Warp: silk, Z2S, yellow
Weft: cotton, Z2S ivory, 3 shoots
Pile: wool, asymmetrical knot, open to the left
Density: 15-17 horizontal; 15-17 vertical
Sides: not original
Ends: not original
This richly colored carpet with its complex, layered design of spiraling tendrils terminating in palmettes belongs to the red ground, so-called "spiral-vine" or “in and out palmette,” group of carpets believed to have been woven in Isphahan during the Safavid dynasty (1502-1732.) This particular design appeared first in the sixteenth century and continued to find favor throughout the seventeenth century. In the present lot, the flowering, swirling vines are supported by sinuous cloudbands and pairs of birds of varying plumage. The earliest examples of the spiral-vine carpets are characterized by the use of silk in the foundation, an unusually wide variety of colors and superbly delineated drawing, as in the present lot. The most well- known carpets that belong to this early group are the pair of “Emperors’ Carpets” with one now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the other in the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna; see respectively Dimand, M., and Mailey, Jean, Oriental Rugs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1973, fig. 76, cat.no. 12; "The Emperor's Old Carpets," Hali, issue 31, p. 15. These two carpets feature animals in the design in addition to the birds and cloudbands found here.
In Safavid Persia, silk was one of the most expensive materials available, and therefore was reserved for use by the court, and the most elite workshops where highly skilled weavers executed designs supplied by court artists. The crisply drawn, intricate and symmetrically balanced design of the present carpet suggests that it was almost certainly executed from such a very detailed cartoon. This, coupled with the use of silk in the foundation, indicates that the present lot can be justly labeled as a “court carpet” – a term often erroneously applied. Silk was so highly prized and prestigious a commodity that some contemporaneous carpets woven on cotton warps would then have silk fringes tied to the warps, a feature seen even on the iconic “Emperors’ Carpet” in Vienna, see Hali, op.cit., p. 15. Exporting silk at high profits to neighboring countries, or even as far as Italy, provided substantial income for the Safavid court. Just how extremely treasured silk was is illustrated by the fact that Sultan Selim I attempted to ban the export of silk from Persia to the Ottoman Empire in order to weaken the Safavid economy.
Interestingly, by the end of the seventeenth century the “in and out palmette” pattern fell almost completely out of favor in Persia as well as in the export markets of England and of continental Europe. Surviving documentation from the East India Company, which was the main exporter of these carpets to the West, indicates the decline of popularity of “in and out palmette” carpets. A letter from the company’s governors from 1686 state: “You must never send us any more Persian carpets, for those that we had by way of Surat will not yield us here above a third of what they cost in Persia, which gives us just that cause to fear that we were abused in the price of them, the greater cause of our loss being that such rich carpets are now grown much out of use in Europe,” see J. Irwin, “Indian Textile Trade in the Seventeenth Century,” Journal of Indian Textile Trade, I, 1955, pp. 5-33. In the nineteenth century there was a resurgance of Western interest in the exotic which included carpets from the East or the Orient. The red ground, spiral vine and palmette carpets such as this lot were once again in great demand with carpets such as this being as prestigious and coveted as Old Master paintings by collectors such as the Rothschilds, J.P Morgan and the Fricks, in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The vivid color and remarkable state of preservation of the carpet offered here attests to its having been a treasured object for over 400 years.
Another related carpet with only birds embellishing the spiral-vine pattern is the “Enzenberg spiral-vine carpet” in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, see Spuhler, F., The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection: Carpets and Textiles, London, 1998, pl. 20. More closely related to the field design of the carpet offered here is that of a carpet from the Kelekian Collection, see Arthur Upham Pope, A Survey of Persian Art, London and New York, 1939, pl. 1186. According to Pope, carpets such as this lot may have been woven for use in mosques as they omit depicting any animals or human figures which would be considered sacrilege, while the representation of birds was permissible, see ibid., p. 2363. Another closely related silk foundation carpet, although somewhat less complex in design as it does not depict birds, sold Christie’s London, 16 April 2007, lot 100 ($1,530,014). Related fragments include one from the Collection of the late Robert De Calatchi, Paris and sold Sotheby’s London, October 4, 2000, lot 79; one in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, see Kurt Erdmann, Der Orientalische Knüpfteppich, Tübingen, 1955, Abb. 79; one from the collection of Mrs. Nelson A. Rockefeller sold Sotheby’s New York, June 4, 1998, lot 10; and another at Galerie Koller, Zurich, March 28, 2001, lot 1061.
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