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the Complete Review
the complete review - art book

The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp

Sheila R. Canby

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To purchase The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp

Title: The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp
Author: Sheila R. Canby
Genre: Epic/illustrated
Written: 2014
Length: 357 pages
Availability: The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp - US
The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp - UK
The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp - Canada
  • The Persian Book of Kings
  • With 530 color illustrations, including all 258 illustrated folios of the Shah Tahmasp Shahnama

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Our Assessment:

(-) : a stunning work in a very attractive edition

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Abstracta Iranica . Vol.37-39 (2018) Frantz Chaigne

  From the Reviews:
  • "Si la qualité remarquable des reproductions est source de délectation, l’introduction (p. 13-18) et le long essai « The Material World of Shah Tahmasp » (p. 21-60) de Canby apportent de précieux éclairages scientifiques." - Frantz Chaigne, Abstracta Iranica

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Firdausi's 50,000-verse epic from 1010, the Shahnama, is: "the towering monument of Persian literature", as Sheila R. Canby writes in her Introduction. Illustrated editions did not follow quickly after it was completed, but eventually some began to be commissioned and produced, and this one, the Shah Tahmasp Shahnama, was commissioned around 1522 and is widely considered the foremost illustrated edition. Presented to the Ottoman sultan in 1568, it was bought by Edmund de Rothschild in 1903, and then sold to Arthur A. Houghton in 1959 (which is why it is also often referred to as the 'Houghton Shahnameh'). The then-still-intact manuscript was -- outrageously and unconscionably (though, disappointingly, not criminally-actionably) -- then pulled apart by Houghton; 78 illustrations were presented to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while others were sold and auctioned off; after his death in 1990 his heirs: "traded the binding, text, and remaining 118 illustrations with the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art".
       As Canby notes: "Its folios will never be reunited, but at least they can meet again as pages in a modern book". Limited editions collecting all the illustrations were published in 1981 and 2011, while this edition, which also: "includes an extended introduction and a concise synopsis of each narrative episode" now makes the work (somewhat more) accessible.
       It is a remarkable volume. Each of the 258 illustrated pages is reproduced, at about three-quarter scale of the original -- sufficient to appreciate most of the detail, and certainly giving a good impression of each depicted scene. A nice touch too is an appendix of a 'Dramatis Personæ'-gallery of well over a hundred of the significant named characters -- close-ups of the figures from the relevant illustrations.
       The 'Notes on the Folios' provide information about which collection each piece is in, as well as brief summaries of the depicted scenes. These do get at the gist, but are hardly a substitute for the text-proper, and indeed the stories of the Shahnama would be hard to follow relying solely on these illustrations and brief descriptions. There may be over 250 illustrations, but they are nevertheless only highlight- and significant scenes; the epic itself is, of course, a much more far-reaching work. Nevertheless, these beautiful illustrations are certainly a welcome complement to the text and should enhance any reading of it.
       Canby's Introduction focuses more on this illustrated manuscript than the Shahnama as literary work -- i.e. readers would do well to refer to other texts (such as Hamid Dabashi on The Shahnameh) or preferably the Shahnama itself (in, for example, Dick Davis' translation) to get a better understanding of the work as a whole. It does, however, serve as a good, brief introduction to the work in hand.
       A longer, second -- also richly illustrated -- essay by Canby considers: 'The Material World of Shah Tahmasp', as Canby points out that the illustrations feature: "details of the world, not of ancient Iran, but of the period in which the manuscript was produced, the first half of the sixteenth century" -- i.e. neither what might be expected in the age when the stories themselves take place (set many centuries earlier) nor indeed from Firdausi's time. As such, these provide interesting insight into that era, revealing about a variety of utensils and objects in use at the time. So, for example, she notes twenty-six examples of incense burners -- all the more interesting because few actual Safavid incense burners appear to have survived. Here, too, the focus is more on the pictorial -- elements of the illustrations -- than the literary work -- and relevant to this specific version rather than the text in general -- but it's certainly of interest as such.
       Presumably, The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp can't compare to the 1981 two-volume edition of The Houghton Shahnameh by Martin Bernard Dickson and Stuart Cary Welch (Harvard University Press), including its much more detailed discussion of the creation of the manuscript and art, but that limited (and prohibitively priced, at US$2,000) edition is hard to come by under the best of circumstances. The folios may not to be quite true-to-life size here, but the production value is still superior, the illustrations a treat for anyone interested in the art of this period, or in the Shahnama.
       Obviously, the literary text should come first -- but for those bitten by the Shahnama-bug, this volume is a treat.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 February 2019

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The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp: The Shahnama: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Sheila R. Canby is the Curator in Charge of the Department of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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