Nasta’liq: The Genius of Persian Calligraphy

An illuminated qita' (poetic fragment); Persian in black nasta'liq script; signed by Mir Ali.
  • Dates

    September 13, 2014 to May 3, 2015

  • Location

    Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

  • Collection Area

    Arts of the Islamic World

Nasta‛liq: The Genius of Persian Calligraphy is the first exhibition of its kind to focus on nasta‛liq, a calligraphic script that developed in the fourteenth century in Iran and remains one of the most expressive forms of aesthetic refinement in Persian culture to this day. More than twenty works ranging in date from 1400 to 1600, the height of nasta‛liq’s development, tell the story of the script’s transformation from a simple conveyer of the written word to an artistic form of its own. The narrative thread emphasizes the achievements of four of the greatest master calligraphers—Mir Ali Tabrizi, Sultan Ali Mashhadi, Mir Ali Haravi, and Mir Imad Hasani—whose manuscripts and individual folios are still appreciated not only for their content but also for their technical virtuosity and visual quality.

Masters & Pupils

Calligraphy, or “beautiful writing,” has long been acknowledged as one of the most revered artistic achievements of the Islamic world. Calligraphy originally evolved to give visual form to the Koran, the word of God as transmitted to the Prophet Muhammad. From the eleventh century onward, this endeavor led to the creation of a series of codified scripts in the Arabic alphabet used to pen both religious and secular texts. In Iran, a land with its own rich literary tradition, these scripts were employed both for writing in Arabic and Persian until the fourteenth century. Around 1350 a new script called naskh-i ta‘liq emerged. Later shortened to nasta‘liq, it was rapidly adopted for transcribing texts. Its sinuous lines, short vertical strokes, and astonishing sense of rhythm made nasta‘liq particularly well suited for copying Persian verse. By 1430 nasta‘liq was used throughout the Persian-speaking world—from Istanbul to Delhi and from Bukhara to Baghdad.

Several influential calligraphers stood out in the practice and development of nasta ‘liq from the late fourteenth century, when the script first flourished in Iran, until 1600, the apogee of the style. From the second half of the fifteenth century, calligraphers gradually enlarged the scale of the letters, experimented with their placement on the page, and refined their flourishes to create bold displays of a few lines of poetry on a single sheet. By manipulating the size, position, and placement of individual letters and their relationship to each other, calligraphers charged the script with new aesthetic value. The visual essence of nasta‘liq ultimately became as important as the text itself.

Similar to other Islamic scripts, general rules on transcribing nasta‘liq have not been recorded. Instead, aspiring students (shagird) learned the principles of the style from a master (ustad). Only after years of diligent practice and guided by a skilled teacher could a pupil endeavor to become an accomplished calligrapher, who would in turn train his own students. Lineages (silsila) of masters and their pupils were compiled into treatises, a literary genre that flourished in Iran after the sixteenth century.

Four leading master calligraphers dominated the formative period of nasta‘liq (1400–1600).

  • Mir Ali Tabrizi “from Tabriz” (active circa 1370–1410), the alleged inventor of nasta‘liq
  • Sultan Ali Mashhadi “from Mashhad” (died 1520), who brought the script to its classical form
  • Mir Ali Haravi “from Herat” (died circa 1550), who excelled in creating large-scale qit‘as (meaning both fragments of poetry and samples of calligraphy)
  • Mir Imad al-Hasani from Qazvin (died 1615), the most celebrated calligrapher of nasta‘liq

These masters and their students lent an unparalleled degree of aesthetic refinement to Persian calligraphy over a period of two hundred years. They contributed to the creation and development of nasta‘liq, a script that for more than five centuries has remained a powerful and enduring form of artistic expression in Iran.

In addition to perfecting their skills, calligraphers were usually responsible for their writing implements and materials. They carefully selected reeds to shape into pens (qalam) and used a sharp knife to trim the tips to the desired angle for different types of strokes. In the fifteenth century, “deviations” in the nasta‘liq style occurred after certain masters trimmed their reed pens in unconventional ways.

Scribes often prepared their own ink based on secret recipes. In 1514 the calligrapher Sultan Ali Mashhadi wrote The Path of Writing (Sirat al-sutur), which includes a short chapter that provides general instructions and lists ingredients, namely, soot (lampblack), gum, alum, and gallnut, to make ink. He also insisted on the importance of preparing the ink himself.

Do not spare labor in this.
Know that otherwise your work has been in vain.

In the second half of the fourteenth century, scribes developed the nasta‘liq script in order to copy texts composed in Persian. Until then, Persian had been penned by using traditional Arabic scripts, mainly naskh for prose and poetry and ta‘liq for administrative documents. Combining these two styles allegedly formed the root of a new script called naskh-i ta‘liq.

  • Scribes favored the cursive script ta‘liq (“hanging”) for writing administrative and diplomatic documents. Taj al-Din Salmani allegedly invented the script around 1400, but ta‘liq was in fact used much earlier, as this decree from the late thirteenth century attests. The first three large lines are in Turkish and the nine subsequent ones are in Persian.

    Issued by the Mongol Ilkhanid vizier Sadr al-Din Zanjani to his ruler, the Ilkhan Gaykhatu (reigned 1291–95), this decree, or farman, granting a tax exemption presents an archaic form of the script. Intertwined words and overly curvaceous lines make this Persian text extremely difficult to read for unaccustomed eyes. Slopes, loops, and contrast between the expansion and compression of some letters were later adopted in a subdued manner for nasta‘liq.

    It is said Mir Ali Tabrizi developed the new script naskh-i ta‘liq by combining selected features of the naskh and ta‘liq styles.

    Farman of the Ilkhan Gaykhatu
    Probably northwestern Iran, Ilkhanid period, dated 1292 (692 AH)
    Ink on paper
    Lent by the Art and History Collection LTS1995.2.9

From its inception, scribes used nasta‘liq for the functional purpose of penning full copies of texts in Persian. As such, the script “came into existence” in its minute form (khafi) at the end of the fourteenth century. Throughout the fifteenth century, skillful practitioners further refined “small” nasta‘liq. Jali, the “large” script, developed around 1500, probably under the impulse of Sultan Ali Mashhadi, a master calligrapher active in Herat. Subsequent calligraphers excelled in writing both types of nasta‘liq, but they often mastered either the khafi or the jali script, as noted in later biographies and treatises.

Emphasizing the intrinsic visual quality of the style, jali nasta‘liq was frequently utilized to write two verses on a single sheet. These pages, known as qit‘as (meaning both poetic fragments and calligraphic samples), were later collected, mounted onto dazzling illuminated margins, and gathered into albums.

  • The three text pages on this folio are from the same copy of a Divan (Collection of poetry) by the poet Kamal Khujandi (died 1400). The last page, displayed on the lower right side, ends with the name of the calligrapher, Azhar Tabrizi, written in gold. Two smaller pages in the lower left side were once part of another manuscript that was probably penned by the same calligrapher.

    Written in an elegant form of nasta‘liq, these fragments exemplify the minute script (khafi) that was used for copying manuscripts. Each hemistich (half of a verse) occupies one line of each column. Elongated and compressed horizontal strokes smoothly curve, whereas letters, syllables, and words pile up toward the end of each line. The fact that these fragments were later included in an album confirms how works by famous master calligraphers were collected and treasured.

    Album folio with five pages of calligraphy
    Signed by Azhar Tabrizi
    Iran or Central Asia, Timurid period, ca. 1450
    Borders: possibly Iran, ca. 1550–1600
    Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
    Lent by the Art and History Collection LTS2002.2.1

Mir Ali Tabrizi

Whether of the fine, or of the large naskh-i ta‘liq, The original inventor was Khwaja Mir Ali

From his fine intellect, he laid down the rules of the new script From naskh and from ta‘liq

—Sultan Ali Mashhadi, Sirat al-sutur, 1514

Biographies of calligraphers and treatises composed in sixteenth-century Iran credit Mir Ali Tabrizi (active circa 1370–1410) with the “invention” of the nasta‘liq script. For this distinction he later received the prestigious title qudwat al-kuttab (“model for the scribes.”) Mir Ali Tabrizi was active in the royal workshop in Tabriz under the reign of the Jalayrid sultan Ahmad, who died in 1410. The renowned calligrapher transmitted his art to his son Abdallah. He in turn was the master of Ja‘far Tabrizi, who popularized nasta‘liq in eastern Iran at the Timurid court of Herat after 1420.

Little is known about Mir Ali’s life and work. According to legend, he created the new script after Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, appeared to him in a dream. Ali, who is traditionally seen as the very initiator of calligraphy in Islam, told Mir Ali Tabrizi to draw letters that look like the wings of flying geese. Nasta‘liq allegedly came into existence from that directive. Scholars have recently argued, however, that the script in fact emerged gradually in the second half of the fourteenth century in the cities of Shiraz and Tabriz.

Mir Ali Tabrizi’s signature appears in this colophon. It is the only known signed work by the master calligrapher.

At present, the only known signed work in the world by Mir Ali Tabrizi is the Freer Gallery of Art’s copy of Khusraw u Shirin by the Persian author Nizami.

This copy of the celebrated romance between Khusraw and Shirin by the author Nizami (died 1209) is the only known work signed by Mir Ali Tabrizi. The colophon (lower right image) not only mentions Tabriz, the capital of the Jalayirid sultanate, as the place where the manuscript was completed, but it also provides the full name of its master calligrapher: Ali ibn Hasan. Al-Sultani, the honorific epithet (laqab) placed after his name, indicates Mir Ali occupied a prominent position in the royal workshop or he worked directly for Sultan Ahmad Jalayir. Mir Ali Tabrizi’s nasta‘liq handwriting exemplifies the script used between 1370 and 1410 in the Jalayirid centers of Tabriz and Baghdad. According to later authors, he was not the “inventor” (mukhtari‘) of the script but rather the calligrapher who codified it.

Noticeable here is the first use of oblique lines within a text, a trait that was later widely adopted to underscore specific verses in Persian manuscripts.

Khusraw u Shirin by Nizami
Signed by Mir Ali Tabrizi (act. ca. 1370–1410)
Iran, Tabriz, Jalayirid period, ca. 1400
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
Freer Gallery of Art F1931.29 folios 50–51 and 126

A later inscription attributes this copy of collected poems by Sultan Ahmad Jalayir (died 1410) to Mir Ali Tabrizi, the “inventor” of the nasta‘liq script. The stylistic similarity of this Divan and the Khusraw u Shirin signed by Mir Ali confirms this attribution. Slight variation in the thickness of the strokes and the overall impression of horizontality in the lines indicate they are the work of the same calligrapher.

Mir Ali’s text appears in the central frame of the folios. Sometime in the sixteenth century, the text of the Gulistan (Rose garden) by the poet Sa‘di (died 1292) was added into the margins. Even though both texts are copied in nasta‘liq, the difference between the two styles, written at least two hundred years apart, is easily discernible.

Divan by Sultan Ahmad Jalayir
Attributed to Mir Ali Tabrizi (act. ca. 1370–1410)
Iran, Tabriz, or Iraq, Baghdad, Jalayirid period, ca. 1400
Ink, color, and gold on paper
Freer Gallery of Art F1932.29 folios 181v–182r

Sultan Ali Mashhadi

His writing conquered the world and is among other writings as the sun among other planets.
—Qazi Ahmad, Gulistan-i honar, circa 1595

Later honored with the titles of “sultan of calligraphers” and “cynosure of calligraphers,” Sultan Ali Mashhadi enjoyed a long career before he died in 1520. He spent many years in Herat at the court of the Timurid princes Abu Sa’id (reigned 1458–69) and Sultan Husayn Mirza (reigned 1469–1506). Active in the library-workshop (kitabkhana), Sultan Ali also trained dozens of pupils in the art of calligraphy, many of whom became illustrious practitioners working in princely ateliers.

A native of Mashhad, Sultan Ali retired in 1510 in his hometown in northeastern Iran. Four years later he composed the Sirat al-sutur (The path of writing), an epistle in rhymed verse in which he draws a parallel between calligraphic practice and religious discipline.

On a technical level, Sultan Ali Mashhadi defined new rules for nasta‘liq and elevated the script to its classical form. The historian Khwandamir, who died in 1534, asserted Sultan Ali “obliterated the calligraphy of masters of the past and present.” Writing around 1600, the Persian author Qazi Ahmad claimed Sultan Ali’s handwriting “attained such a degree of perfection that is seems incredible anyone could emulate him.”

Nasta‘liq developed into a perfect vehicle to pen Persian prose and poetry. It was employed to transcribe works in Turkish, but it was seldom used to copy texts in Arabic. These two folios come from a collection of poetry (divan) written by Sultan Husayn, the Timurid ruler of Herat from 1469 to 1506. The poems in this now-dispersed manuscript are composed in Chaghatay, an eastern Turkic dialect.

The four lines of verse (quatrains) were executed in découpé calligraphy (qat‘), a virtuoso technique that was probably developed in the Timurid court workshop at a time when Sultan Ali Mashhadi was active there. Dots, letters, and syllables in light tones have been cut out and pasted onto a darker contrasting background, creating a dazzling effect. No trace of the collage process is visible even on close inspection. This dexterous cut-out work has been attributed to Shaykh Abdallah Haravi, a master of the genre.

Nevertheless, the script here, with its subtle balance between elongated and compressed strokes and the variation in thickness, points to the style of Sultan Ali Mashhadi.

Folios from a Divan by Sultan Husayn Mirza
Attributed to Sultan Ali Mashhadi (d. 1520)
Historic Iran, present-day Afghanistan, Herat, Timurid period, ca. 1490
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
Freer Gallery of Art F1929.66 and F1929.67

Sultan Ali Mashhadi signed his calligraphy in the lower triangular corner. Instead of including the traditional term katabahu, a term that indicates a sense of achievement, he used mashaqahu, which suggests it was a “work in progress,” a practice piece or an instruction exercise that one of his numerous students could study and try to replicate.

Such calligraphic fragments were often mounted onto album pages at a later time. These particular verses were clearly deemed worthy of preservation because they were copied by the most celebrated calligrapher of the late Timurid period (circa 1470–1506). As is almost always the case with album pages, the aesthetic relationship between text and image dominates. The content of the quatrain does not relate to the verses displayed on the borders or to the figures later painted by the illustrious Safavid artists Muhammad Sadiqi and Muhammad Qasim, who were both active around 1600.

Album folio
Signed by Sultan Ali Mashhadi (d. 1520)
Historic Iran, present-day Afghanistan, Herat, or Iran, Mashhad, Safavid period, ca. 1510–15
Paintings ascribed to Muhammad Sadiqi and Muhammad Qasim
Iran, probably Qazvin, Safavid period, ca. 1590
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
Purchase—Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds, Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and Dr. Arthur M. Sackler S1986.30

This elaborate folio presents four calligraphic panels (clockwise from upper left): two unsigned couplets; three couplets copied by Sultan Mahmud; two couplets by Shah Muhammad; and two couplets by Sultan Muhammad Nur. Writing in gold in the triangle above his work, Sultan Muhammad Nur states he penned this example by imitating the style of “Mawlana [our master] Sultan Ali al-Mashhadi.” The unsigned couplets in the upper left corner could well be the work of Sultan Ali Mashhadi. Its carefully modulated line and the visual balance between fluid and disciplined strokes are indeed distinctive of his work. Also, combining Sultan Ali Mashhadi’s calligraphy with examples by three of his outstanding students on a single page underscores the fundamental importance of the master-pupil relationship.

Album folio
Signed by Sultan Mahmud, Shah Muhammad, and Sultan Muhammad Nur
Historic Iran, present-day Afghanistan, Herat and Ahmedabad, Safavid period, 16th century
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
Purchase—Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds, Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and Dr. Arthur M. Sackler S1986.349

Compared to the calligraphy of Mir Ali Tabrizi, the nasta‘liq script of Sultan Ali Mashhadi introduces a different visual rhythm. Words above the baseline, for example, are executed in a steeper pitch. Variations in the width of strokes further emphasize how the master calligrapher controlled and modulated the script in a spacious, even delicate manner. These characteristics, which are evident in this copy completed early in Sultan Ali’s career, become more accentuated in his later works and in his examples of large nasta‘liq script.

Gulistan by Sa‘di
Signed by Sultan Ali Mashhadi (d. 1520)
Historic Iran, present-day Afghanistan, Herat, Timurid period, dated 1468 (873 AH)
Ink, color, and gold on paper
Gift of the Art and History Trust in honor of Ezzat-Malek Soudavar
Freer Gallery of Art F1998.5 folios 44v–45r

To increase the prestige of their libraries, later Safavid, Mughal, and Ottoman connoisseurs collected manuscripts that had been copied in nasta‘liq by master calligraphers. Chief among them were works by Sultan Ali Mashhadi. Not only was he one of the most illustrious calligraphers of his day, but he was also closely associated with the Timurid court, which set the standard for cultural sophistication for later rulers. This copy of the Gulistan (Rose garden), an anthology of poems by the Persian poet Sa‘di (died 1292), is acknowledged as one of the finest manuscripts Sultan Ali Mashhadi ever produced.

The calligrapher’s carefully penned signature appears in the triangular colophon. Later owners and librarians added their names and comments, more or less elegantly, in various styles of nasta‘liq. One somewhat clumsy example is located to the right of the triangle. Written by the Mughal ruler Jahangir (reigned 1605–27), the inscription maintains: “This is one of my earliest books. I read it constantly. Written by Nur al-Din Jahangir, son of King Akbar.”

Gulistan by Sa‘di
Signed by Sultan Ali Mashhadi (d. 1520)
Historic Iran, present-day Afghanistan, Herat, Timurid period, dated 1486 (891 AH)
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
Lent by the Art and History Collection LTS1995.2.30 folios 78v–79r

Ivughli, a secretary (munshi) at the Safavid court, compiled this collection of correspondence (majmu‘a-i munsh’at) sent by Persian rulers, from the Great Seljuks in the eleventh century to the Safavid shah Safi I (reigned 1629–42). In Iran, the art of letter writing was as much esteemed as eloquence and rhetoric. Penned in neat shikasta nasta‘liq (“broken nasta‘liq”), the text alternates between paragraphs written horizontally and diagonally from the right or the left.

One letter of particular interest is on the left-hand page. Composed by the Timurid ruler Sultan Husayn (reigned 1469–1506), it is addressed to the celebrated calligrapher Sultan Ali Mashhadi (died 1520). The sovereign reprimands the calligrapher for making too many mistakes when copying poems written in Turkish, the language Sultan Husayn used for his own poetry.

The letter reads:

May the best of scribes, Master Nizamuddin Sultan-Ali, realize that the favor and patronage of the patron’s all-solving mind that have attached to him are more apparent than the sun, and the royal good opinion of his art is more obvious than yesterday. We have written the page of his hopes with the pen of affection, drawn the pen of abrogation through the calligraphy of former masters, and consider him above all others in that art. However, in the royal divans that have been scriven by his miraculous pen, many mistakes and errors are to be seen, and scratching and corrections in such enchanting calligraphy are unforgivable, as has been said:

Clothing half of brocade and half of sackcloth is worthless.

In view of the fact that he has acquired a perfect expertise in the copying of Turkish poetry and has a great mastery of the manner of poetry and prose, this is abundantly strange. It is well known that in the meaning and layout of the words of a line of poetry—not to mention a hemistich—the composer must make a great effort, and to perfect a conceit he must make a great exertion of will power. When error creeps into the rules and regulations through scribal intervention or a slip of the pen, it causes displeasure, and the defect lies heavy on the mind of the poet.

The story is well known that while out for a stroll a great poet passed by a brickmaker reciting the poet’s poetry—but it was recited erroneously and uncadenced. When the master poet saw the arrangement of his words was being poured badly into the mold of meaning, he immediately stepped onto the bricks the man had made and crushed them into the dust. The brickmaker said in anger, “Why have you wasted my efforts and indulged in such cruelty?”

“Oh,” he replied, “you crush with the stone of cruelty a pearl that cost me so much effort to string onto a line of poetry, and you think nothing of it? Yet you turn the few bricks you have fashioned into an excuse to be rude and impolite.”

One can spout nonsense from the mouth like pearls: it is a brick that can break a wing.

The point of these preliminaries is that since there is a natural connection between the poet’s mind and the product of his poetic nature and contemplation, scribes and copyists must take great pains to be correct and free of error, and henceforth you will pay attention and strive to ensure that what is written by your miraculous pen is protected from the calamity of error and mistake, and the pages free of any necessity to scratch out and make corrections. You must endeavor appropriately in all that you write in order to receive as before. Peace.

Translation excerpted from Wheeler M. Thackston, Album Prefaces and Other Documents on the History of Calligraphers and Painters. Leiden, Boston, Köln: Brill, 2001, p. 51.

Majmu‘a-i munsh‘at by Abu‘l-Qasim Ivughli Haydar
Iran, Isfahan, Safavid period, dated 1682 (1094 AH)
Ink and color on paper
Gift of Nader and Narges Ahari in memory of Nasser Ahari
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery S2014.7

Mir Ali Haravi

He brought the art of the large and small script and the writing of samples to the utmost degree of perfection.
—Qazi Ahmad, Gulistan-i honar, circa 1595

Mir Ali Haravi was one of the most brilliant students of the calligrapher Sultan Ali Mashhadi. He considered himself superior to his master. Asked about the differences between his own calligraphic skills and that of his teacher, Mir Ali replied, “I brought it to perfection but his writing had a special flavor.” Although he is often compared to his celebrated instructor, authors of treatises on calligraphy do not necessarily agree that he surpassed Sultan Ali Mashhadi. It is generally accepted, however, that Mir Ali initiated a new canon of nasta‘liq, especially in the genre of large-scale qit‘as, or fragments of poetry. Hundreds of qit’as with the signature of this extremely prolific calligrapher are known, but many of the works were in fact penned by his students. In an unusual move for a renowned artist, Mir Ali allowed his pupils to sign their well-executed pieces with his name.

Raised in Herat, Mir Ali worked in the royal workshops of the Timurid and then the Safavid dynasty. He witnessed the Uzbek seizure of Herat in 1528. Forced into exile in Bukhara, Mir Ali served Ubaydallah and Abd al-Aziz, khans of the Shaybanid dynasty, until his death around 1550. In the numerous poetic verses he composed in Persian and Turkic, Mir Ali Haravi often lamented the cruelty of destiny and the fact that he would never visit Herat again.

Large-scale folios in nasta‘liq became popular at the turn of the sixteenth century in Iran and in the Persian-speaking sphere. Calligraphers initially created these individual pages, called qit‘as (meaning both fragments of poetry and calligraphic samples), as exercise sheets, or mashq. Each qit‘a normally consists of a quatrain arranged in four diagonal lines in the central zone. The verses were in fact originally written horizontally in a type of nasta‘liq known as jali, a large form of the script with exaggerated characteristics, such as elongated strokes and dramatic variations in width. The name of the calligrapher usually appears in the lower left triangle, as it does here. In contrast with the monumental central panel, cartouches with unrelated verses, composed in small script (khafi), enliven the borders.

Decades after these lines of Persian poetry were written, connoisseurs in Mughal India collected such highly prized qit‘as and had them mounted on the diagonal—to heighten their dramatic visual effect—with ornate borders. The elaborate folios were then assembled in albums that still remain hallmarks of Mughal artistry.

Folio from an unidentified album
Signed by Mir Ali Haravi (d. ca. 1550)
Uzbekistan, probably Bukhara, Shaybanid period, ca. 1530–40
Borders: India, Mughal period, ca. 1630–60
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
Freer Gallery of Art F1939.50b

Image of Folio from the Late Shah Jahan AlbumText blocks in Persian manuscripts typically present verses displayed in two parallel columns, with the colophon appearing at the very end of the volume. The placement of Mir Ali’s signature on the penultimate line suggests this page of poetry was initially conceived as a stand-alone folio. The verses were written by Amir Shahi, a minor Persian poet who was active during the Timurid period and died in 1453. His poems frequently appear among works selected for display in Mughal albums, and he seems to have been one of Mir Ali Haravi’s favorite poets.

Some of Shahi’s verses that Mir Ali copied in large-format qit‘as were included in an album assembled for the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (reigned 1628–58) in India. All but one of the signed calligraphies in that album are said to have been done by Mir Ali Haravi. Their authenticity remains uncertain, however, since Mir Ali authorized his most brilliant students to sign their pieces with his name. Imitation (naql) was an elemental part of a calligrapher’s education. One of a student’s main goals was to attain the ability to reproduce the master’s style in an indistinguishable way.

Folio from the Late Shah Jahan Album
Signed by Mir Ali Haravi (d. ca. 1550)
Historic Iran, present-day Afghanistan, Herat, or Uzbekistan, Bukhara, Safavid or Shaybanid period, ca. 1525–45
Borders: India, Mughal period, ca. 1650–58
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
Purchase—Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds, Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and Dr. Arthur M. Sackler S1986.92

These calligraphic fragments in different scales of nasta‘liq script were seemingly executed by Mir Ali Haravi. The quatrain was written by the celebrated fourteenth-century poet Hafiz, while the verses in small script to the side and bottom are excerpted from a collection of poetry by Amir Shahi. Pieces signed by the esteemed calligrapher Mir Ali were integrated into a sumptuous album of illuminated folios for the Mughal emperor Jahangir, who reigned from 1605 to 1627. The marginal images of saints and Madonna with Child, based on European prints, date from this time and are not related to the text. Assembled in India, the so-called Gulshan Album is still regarded as one of the most famous Mughal albums ever produced.

The original qit‘a (fragment of poetry) may have been intended to flatter a royal patron. It reads:

O Emperor, may your holiday be happy and blessed.
May the desire of your soul always laugh like the lip of the goblet.
May the regal horseman of your fortune be astride the polo steed;
When you strike the heavens with your mallet, may it be humbled.

Calligraphy folio from the Gulshan Album
Signed by Mir Ali Haravi (d. ca. 1550)
Probably Uzbekistan, Bukhara, Shaybanid period, ca. 1540
Borders: India, Mughal period, ca. 1590–1600
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
Freer Gallery of Art F1956.12

This collection of poems includes four sections by different master calligraphers, each of whom followed the style of Sultan Ali Mashhadi. In Herat, Mir Ali Haravi penned the first section of the manuscript that consists of a selection of verses from the Mathnavi-yi ma‘navi (Rhyming couplets of spiritual meaning) by the renowned author Jalal al-Din Rumi, who died in 1273.

Mir Ali Haravi mastered the nasta‘liq script in the microscopic form, seen here, and in the larger size that was used for works later mounted into albums. Despite the script’s minute size, he perfectly rendered the intrinsic fluid character of nasta‘liq by using at least one elongated stroke in each line.

Anthology of poetry
Signed by Mir Ali Haravi (d. ca. 1550)
Historic Iran, present-day Afghanistan, Herat, Safavid period, dated 1524–25 (930 AH)
Ink, color, and gold on paper
Freer Gallery of Art F1944.48

Mir Imad al-Hasani

Mir Imad perfected his small hand to a degree that it is possible to call him the second Mir Ali.
—Qazi Ahmad, Gulistan-i honar, circa 1595

None of the previous masters surpassed Imad al-Hasani, who was regarded as the undisputed master of nasta‘liq. Even today in Iran, his name remains synonymous with the greatest achievement of Persian calligraphy. A member of an eminent family of sayyids (descendants of the Prophet) from Qazvin, Mir Imad began his training at the age of eight and spent most of his life in his native town. At the turn of the seventeenth century, he joined the Safavid court of Shah Abbas I (reigned 1588–1629) in Isfahan. There, Mir Imad soon fell out with Ali Riza-i Abbasi, the head of the royal workshop and the favorite calligrapher of Shah Abbas.

In 1615 Mir Imad was murdered, possibly at the command of the shah, after the calligrapher made a few imprudent comments. Others later asserted Mir Imad was in fact assassinated because of the jealousy of Ali Riza, his rival. Müstakimzade, an Ottoman biographer in the eighteenth century, claimed that Mir Imad’s sectarian orientation—he was a Sunni and a prominent member of the Sufi Naqshbandi order—was the main reason for his tragic demise. Some of his relatives, including his nephew Rashida, a renowned calligrapher in his own right, fled to the court of Shah Jahan (reigned 1628–58) in India. The Mughal ruler was a great admirer of Mir Imad and avidly collected his works.

Signed by Mir Imad al-Hasani, these two superb examples of calligraphy show the same quatrain. Even if they were not initially conceived as a pair, they were later matted with the script running diagonally from right to left and with matching borders as a facing pair in an imperial Safavid album. Seeing them together dramatically reinforces the visual power of nasta‘liq calligraphy. The two qit‘as, or calligraphic samples, present subtle differences in the tracing and shaping of some of the letters, including the sweeping horizontal strokes and artificial extensions of the word hich (“nothing”) on the third line from the top.

The text—a quatrain composed by the polymath Nasir al-Din Tusi, who died in 1274—may be understood as a reference to the art of calligraphy.

A man with skill has at every fingertip
A key to the lock of daily sustenance.
A hand from which nothing comes
Is an incredible burden to the body.

Folios of calligraphy
Signed by Mir Imad al-Hasani (d. 1615)
Iran, probably Isfahan, Safavid period, dated 1611–12 (1020 AH)
Borders signed by Muhammad Hadi
Iran, Safavid period, dated 1755–56 (1169 AH)
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
Freer Gallery of Art F1931.20 and F1942.15b

A colophon traditionally provides information on the completion of a manuscript. This example fits neatly into a triangle, a popular shape for colophons, following the last two verses of the text. It reads: “Copied by the humble and poor and sinful slave Imad al-Mulk al-Hasani, may God forgive his sins and cover his shortcomings, in the year 1023.” A painting by the celebrated Safavid artist Riza-i Abbasi occupies the rest of the space. Depicting an old man offering a flower to a youth, the image bears no direct relation to the text. Riza-i Abbasi’s signature appears in minute letters in the center of the image.

This folio comes from a manuscript that was completed a year before Mir Imad’s murder. It belongs to a copy of the Makhzan al-asrar (Treasury of secrets) by Haydar Khwarazmi and provides rare proof of the collaboration between the calligrapher Mir Imad and the painter Riza-i Abbasi, two of the greatest artists of their time. As neither man worked exclusively for the royal atelier of Shah Abbas I in Isfahan, the manuscript may have resulted from a private commission by a wealthy patron.

Colophon page from Makhzan al-asrar by Haydar Khwarazmi
Signed by Mir Imad al-Hasani (d. 1615)
Painted by Riza-i Abbasi
Iran, Isfahan, Safavid period, dated 1614 (1023 AH)
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
Lent by the Art and History Collection LTS1995.2.85

The practice of copying full texts in tiny nasta‘liq script reached its apogee with Mir Imad al-Hasani. This copy of the Gulistan (Rose garden) by the poet Sa‘di was probably executed shortly before the calligrapher’s sudden death in 1615, at a time when his fame had spread from Turkey to India. The script shows an extraordinary balance between unnecessary elongated strokes and elegant sweeping horizontal ones. The small-scale script is so fluid that Mir Imad is often called the “second Mir Ali,” in reference to Mir Ali Tabrizi, the originator of nasta‘liq.

Gulistan by Sa‘di
Signed by Mir Imad al-Hasani (d. 1615)
Iran, probably Isfahan, Safavid period, ca. 1615
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
Lent by the Art and History Collection LTS1995.2.86

The calligrapher Ali Riza-i Abbasi—whose name is easily confused with his contemporary, the painter Riza-i Abbasi—joined the workshop of Shah Abbas I in Isfahan at the end of the sixteenth century. Not only was he praised for his skills in writing the six traditional cursive scripts, but he also created numerous architectural inscriptions in Isfahan, such as those adorning the Shaykh Lutfallah mosque. Ali Riza-i Abbasi’s nasta‘liq was both elegant and refined, as is exemplified in this folded copy of poetry by Jami, who died a century earlier in 1492. The sharp terminals and overall “dry” appearance of his writing, however, were no match for Mir Imad al-Hasani’s superior style of nasta‘liq.

Ali Riza’s jealousy and hatred of Mir Imad were widely known. His contemporaries argued that Ali Riza used his influence as a confidante of Shah Abbas to have his rival eliminated.

The poem reads:

A fourteen-year-old lovely on the roof’s edge, like a
          moon of fourteen [days], full in beauty
A jaunty cap topped her elegantly slender nature,
          and her rosy [cheeks] were ringed by the lush
          hyacinths [of her curly tresses]
She tuned her instrument to the pitch of loveliness,
          and she coyly displayed her beauty.
As she glistened like the moon, prisoners [of her
          love] mobbed her door and roof like the stars.
Suddenly an old man, back bent like a crescent
          [moon], his skirt drenched in blood like
          the sunset,
Turning his face hopefully toward his idol, he laid his
          white hair like a carpet on the ground.
Pearls of tears he pierced with his eyelashes, and,
          Scattering pearls from his two eyes, he said,
“O peri, with all my accumulated wisdom, I have lost
          my good name to madness over you.
“Like a tulip I am seared with your brand; I am as
          defenseless as grass in your garden.
“Gaze upon my condition with kindness; polish away
          the rust of grief from my soul.”
When the youth ascertained the old man’s state, he
could not perceive any sincerity in his words.
He said, “Distracted old man, turn around and look
          Behind you,
“For on that belvedere is one whose cheeks would
          turn the world into a rose garden.
“She is like the sun in the celestial sphere; I am but
          the moon. I am her least slave; she is my king.
“What am I that lovers who espy her beauty should
          Mention my name?”
When the poor old man looked in the other direction
          in order to see who was on the belvedere,
The youth reached out and pushed him off the roof,
          flattening him like a shadow in the dust.
It is not proper for him who undertakes the road
          of commerce with us to gaze anywhere else.
To be “double-signed” is to be fickle; the object
          of love is one and only one.

Translation excerpted from Abolala Soudavar, Art from the Persian Courts: Selections from the Art and History Trust Collection (New York: Rizzoli, 1992), 286–87.

Poem by Jami
Signed by Ali Riza-i Abbasi
Iran, Isfahan, Safavid period, dated 1598 (1007 AH)
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
Lent by the Art and History Collection LTS1995.2.87



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