When Shah ‘Abbas I made Isfahan his imperial capital in 1597, he wished to put Safavid Persia at the centre of the global economy, building the Image of the World Square (Maydan-e Naqsh-e Jahan) with the royal bazaar to the north. This feat of urban planning was praised by an English traveller as ‘as spacious, as pleasant and aromatic a market as any in the universe’, noting that it was ‘six times larger’ than equivalent squares in Paris or London.
The seventeenth century was a golden age of Euro-Safavid diplomacy, transcending political and religious differences on a war-torn continent. Persian ambassadors actively solicited military support from Catholic powers and vice-versa, against their mutual enemy, the Ottoman Turks. At this time, Catholic missionaries including Jesuits were permitted to reside in Isfahan. The relationship was also mercantile. Between 1617–65, the Dutch, English, French and Portuguese all signed trade agreements with the Shahs, entangling Persia in European colonial enterprises and giving new meaning to the saying “Isfahan, Half the World” (esfahan nesf-e jahan).
The European fascination with Persia has been the subject of exhibitions, most recently Rembrandt’s Orient (2020–21). This panel seeks to explore cultural exchange between the Low Countries and Isfahan from both sides. Works of Netherlandish art were acquired by the Safavids as diplomatic gifts but also through trade and Catholic global mission, through which channels engravings and illustrated books also arrived in Isfahan’s bazaars. Armenian merchants were key mediators, importing portraits of contemporary European rulers that were highly prized at the Safavid court. With bases in Amsterdam, Livorno and Rome as well as New Julfa, what cultural presence did Persian Armenians have in the early modern Low Countries?
On the back of commerce and missionary work, at least eleven Netherlandish artists travelled to Persia in the seventeenth century. Jan Lucasz. van Hasselt became master painter to ‘Abbas I, decorating the royal palace at Ashraf, while ‘Abbas II took drawing lessons from Hendrick Boudewijn van Lockhorst. Famously, ‘Abbas II rescued Philips Angel from legal conviction by the VOC, employing him as a court artist on 4,000 guilders per year and presenting Angel with a robe of honour upon his departure. Encounters with Netherlandish art led to a new, “hybrid” style of painting known as Farangi-sāzi, which saw Persian miniaturists adopt European painting techniques and iconography.
To paraphrase Barbara Fuchs, the story of Isfahan in the seventeenth century ‘compromises the narratives of national distinction by emphasizing inconvenient similarities and shared heritages’. The same could be said of Catholic Europe. In Antwerp, Rubens painted the Levantine merchant Nicolas de Respaigne standing on a Herat-type Persian carpet. The same artist copied a corpus of Persian miniatures, annotating the costumes in detail. As for Van Dyck, he painted the English envoy of Shah ‘Abbas I, Sir Robert Shirley, in pendant portraits with his Circassian wife, Terezia Sampsonia, whose habitually magnificent attire helped them negotiate the silk trade in tandem with military alliances. Just how fluid was cultural identity in this period?
Please send paper proposals of c. 500 words, clearly stating the goals of the paper, along with a CV (no longer than one page) to email@example.com (deadline: 29 September 2023).
Accepted participants will be notified by Monday October 9th, and will be expected to give confirmation of their participation before Friday October 13th.
Organisers: Dr Adam Sammut, University of York; Dr Ahmad Yengimolki, University of York