Delicacy and Harmony in Persian Book Covers

The art of binding and the protection of scripts are as old as writing itself. The contribution made by Muslim craftsmen has been a significant element in the history of this craft and the contribution of Persian craftsmen is particularly important. Indeed, it was Persian binders who introduced a range of innovative ideas, both technical as well as artistic, and these were to have a profound impact on subsequent bookbindings made during the Ottoman and Mughal periods. In the earlier period of book production within the Islamic world and particularly during the artistically vibrant Mamluk period, book covers were generally decorated in a restrained and somewhat austere fashion. However, many display virtuoso designs that can often be linked to similar designs in other art forms such as woodwork or metalwork. Sometimes gold paint or gold-tooled decoration was added to highlight certain designs or features.

However, the onset of the 9th/15th century and the collapse of the Burji Mamluk dynasty in 1517 to the Ottoman Turks marked the beginning of a period of cultural stagnation within the Arab world; new influences in this craft tended subsequently to have a Turkish inspiration. Conversely, this was the beginning of a glorious period for Persian book crafts and it was Persia which effectively took up the mantle of artistic leadership from this time. New methods of book production and completely revolutionary techniques were introduced and these were to have a lasting impact on Islamic book production for centuries to come. But, there was a price to be paid and the resulting increase in book production and the accompanying book covers were to lead to a form of mass production through the introduction of block stamped covers. This was eventually to stifle much of the innovative approaches taken by Persian craftsmen.

The main areas of innovation centred on painted book covers, in effect treating many of these bindings as a vehicle for painting akin to that undertaken by miniaturists: elaborate gilding; stamped covers; filigree decoration usually for the inside covers; and lacquer painted covers. It is these areas that we shall now examine, using some examples that have not been published hitherto.


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