New Approaches to Carpet Studies

On June 2017, our TTT member Raquel Santos discussed her PhD dissertation entitled “New Carpets for New Markets: The Production and Consumption of ‘Indo-Persian’ Carpets, 16th and 17th Centuries”. Her project presents new and broader insights to the understanding of such a problematic carpet type, and to the interpretation of the role of the producers and consumers in carpet manufacturing. 

Iranian Knotted Pile Carpet Industry 

At the beginning of the 16th century, Turkish wool carpets were more economical and widely available to European consumers than carpets produced in Iran. However, the international trade and political stability in 16th-century Iran gave rise to new economic developments, including textile production. The new Safavid rulers saw this moment as the ideal opportunity to develop the Iranian carpet industry to respond to the demands and competitiveness of the international market.

The situation changed at the end of the 16th century with the succession of Shah Abbas I (r. 1587-1629). The transformation in textile production in the late 16th to early 17th centuries arose due to the personal interest of the great Safavid ruler, a weaver himself, who sought to strengthen the Iranian economy by developing a major textile industry. This included the production of carpets for export to meet the demands of international taste.

New typology: the so-called ‘Indo-Persian’ carpets

Workshops started to focus on minimizing production time and costs by developing a new carpet type that could compete with lower-priced Turkish carpets. As a result, carpets of large dimensions and new designs, using less expensive materials, fewer colours and a lower knot density began to be produced in Iran. However, the existing reports that Persian weavers were producing carpets with similar technical, colouring and decorative scheme in India during the reign of Akbar (r. 1542-1605), has led to large debates regarding their origin.

The arrival, use and highly esteemed status of the type in Europe in the 17th century can be confirmed by several pictorial sources, in which carpets can be found depicted both civil and religious contexts. In the early 17th century, the so-called ‘Indo-Persian’ carpets began appearing in significant numbers in Portugal (with over 80 carpets documented).

Santos aimed to look at this transformation during the 16th and 17th centuries, to establish how, when and where it occurred, through the collection of Islamic carpets in Portugal and the United States of America. Her project was developed between the José de Figueiredo Laboratory – Direcção Geral do Património Cultural, Lisbon, Portugal and the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research of the Freer|Sackler, The Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art, Washington, DC, USA.

On the left - 16th century carpet belonging to Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Inv. Nr. 47Tp (Lisbon, Portugal); on the right - 17th century carpet from Museu Nacional Machado de Castro, Inv. Nr. T761 (Coimbra, Portugal).


The Research

The interdisciplinary approach taken in this study involving Art History, History and Conservation Science, focused on the study of the art historical and historical contexts surrounding their production and consumption, as well as a close analysis of stylistic features, decorative materials and technical components, supported by science, as a complementary tool for assessing the spatial and temporal dimensions of their production, while establishing the role played by the Portuguese and other European markets in encouraging the creation of new types of carpets for export.

The historical research recognized the complex political, economic and cultural background during the Safavid and Mughal periods that set the stage for carpet industry innovations, while the art historical identified the subsequent development of the new carpet type through a comprehensive survey of the 59 selected carpets. For the first time dye analysis was conducted on red, pink, yellow, orange and brown colors from these objects using High Performance Liquid Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry (HPLC-MS).


                     Sampling procedure                     Yellow historical sample (0,2mg)

Together, these analytical techniques enabled the achievement of more accurate results for detail characterization and, thus, the distinction of dye-sources. Technical and material analysis achieved a more detailed understanding of manufacturing processes, thus delivering more accurate results regarding their origin and context of production. The study of carpet designs and their painted depictions allowed to trace the evolution of the type and to develop a chronology for production.

What are the outcomes? Together the results of this combined methodology offer new and broader insights to the understanding of such a problematic type and allowed the interpretation on the role of the producer and consumer between the 16th and 17th centuries. Santos observes the rise of a new type of carpet at the end of the 16th century under Shah Abbas and then a rapid expansion in production in the middle of the 17th involving considerable experimentation. Her research defines sustained criteria for establishing groups of carpets within the Vine scroll with Central Void and Clouds type, and presents new designations for the various designs recognized. It offers a window onto how Iranian and Indian carpet production developed and adapted to accommodate the demands of new markets and consumers in places like Europe between the 16th and 17th centuries. Moreover, it argues that carpets from the Vine scroll with Central Void and Clouds type are a commercial response from the Islamic carpet industry to new markets as result of the new maritime trade and the resultant increase in demand from European elites. This study presents a tool for public and private institutions worldwide housing similar carpet types, while contributing to a better understanding of the impact of the new overseas trade networks in the development of one of the great forms of artistic expression in Iran and. The next steps in Santos research include publishing her work in peer-reviewed journals and academic books.

‘Vine scroll with Central Void’ Carpet (216 x 152 cm), 17th century. Whereabouts unknown. (former Corcoran Gallery of Art Collection, Washington DC, USA).

Santos's PhD research was undertaken in History, with specialization in Discoveries and the Portuguese Expansion, and funded by the Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia (FCT), Portugal (Grant PhD SFRH/BD/72882/2010) and Freer|Sackler, The Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art. Her project was supervised by Dr. Jessica Hallett (CHAM, Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas da Universidade Nova de Lisboa e Universidade dos Açores), Dr. Ana Claro (HERCULES Laboratory, Universidade de Évora and CHAM, Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas da Universidade Nova de Lisboa e Universidade dos Açores) and Dr. Blythe McCarthy (Senior Scientist at Freer|Sackler Department of Conservation and Scientific Research).