The Four Traditions of Antique Rug Weaving: (4) CITY
By Jan David Winitz, President & Founder
This final installment of our four-part series on Antique Rug traditions focuses on Persian City rugs. These are the most elegant, finely crafted of all Oriental carpets, offering countless imaginings of idealistic gardens and formal, generously intricate medallion presentations. This distinctly symmetrical floral genre was inherited directly from Persia’s Safavid Dynasty (the 1500s to early 1700s) when, for the first time, Oriental rugs woven in Royal workshops presented highly articulated, curvilinear drawing. Sometimes referred to as Court rugs, this tradition values the depiction of beauty as the outer indication of the potential for inner perfection, evoking a sense of awe in the viewer. It offers an entirely unique aesthetic to the Tribal, Village, and Town traditions.
As far back as the Pazyryk Carpet (the earliest existing intact rug, 5th century BC), virtually all rugs had a tilework design theme. Then, the Safavid workshops literally created a “design revolution” that diametrically changed the way a carpet’s field was perceived by the artisan weavers—becoming a canvas that allowed for Trees of Life, pictorial animals and birds, archways and waterways, kaleidoscopic medallions with supporting corner pieces, and vertically oriented Gardens of Paradise.
In the City rug styles of the 1800s and early 1900s, this artistic direction ignited an extraordinary outpouring of inspiration. The carpets from Kashan, Isfahan, Tabriz, and Kirman each created a different window through which to wonder at the beauty of the natural and heavenly visions they captured. Along with another City rug style, Tehran, and Agra and Amritsar in India, this tradition created extremely tightly knotted, often densely ornamented carpets that, in some cases, took many years to create.
In an area where there is precious little historical documentation, one must study the carpets themselves to learn about their evolution. In the early part of the 19th century, City carpet weaving was a small affair, as Persia recovered from various tumults, Kirman seemingly the most stable and productive. The many rare pieces that I have seen woven from the mid-1800s and before generally reflect more delicate sensibilities than the later ones. Their abrash striations often are gentler, their color palettes brilliantly selective rather than broadly exuberant as became the norm fifty years later.
Isfahan, Kirman, and Tabriz had deeper roots in the Safavid tradition and their early 19th century examples are more dedicated to symmetry, whereas Kashan, a minor player during the Safavid era, created extraordinarily finely knotted rugs in the 1800s that in many cases offer design details seemingly left to individual weavers to create.
As the 19th century unfolded, the confidence to explore new vistas of carpet design energized the City rug tradition. The hierarchy of proportion between the motifs, border treatments, and designing all parts of a rug to evocatively interact became dynamic arenas of experimentation. Field ornamentation grew denser and some color palettes left behind the mid-tones and pastels for richer natural shades. In every locale, all these artistic choices were made workshop-by-workshop, some holding to what was already beloved, others venturing forth to develop new medallions, new dyes, and unique color combinations as the tradition continued to evolve.
Rug-making became a collaborative effort. In City workshops, rugs were creations of a community of highly skilled artisans. Some specialized in creating rug designs in elaborate knot-by-knot cartoons, others in dyeing and spinning yarn, others in weaving, and finally, those whose expertise was the cutting the rug’s pile at the culmination of the project as to create a glass-like surface. Near the end of the 19th century, when Oriental carpets became one of the booming international trade items between Persia, Europe, and America principally, this expansion of creativity began to wane as commercial infrastructure dictated market preferences. It was then that this creative expansion ceased.
Each style of City rug has definitive characteristics, contributing unique symphonies of color and design. Mohtasham Kashans combine extraordinarily fine weaves of 300 to over 400 kpsi with magically expressive drawing. The workshop of Hadji Jallili in Tabriz often employed novel, primarily earth-tone palettes to accomplish rich arrays of designs, including astonishing room-size oeuvres with “Garden of Paradise” themes set under a towering prayer niche.
The near-microscopic articulation of pattern in Isfahan’s visionary carpets vivifies this style’s exotic worlds, often filled with rare birds and their extraordinary plumage and wondrously dense, perfectly-tended, jewel-toned gardens. In contrast, Laver Kirmans’ gardens are blankets of less manicured, charming, diminutive species portrayed in springtime coloration. The most sought-after antique Tehran rugs are area-size “Garden of Paradise” pieces in rainbow colors, replete with endearing renditions of deer, rabbits, all manner of birds, even an occasional elephant.
In India, Oriental carpet weaving began in the middle of the 16th century with the founding of the Mughal Empire, developing their own graceful carpet designs in Agra and Amritsar’s city workshops.
Because of their level of organization, by the 1920s, the workshops in the City tradition swiftly converted to the labor-saving and cost-cutting techniques of the Commercial Period that transformed the Oriental rug’s age-old weaving methods. As the 20th century progressed, design elements were distilled into simpler facsimiles, and nuanced natural dyed yarns were replaced by totally consistent, chemically dyed wool. Wool began to be processed for easier spinning, and standard designs were duplicated in different sizes.
Yet we remain fortunate that consummately crafted, extraordinarily innovative City rugs from the 19th century and turn-of-the-20th century remain available for lovers of beauty to discover.
Tabriz: Tabriz rug weavers from the renowned Hadji Jallili’s (Haji Jalili) workshop “produced inspired versions predominantly of the revered medallion-and-corner-piece design, while other patterns such as multi-medallion and Garden of Paradise were also created. These carpets are recognizable for distinctive palette of brick, clay, taupe, soft greens and cream tones that eschewed the Persian use of soft to deep reds and blues.
In the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, other Tabriz workshop were influenced by the Hadji Jallili color palette and patterns to create less ornate, more loosely knotted pieces known as “Rugs in the Style of Hadji Jallili.” Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, other Tabriz workshops created very finely crafted carpets of great beauty in the traditional palette of reds and blues or a panoply of hues.
Laver (Ravar) Kirman: The city of Kirman (also spelled Kerman) was a major producer of floral rugs in the 19th century, with Laver (Ravar) Kirman rugs particularly renowned. Laver Kirman designs were marked by exquisitely rendered, small-scale, intricate patterns and a color palette of gold and yellows contrasted by small areas of deep indigo hues as well as a range of soft pinks, rose reds, blues, and greens. You will also find one of the rarest and most prized dyes, cochineal, which yielded the rich Renaissance blue-reds found in these stunning antique rugs.
Notably, this district produced rugs in all sizes up to palace sizes that took many years to weave. The “best-of-the-best” Laver Kirman rugs are especially sought out by collectors and interior designers alike.
To see more of these extraordinary antique Laver Kirman rugs in the gallery, click here.
Mohtasham Kashan: The city of Kashan boasts an illustrious weaving history dating back to the 16th century, and is the birthplace of many archetypal antique carpet designs. Of all the floral rugs produced in the 19th century, those from the Mohtasham Kashan tradition are the most prized.
In the 19th century and early 20th century, the designers and weavers of Kashan had the most inventive, profound aesthetic that, coupled with an extremely fine weave, produced rugs of great depth and beauty. These sublime pieces used the highest quality lamb’s wool, giving them a reflective quality, which makes their colors shimmer. Ivory and gold backgrounds were most often used to set off this style’s remarkable panoply of medallion or overall patterns.
To view a diverse gallery of beautiful antique rugs from the city of Kashan, click here.
Isfahan: Isfahan rugs trace a direct lineage to the most illustrious and important weaving tradition of the 16th and 17th century Safavid era, widely seen as the original Golden Age of Persian weaving. Technical excellence that included the use of the arabesque pattern and elegant botanical designs are the hallmarks of this quintessential Court carpet style.
Both area size and larger room size dimensions were woven, often commissioned by elite patrons. In carpets woven from the mid-19th century to circa 1920, the classical Isfahan design attributes of formal symmetrical drawing, delicate vinery and intricate central medallions predominate.
To browse a selection of exquisite antique Isfahan carpets in the gallery, click here.
Amritsar and Agra: In India two weavers centers created carpets that were firmly in the Persian tradition, often made by imported Persian weavers. These are Amritsar and Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. Weaving in Amritsar was heavily influenced by Persian weaving, dating back to the 16th century.
Master craftsmen in Amritsar were experts in creating the vegetable dyes which give Amritsar antique rugs their unique ethereal palette of golds, gentle rusts, pinks, mid-tone blues, and a compelling unique lavender hue. The designs of these rugs are marked by a distinct whimsy and often feature small animal motifs within elegant spiraling vines.
To browse a selection of exquisite antique Amritsar and Agra carpets in the gallery, click here.
Meshed: 19th century Meshed rugs continue a classical Court carpet tradition established during the 16th and 17th centuries. Boasting an effusive, floral design, Meshed carpets usually incorporate deep burgundy or claret grounds as their defining color.
The formal, botanically inspired patterning that surrounds a central, symmetrical medallion is highly ornate. Signature cartouches are occasionally encountered. A stiff, heavy handle is characteristic of antique Meshed carpets.
See these rare, enrapturing antique Meshed rugs are available here, in the gallery.
Dorasht: In the legacy of the East Persian Court tradition that influenced weaving throughout the Khorossan district, 19th century Dorasht carpets are known for their refined weaves and deeply creative botanical inspired patterns.
Prior to the last quarter of the 19th century, their intricate overall herati and floral designs most often used distinctive rose and ruby red tones in their color palette. Later pieces sometimes offer rust and persimmon tones. While much of Dorasht production created supple, finely woven, allover patterns, the best pieces offer astonishing floral themed artistry. One of the least produced antique City carpet styles, Dorasht carpets are encountered only occasionally, most typically in area size dimensions.
To view a selection of antique Dorasht rugs in the gallery, click here.
Tehran: On par with the finest of the other Court weaving styles, 19th century Tehran carpets are very highly prized by connoisseurs for their detailed renderings of fanciful gardens and dazzling allover repeated patterns. Strikingly realistic, pictorial drawing is a hallmark of this style, with an abundance of animals, birds and effusive botanical forms rendered from a direct observation of nature.
Exceedingly subtle, nuanced color palettes are often employed to support these designs, entirely eschewing harsh color combinations. Tehran carpets are among the most seldom produced of antique styles and are incredibly scarce. In 19th century pieces, area sizes predominate.
To browse a selection of exquisite antique Tehran carpets in the gallery, click here.
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