiple dynasties of artistic production in the Persianate cultural realm, together they constitute one of the most prominent eighteenth-century album corpuses (and easily the largest in the Afsharid and early Qajar context). Moreover, two aspects distinguish them categorically from other surviving Persianate eighteenth-century album groups: the historical reach of their collections, and the local context of their commission—the lack of connection to European patrons and intended audiences.[10] As such, the two albums offer a solid entrance point to an exploration of artistic patronage and production in the aftermath of the Safavid empire’s disintegration.

However, we immediately face a significant challenge to reconstructing any traditional historical narrative of these albums’ identity in the dearth of concrete information about their production history. We know very little, in fact, about the details of the who, when, why and how of their compilation. If E-14’s binding inscription offers at least a semblance of a story behind its creation, Dorn-489—cannibalized as it is from its original whole into multiple fragments across collections, and with its main surviving core (what is now known as Dorn-489) rebound in an earlier, sixteenth-century binding that predates its contents—remains steadfastly, even remarkably, silent about the specifics of its provenance. The resultant lack of biography (including historical figures, sure dates, and explicitly stated motivations) has undoubtedly served as a deterrent to scholars in approaching the albums comparatively or Dorn-489 individually.

Yet what we are left with is both a necessity and an opportunity: an invitation to scrutinize the albums themselves for traces of implicit rather than explicit evidence of intentionality behind their compilations. Luckily the enormous scope of the albums’ contents allows for a number of observable and informative patterns to emerge, which can contribute to reconstructing a sense of the their “identities” in lieu of a more traditional set of narratives detailing their “biographies.” In other words, where scholarship has typically sought facts and chronologies of provenance (the concrete who, what, where, and when behind an album’s creation) and come up short, a refocus toward the principles of curatorial selection (the traces of visual habits, individual proclivities and aesthetic practices that produce a collection’s unique character) may provide an enlightening alternative lens through which we can reconstruct the essence of an album as a repository of tastes and meanings. In what follows, rather than offering a comprehensive overview of the albums’ contents and decorative programs, I take a bird’s-eye view, pointing out a number of discernable correlations, operational principles and emergent qualities that can serve as indices of intentionality. Upon close consideration, it is through the distinctions in these two albums’ constituent compositions that we can begin to form such a set of meaningful profiles. In fact, a comparative analysis offers an inroad to understanding each collection on its own terms.


Albums as Repositories of Visual Habits

Fig. 3. Selection of comparisons between E-14 and Dorn-489 showing curatorial contrasts between official and intimate iconography; derivative eighteenth-century paintings and ambiguous, stylistically peripheral works; and ostentatious vs. reserved borders. Left column from top: E-14 plates 176-177, 114-115, 164-165. © Institute of Oriental Studies, St Petersburg, Russia. Right column from top: Dorn-489 folios 10v-11r, 36v-37r, 50v-51r. © National Library of Russia, St Petersburg, Russia.

A few contrasts in the overall selection of content material between the two codices emerge right away (Fig. 3). E-14 deals heavily in imperial portraits, complementing images of Mughal emperors and their courtiers with a smaller selection of their Safavid counterparts of the mid-seventeenth century.[11] The album’s repertoire of figural representations is comprised of relatively large fully painted compositions. Single portraits are contextualized by historical, allegorical, and courtly scenes. The overall collection combines a number of genres, ranging from the imperial single/group portrait, to multiple hermit scenes, animal and flower studies, and examples of Europeanizing exotica. The entire scope of the album’s contents, however, can be rather neatly broken down into “genre scenes,” of which works in the Europeanizing style formed a particular sub-niche at the time, and “official iconography,” which ranged from single imperial and courtier portraits to darbar scenes, historic battles, and allegorical paintings. Many works fall into both categories at once, such as scenes of hermits, “ladies on the terrace,” equestrian riders (which themselves range from imperial portraits to anonymous genre-youths and mythological figures), and hunting, to name a few. Such trope iconographies function together to construct a meta-portrait of the ruler-patron’s imperial domain. What is particularly noteworthy, however, especially in light of its contrast with Dorn-489, is how few works among the album’s vast collection actually step outside these imperial iconography categories—there are not many wildcards in this selection. Furthermore, within each of these categories, the album compilers have selected works of polish and grandeur, and have framed them in an ambitious and aesthetically ostentatious illumination program to match and accentuate these qualities. Hence where a different contextualization of the same works could have exploited their potential for multiple meanings by placing them in dialogue with more ambiguous associative networks, E-14’s selection, organization, and illumination strategies prioritize iconographic stability and legibility over discursive open-endedness.

Dorn-489, by contrast, cultivates a distinctly eclectic, idiosyncratic flavor in its collection, which questions and destabilizes fixed categories and dominant meanings of its constituent works through a heterogeneous complexity. It pairs large, fully painted complex compositions with small tinted drawings, and its themes span from the imperial darbars and historical illustrations that abound in E-14 to intimate erotica, tongue-in-cheek satirical juxtapositions, and genre depictions of mundane, quotidian moments. This renders its iconographic repertoire much broader than that of E-14. Although the two albums share some nearly identical compositions, such as the repeated scenes of “ladies on a terrace” as well as some common compositional tropes, among them darbars, equestrian riders and courtier portraits, Dorn-489 diversifies its range of subjects. It contains more unique and less codified scenes such as lovers in bed together and ladies at their toilet (folios 67v, 80r, 83v, 84r); court scenes of wrestling matches and holi celebrations (2v, 3r, 11v); and ambiguous quasi-narrative compositions. This last group ranges from ships at sea (17r, 18v, 18r), to courtly women killing a snake in a garden (69v-70r), to study sessions in a madrassa setting (36v), to more recognizable illustrative scenes like that of krishna with ladies (23 v), or Yusuf rescued from the well (21v), or the culminating moment from the sebki hindi narrative Suz u Gawdaz (82v), to name only a few examples among many.

Another possible way to highlight this contrast through a selective lens might be to look at a particular leitmotif, for instance that of the hunt. E-14 selects for unambiguous imperial symbolism through repeated trope images of Jahangir killing a lion variably astride a horse or an elephant. Dorn-489, by contrast, cultivates eclectic contrasts. Its diverse hunting images span from a unique, fantastical Farrukh Beg mountain scene with an anonymous hunter in the background (folio 24 v) to the highly conventional, classical sixteenth-century Safavid princely hunt compositions (64r-65v) to several smaller, atmospheric early Mughal hunt scenes aesthetically resonant with the Persianate artistic roots of those Safavid paintings (77v, 78r, 86r). This broad selection decidedly prioritizes an engagement with art history over the writing of imperial history. In effect, Dorn-489 foregoes E-14’s pronounced thematic focus on imperial iconography, opting instead to cover a broader range of scale, subject, style, provenance and genre.

This significant difference in breadth and variety is borne out not only on the iconographic level, but, no less importantly, in the provenance of the selected works. The St Petersburg album focuses heavily on Mughal paintings and adds only a small group of Safavid works, almost all of them in the Europeanizing Isfahani style, indicating a preference not only for imperial iconography but also for dominant, legible imperial visual styles. By contrast, Dorn-489 includes works ranging from the late fifteenth-century Timurid compositions by Bihzad (1450-1535), to classic sixteenth-century Safavid full-page paintings, to seventeenth-century tinted drawings by Riza Abbasi (1565-1635), to both Mughal and Safavid Europeanizing modes, to a variety of Deccani compositions—thus encompassing a truly inclusive temporal, geographical, and dynastic range of Persianate artistic production. If we posit that the two collections were curated from a common pool of source material (and this is supported, among other evidence, by some close overlaps in nearly-identical compositions between the two albums), the lopsided distribution of artistic traditions selected for each album is rather striking, and can hardly be interpreted as accidental. E-14 exhibits a clear preference for imperial Mughal works and official late-Safavid imperially-commissioned royal and courtly portraits, whereas Dorn-489 lacks such a specific focus, and through a combination of Timurid, Safavid, Mughal and Deccani works opts instead to construct an inclusive history and topography of Persianate aesthetics.[12]

Importantly, these differences cannot be reduced to a question of quality. Each album contains an impressive and historically unique critical mass of works of the finest craftsmanship, many of them by what were already then (and continue to be today) some of the most prominent Safavid, Mughal, and Deccani artists. Furthermore, each album rounds out its collection with some supporting works of a complementary function. In fact the nature of these less famous compositions offers important insight into the selection priorities guiding the formation of the two collections. E-14 includes iconographically derivative eighteenth-century works that buttress the album’s narrative of imperial authority, such as eighteenth-century copies of an earlier compositional trope of Jahangir’s lion hunt, or some relatively stereotypical images of meetings with hermits. Dorn-489, by contrast, diversifies its collection with more aesthetically idiosyncratic and unorthodox compositions such as the study scene at the madrasa (folio 36 v), or a vignette of a semi-nude Asian attendant figure (folio 45r), or even the Central Asian- looking equestrian rider (folio 20v), among many others, all of which are difficult to identify from our contemporary connoisseurial perspective because they do not readily fit into well-established and clearly-delineated taxonomies of recognizable styles of imperial production. In other words, in rounding out its collection, Dorn-489 embraces the very ambiguities of aesthetic connoisseurship that E-14 eschews in favor of rhetorical clarity and force.

The two albums’ approaches to the arrangement of their contents also bear out the same nature of subtle yet substantive differences. Both codices tend to group works by common provenance, featuring many bifolio openings of two single full-page works. This is a grouping strategy that manifests and emphasizes distinctions of genre: hence animal and floral studies are placed together, scenes of hermits and holy men appear vis-à-vis each other, as do portraits of courtiers, works in the Europeanizing idiom, and so on. Adel Adamova has convincingly argued that such genre categories formed chapter-like groupings in E-14’s original (and now disassembled) folio order—a hypothesis supported by a similar approach in earlier Mughal albums and Dorn-489.[13] Unlike E-14, however, Dorn-489 transgresses genre classifications over the course of several key folios in favor of cultivating a more eclectic, exploratory approach to its juxtapositions of works. Multi-compositional bifolio arrangements such as 65v-66r, 85v-86r, 73v-74r, 75v-76r, among many others, combine up to eight works of disparate provenances, weaving networks of emergent formal resonance rather than chronological, narrative history. Together, such folios once more underscore a connoisseurial preoccupation with aesthetics and art history that operates as a central organizing principle in Dorn-489 but remains peripheral in E-14.


Connoisseurship across Persianate Albums: A Case Study of a Bifolio

Fig. 4. Bifolio from Dorn-489. 85r-86v. © National Library of Russia, St Petersburg, Russia.

By way of one among many possible examples: the combination of Timurid, Mughal, and Afsharid flower studies, narrative illustrations, and genre scenes across the bifolio opening on 85v-86r cultivates an innovative interplay of representational modes that challenges its audience to forge novel visual connections across page, time, and culture (Fig. 4). This particular arrangement juxtaposes four floral compositions of dispersed provenance in the upper register with three fragmentary narrative scenes below them. We encounter a cropped Bihzad painting likely of Majnun before the elders on the verso side, and an early Mughal hunt scene along with a stylistically hybrid and iconographically enigmatic illustration of what may perhaps be a medical operation on the recto side. Despite the apparent miscellany of style, provenance, genre and subject we would be remiss to fall back into the long-debunked error of mistaking an album folio’s heterogeneity for haphazardness: quite to the contrary, this arrangement stages a history of Persianate aesthetics in a presentation that despite its non-linear fashion would have been unmistakable to a connoisseur’s scrutiny. The palette and iconography of the flowers in the upper register are echoed formally in the compositions below them to weave a visual narrative of formal resonances and artistic lineage from Timurid Bihzad to the Mughals, and ultimately to the post-Safavid, Afsharid painters working on the album compilation itself. The sapling hugging a cypress in Bihzad’s painting (a ubiquitous iconographic trope of late Timurid and early Safavid painting, working within the established Sufi symbolism of the lover reaching toward the beloved) is directly quoted above it in the close-up rendering of a bird, two butterflies and a fly arranged around a flowering branch.

On the recto folio, an even more subtle resonance is pursued as the colors and textures echo between the top register and the bottom, despite a decided lack of iconographic connection: the undulating, shaded mauve of clustered voluminous flower petals in the upper right acts as a direct visual citation of the similarly-toned, shaded, and textured craggy rocks in the Mughal hunting genre scene below. Similarly, the smooth, thick, opaque white surface of the floral petals in the upper left serves to bring out and emphasize the smooth white surfaces of the architectural setting in the narrative scene at the bottom. At the same time, the symmetrical iteration of white and mauve in the quartet of floral studies on these pages forms a rhythmic network of visual echoes across the top register of the bifolio. In other words, the Afsharid compilers of the album have managed to weave through this selection of eight small and diverse vignettes: a historical lineage of Persianate painting from the Timurids through the Mughals back to the Afsharids in the post-Safavid moment; a representative sample of Persianate compositional tropes and genres from floral and animal studies to hunting scenes to narrative illustrations. Finally, and no less remarkably, Dorn-489 represents a visually integrated meta-composition that draws on classical Persianate strategies of color-plane distribution as a mechanism of manipulating a viewer’s attention and guiding our gaze around the album’s opening. Although the connoisseurial sensitivities that enabled this orchestration of aesthetic and historical interconnections are ones that certainly underlie the coordination of the St Petersburg Album’s folios as well, there they remain evident only as traces of strategies utilized as a pragmatic means to an end of effective visual presentation and compositional coordination. It is only in Dorn-489 that they are brought to the forefront to become a self-reflexive theme and a focal point in and of themselves.

The insertion of contemporary artists’ works within the compositional frame extends this important diversion of approach and emphasis between E-14 and Dorn-489. In the case of the bifolio 85v-86r, the pink flower at the upper right corner of 86r was painted by Muhammad Sadiq (active 1740’s-1790’s), an artist whose illuminations also adorn the outer borders of many E-14 folios, and whom we can presume to have been active in the compilation of both albums. It is a telling (and representative) difference that while in E-14 his craftsmanship remains confined to the borders and margins around the composition, Dorn-489 includes his actual compositions. Both approaches in fact give agency and exposure to contemporary artist/compilers’ works. The aesthetically baroque yet rigorously organized decorative program of E-14’s borders competes for attention with the paintings it sets out to frame. Not only do the illuminations cultivate an ostentatious impression to the album as a whole, but they also seem to lay claim to the greatness of their present moment (of artistic inspiration and imperial domination) by overwhelming the compositions in the album’s collection. The radical sparseness of Dorn-489’s borders, on the other hand, does the exact opposite, placing the onus of engagement entirely on the collected works themselves and their interplay. Here, the original and conceptually subtle juxtapositions of the compositions become the key mode of the eighteenth-century artists’ contemporary contribution to the formative process of album construction, once again emphasizing its intimate nature and appeal to a discerning, expert audience. In this context, the inclusion of contemporary post-Safavid artists’ works within the composite folios serves to integrate the compilers’ present moment into the historical framework of Persianate aesthetics, placing their works in a subtle, discursive relationship with their precedents, quite different from the blunter tone of domination set by the competition between contemporary border illumination versus historical internal compositions in E-14.


Reconstructing Album “Identities”

Fig. 5. A selection of comparative folios showing echoes between the Gulshan/Jahangir Album and Dorn-489. Top register from left: folios 34, 23, 8 from the Jahangir Album, A-117, opaque watercolor on paper, early seventeenth century. Opaque watercolor on paper, 42.5 x 26.5cm.  Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany. © Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Berlin. Bottom register from left: folios 58v-59r, 17r, 18v-19r, 40v from Dorn-489. © National Library of Russia, St Petersburg, Russia.

Even such a brief outline of patterns of difference between the two albums begins to suggest some possible approaches to thinking about their identities and potential histories. In the aftermath of Nader Shah’s looting of Delhi’s royal kitabkhana, collections of single-page paintings, calligraphies, and album folios were brought back to Iran and subsequently rearranged into several albums by artists. Likely initiated at the behest of Mirza Mehdi Asterabadi, this process yielded E-14 and Dorn-489, its two most important and large-scale surviving products. Afsharid artists working on these compilations seem to have looked back to the Mughal Jahangir (or Gulshan) Album as a model of elite collecting (Fig. 5).[14] From a codicological perspective, the Afsharid albums fall clearly in line with the most recognizable norms of Mughal album practices, which established the “Persianate album” as a genre. This is evidenced in their bifolio juxtapositions of centrally framed full-page paintings; their unvarying alteration of paintings and calligraphies framed in a consistent format that masks the traces of its codicological process of construction; their inclusion of a set range of painting genres (courtly portraits, floral and animal studies, Europeanizing “exotica,” and so on) with claims to being a comprehensive collection; and their iconographic references to imperial authority in the form of royal portraits and courtly rituals. These adherences to established precedents in format allow the albums to tap into multiple layers of more conceptual resonances ranging from the global scale and cultural scope of the collections to their cultivation of stylistic heterogeneity. The ways in which they forged intersections between the discursive threads of art history, aesthetic erudition, and imperial self-fashioning engaged Timurid roots but utilized new, codified rhetorical strategies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.[15] To this extent E-14 and Dorn 489 share common roots and formative priorities.

Fig. 6. Comparison of two biflios from E-14 and Dorn-489, showing an overlap in iconography in small bust ruler portraits within a broadly contrasting curatorial program, with E-14 cultivating a celebratory meta-portrait of royal power, while Dorn-489 emphasizes themes of contemplation and erudition. On left: plates 226-227 from E-14. © Institute of Oriental Studies, St Petersburg, Russia. On right: bifolio 65v-66r from Dorn-489. © National Library of Russia, St Petersburg, Russia.

However, the two albums diverged in their points of emphasis. Whereas E-14 echoed the Jahangir Album in its strategy of mobilizing “global” collecting as a symbolic means of cultivating a message of imperial domination, Dorn-489 responded to a different aspect of the Jahangir Album by echoing its more intimate exploration of artistic experimentation and connoisseurship (Fig. 6). These two curatorial visions reach out to two different sides of artistic reception: the rhetorical, public face of art as a mechanism of claiming cultural prestige, on the one hand, and the more individual, private aspect of art as a medium of immersive meditation on the other.

How might we account for this variation in tone if we posit that the two albums stemmed from a common production setting? As a starting point for further scholarly debate, I propose that E-14 seems to have been intended as a presentation volume, a sort of “trophy” of arts-of-the-book spolia, perhaps conceived for Nader Shah’s grandson Shahrukh (1734-1796), the new Afsharid ruler at the time of the album’s creation. It may have been commissioned by his predecessor’s historiographer and advisor, Mirza Mehdi Asterabadi, to celebrate the military-political victories, consolidate the authority, and establish the cultural legitimacy of the new regime. Dorn-489, on the other hand, appears to have been an album Asterabadi initiated for a more private audience (quite possibly himself), a compilation that more candidly reflected his intellectual interests and connoisseurial erudition. The hypothesis of different dedications would explain the two albums’ contrasting curatorial tonalities despite their evidently overlapping provenance, as their target audiences and contexts of consumption would have demanded an aesthetic and rhetorical distinction. Although we have no direct accounts of the history of viewing practices attached to these two particular collections, their illumination programs and iconographic profiles suggest that E-14 would have accommodated viewings at more official, courtly ceremonial occasions, whereas the less ostentatious and more experimental Dorn-489 may have been contemplated and appreciated in more intimate settings.

The two projects remained incomplete at the time of Asterabadi’s death, perhaps continuing for some time under a different patron. By that point, however, their different flavors and functions would have been curatorially consolidated and further cemented by their decorative programs. In absence of evidence to indicate an alternative patron, Astarabadi’s name on E-14’s binding in combination with his unique position as an advisor to Nader Shah and a historian (hence an intermediary between the ruling and the intellectual elite) makes him a likely figure to link to the creation of both albums. His well-known role as court historian and author of the official biographical chronicle of Nader Shah’s rule, the Tarikh-e Jahangoshay-e-Nadiri, as well as his position as court advisor and strategist, not only suggest a requisite level of cultural sophistication consistent with the highest levels of artistic patronage, but also display his experience in crafting narratives of Nader Shah’s rule and forging representations of his authority. In this context, the St Petersburg Album can be viewed as a visual extension of Asterabadi’s broader project: a triumphant memorial to Nader Shah’s victories composed of artistic spolia, and hence a contribution to constructing the ruler’s legacy and historical persona. At the same time Dorn-489 writes a different kind of history, both broader in scope and less programmatic in tone. Its self-reflexive connoisseurial sophistication offers a subtle yet poignant glimpse into the vision of those whose often anonymous craftsmanship helped forge the official narratives of rulers and empires. Although remaining at the level of conjecture for lack of explicit written confirmation, this possible patronage narrative works well with the codicologically supported hypothesis that the two albums’ contents were drawn from a common pool of looted works on paper, but that their works were chosen according to divergent selection principles.



Fig. 7. A selection of folios from Supplement Persan 1572 showing a range of styles, genres and provenances that echo the imperial album collections E-14 and Dorn-489. Folios in the bottom register overlap with copies and analogous compositions in D-181 at the Institute of Oriental Studies, St. Petersburg. Top register: folios 2, 4, 10, 26. Bottom register: 16, 11, 8, 15. Opaque watercolor on paper, 23.5 x 20.5cm. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, France. © BnF.

I would like to end by briefly bringing two more albums into the discussion, which offer material evidence of a broader network of eighteenth-century Persianate album production. One of these is D-181, with 45 folios, now in the same collection in St Petersburg as E-14; the other, Supplement Persan 1572, containing 29 folios, is now at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris (Fig. 7).[16] Both of these albums are of a similar scale to each other and are significantly smaller than E-14 and Dorn-489. Both were originally bound in a concertina style (though Supplement Persan has since been rebound in the standard manner) and covered in eighteenth-century lacquer bindings of the same type as E-14. They match each other rather closely in their paper quality and framing mechanisms; and both have some indications of unfinished illumination programs. Although a thorough treatment of their codicology and contents is not possible within the scope of this article, and should be the subject of a separate study, I invoke them here to make a comparative point. These codices have not hitherto been acknowledged as related projects, nor has their resonance with E-14 and Dorn 489 been recognized. Yet together they comprise a starting point for creating a corpus of eighteenth-century post-Safavid album production. Interestingly, despite their markedly smaller scale, humbler contents and more limited aspirations, D-181 and SP 1572 actually echo E-14 and Dorn-489 on multiple counts. They include Mughal, Safavid, and Deccani works; they experimentally combine Persianate, Indian and Europeanizing representational idioms; and they present direct, deliberate juxtapositions of Mughal and Safavid works across bifolio openings (this is an important rhetorical conceit for D-181, which, unlike Supplement Persan 1572, retains its original folio ordering).

Additionally, both albums relate in particular to E-14 in their interest in courtier portraits, and to Dorn-489 in their broad range of media from full-page paintings to tinted drawings. Furthermore, like Dorn-489 (though markedly unlike E-14), the two albums flesh out a common art historical narrative of Safavid aesthetics—reaching back to Muhammadi in the sixteenth century, following the development of Riza Abbasi’s visual legacy, and including the Europeanizing Isfahani idiom. In the cases of these two minor albums, their Mughal contents seem to have been opportunistic representatives of a category prescribed by the codified album genre—that is, works of variable quality and spotty provenance included to fill the “Mughal” dimension of the album’s collection. Evidently, these minor albums were products of sub-imperial patronage and did not have the advantage of drawing on Nader Shah’s Mughal kitabkhana loot for their contents.

What is perhaps most interesting and relevant to the present discussion, however, is that the albums share some clearly related works among their contents. Not only do they include portraits of the same historical figures and genre figure types (from more generally resonant selections of Riza Abbasi courtiers and dervishes to more iconographically specific scenes such as two related compositions of elephants in a mountain landscape), but even variations on the same exact composition appear across the different collections (such as folio 15 of PS 1572 and folio 37 in D-181; and folio 16 of PS 1572 and folio 16r of D-181, to name a few examples). While the exact circumstances of both the compositions’ and the albums’ production require further substantial investigation, for the purposes of the current discussion the recurrence of iconography across these collections points to a circulation of common imagery, which by the eighteenth century became standard fare for a “proper” exemplar of the album format.

How might these albums, considered as a tentatively linked corpus, inform our understanding of the broader landscape of eighteenth-century Persianate album production? Despite the limitations in direct evidence of provenance and patronage, this group of codices reveals several patterns that can begin to reveal a broader topography of practice. First, they indicate a deliberate adherence to a cluster of compilation standards that by the eighteenth century had made the album format a codified genre. Second, this codification process had unmistakable roots in seventeenth-century Mughal album production: Afsharid album contents were sourced directly from the Mughal kitabkhana through Nader Shah’s loot, and their interpretations of those contents were profoundly informed by access to the Jahangir Album and perhaps others. (The minor albums may have come by these principles through a more indirect path of access to precedents that almost certainly did not include, and likely predated, Nader Shah’s loot, and which resulted in vaguer though still recognizable points of resonance.) Third, we can glean the priorities of this emergent genre, which consistently used cross-imperial and inter-cultural collecting to balance claims of political/cultural hegemony with the performance of aesthetic/connoisseurial erudition. And finally, the geographical and historical scope covered by these collections allowed them to cultivate an eclectic heterogeneity of representational idioms, while weaving narratives of Persianate artistic lineage from Timurid and early Safavid roots to their contemporary moment.

The vast scope of E-14 and Dorn-489, preceded perhaps only by the so-called Diez albums and the Jahangir Album in the history of Persianate album production, undoubtedly monopolized the space for imperial album commissions and set the standard for sub-imperial ones (see Fig. 3).[17] The attentive curatorial and framing processes behind these projects enable their different priorities and individual identities to come across with impressive clarity. At the same time, D-181 and Supplement Persan 1572 play an important role in showing that the broader patterns evident in E-14 and Dorn 489 persisted at different levels of patronage and included an expansive network of artistic distribution and aggregation (see Fig. 4). And while many of the historical details of that patronage remain to be reconstructed, and their relative absence from the albums themselves to be explained, there is in fact enough material evidence—in particular in the form of links between and within the albums’ contents and arrangement—to begin to understand the artistic profile of this era.

Anastassiia Alexandra Botchkareva is an independent scholar based in New York City


[1] The exception is the later, Qajar period (1785-1925), the album production of which has drawn recent scholarly attention in the exhibition and accompanying catalogue of essays organized and edited by David Roxburgh and Mary McWilliams, Technologies of the Image: Art in 19th Century Iran (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).

[2] The Johnson, Clive, and Polier albums are the best known and largest of such collections, though by no means the only examples. The Polier collection, a group of albums made for an Indian ruler (in this case Asaf-ud-Daula, the Nawab of Awadh) and afterward gifted to the European visitor, has been the most extensively studied. See, for example, Stephen Markel, ed., India’s Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2010); Regina Hickmann, Kunst der Moghul-Zeit: Indische Miniaturen des 16 bus 18 Jarhunderts aus dem Islamischen Museum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin (Lachen am Zurichsee: Coron Verlag, 1991); and Raffael Dedo Gadesbuch, “Celestial Gardens: Mughal Miniatures from an Eighteenth-Century Album,” Orientations 31/9 (2000): 69-75.

[3] For a discussion of calligraphy-image relationships in earlier Persianate albums, see David Roxburgh, The Persian Album, 1400-1600: From Dispersal to Collection (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005). Naciem Nakkhah’s forthcoming dissertation takes up calligraphy-painting and text-image relationships in late Persianate albums.

[4] The St Petersburg Album has been published in facsimile with accompanying essays in O.F. Akimushkin, ed., The St Petersburg Muraqqa’: Album of Persian Miniatures of the 16th-18th Centuries and Specimens of Persian Calligraphy of Imad al-Hasani (Lugano: Arch Foundation; Milano: Electa, 1996); and in the related (albeit shorter) publication The St Petersburg Muraqqa’. Album of Indian and Persian Miniatures From the 16th Through 18th Century and Specimens of Persian Calligraphy by ‘Imad al-Hasani, 2 vols. (Milano: Leonardo Arte, 1996).

[5] A further 34 folios were removed from the original album before it was rebound in its current binding (which was itself recycled from another, earlier manuscript). I have located the “missing” folios in the British Museum collection, and their overview and history forms the subject of a separate forthcoming study. For the purposes of the present discussion, it is not my aim to provide a summary of the separation and reunification of the folios; I do however draw on the entirety of the original album’s collection, including the portion of it now in London, to inform my conclusions about the selection principles behind the album’s formation in the eighteenth century. Hence when I refer to the collection of Dorn-489 in the present paper I include the missing folios in its scope. I have opted not to retitle the combined two parts of the album, but rather to stick with the name of the incomplete album in referring to its original state because Dorn-489 still contains the majority of the collection and is now the only bound portion of the folios.

[6] The utmost consistency of this decorative program makes it extremely unlikely that its minimalism was due to a stage of incompletion.

[7] For instance the thin blue and red gold-illuminated borders of Dorn-489 form a close match to those signed by Muhammad Baqir in E-14. For a more detailed consideration of codicological evidence for the intersection between E-14’s and Dorn-489’s border decoration see Olga Vasilyeva, “The National Library of Russia muraqqa’-Album Dorn 489 and Its Provenance,” Journal of Islamic Manuscripts 7 (2016): 66-88; and Vasilyeva, “Whose Album Is It? The History of a Search,” in Vostochnaia kollektsiia (Oriental Collection) (2004): 28-41.

[8] See fn 7.

[9] For a transcription and translation of the full inscription on the album’s binding, which identifies Mirza Mehdi Asterabadi as the project’s patron, see Akimushkin, ed., The St Petersburg Muraqqa’: Album of Persian Miniatures, 22-23. The full codicological details pointing to the album’s history of production are discussed in Anatoly Ivanov, “The Compiling and Decoration of the Album,” in Akimushkin, ed., The St Petersburg Muraqqa’: Album of Persian Miniatures.

[10] The exception to this lack is a number of smaller, sub-imperial eighteenth-century (late- or post-Safavid) albums of evidently local patronage, discussed later in this essay.

[11] Of its nearly 300 folios, E-14 contains only 20 miniatures by Safavid and post-Safavid artists, 17 of them from the Isfahan school of the second half of the seventeenth century, and three by artists contemporary to (and involved in) the album’s compilation in the eighteenth century.

[12] What is markedly, albeit not surprisingly, missing from both albums is any presence of Ottoman painting. Although there is no significant historical precedent for proactive inclusion of Ottoman works in either Safavid or Mughal albums, it is worth noting the long-standing Ottoman history of album production, which did include works from and look to models and trends of the album genre in the Safavid and even possibly Mughal realms. For an overview of important early Ottoman albums, see selections from  Julia Gonnella, Frederike Weis, and Christoph Rauch, eds., The Diez Albums: Contexts and Contents (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2017); for a detailed exploration of a seventeenth-century Ottoman album, see Emine Fetvaci, “The Album of Ahmed I,” Ars Orientalis 42 (2012): 127-138.

[13] A.T. Adamova, Persian Painting and Drawing of the 15th-19th Centuries from the Hermitage, exhib. cat. (St Petersburg: AO Slaviia, 1996).

[14] Despite limited accessibility, the Jahangir (or Gulshan) Album has received a good deal of scholarly attention. Although it is mentioned in numerous publications on Persian and Mughal painting, and various of its individual folios have been the subject of analysis, it is not published in facsimile and has yet to be comprehensively discussed in a volume devoted to it as an album. It is currently the subject of an ongoing project lead by a group of scholars, and forthcoming in publication. For a discussion of the role of collecting practices in the forging of Jahangir’s image as a world-dominating ruler, see Corinne Lefèvre, “Recovering a Missing Voice from Mughal India: The Imperial Discourse of Jahangir (r.1605-1627) in His Memoirs,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 50/4 (2007): 452-489. Lefevre characterizes Jahangir’s collecting as a symbolic act of global authority: “The desire to appropriate, implying both the transformation and the naming of the object, is here evident and shows that the regal name chosen by the monarch, far from being restricted to the symbolic sphere, was intended to translate his relation to the universe: Jahangir was indeed a world-seizer. In this respect the royal collection was at once a means and an expression of the monarch’s universal grasp (479-480).”

[15] For the most comprehensive discussion of Timurid and early Safavid albums (through a series of case studies showcasing their range of collections, patrons and formats, as well as their development over time), see Roxburgh, The Persian Album 1400–1600.

[16] Both albums remain virtually unpublished. A brief overview of D-181 appears in Y.A. Petrosyan et al., Pages of Perfection: Islamic Paintings and Calligraphy from the Russian Academy of Sciences, St Petersburg (Lugano: ARCH Foundation, Electa, 1995), 268-273. No published holistic overview is available for Supplement Persan 1572.

[17] The Diez Albums, so named after Heinrich Friedrich von Diez, the European diplomat and scholar who acquired them in the Ottoman Empire and brought them back with him to Europe, contain over 400 works on paper of Jalayirid, Timurid, Ilkhanid (as well as Ottoman, Chinese and European) origin. For a detailed analysis of this corpus of albums, see Gonnella et al., eds., The Diez Album.


Cite this article as: Anastassiia Alexandra Botchkareva, “Topographies of Taste: Aesthetic Practice in 18th-Century Persianate Albums,” Issue 6 Albums (Fall 2018),

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