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One of the finest 16th-century illustrated Persian manuscripts in the US featured in exhibition
Persian, Iran, Shiraz, Giv Charges into Battle against Piran, folio 185a from the Peck Shahnama, 1589–90. Opaque watercolor, ink, silver, and gold on glazed paper. Princeton Islamic Manuscripts, Third series, no. 310. Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. Bequest (1983) of Clara S. Peck, in honor of her brother, Fremont C. Peck, Princeton Class of 1920. Image courtesy of Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

PRINCETON, NJ.- Over 1,000 years ago, the Persian poet Abu'l-Qasim Firdausi (935-1020) narrated the history of Iran and its peoples – spanning 50 monarchs from the dawn of time to the 7th century A.D. – through gripping tales of ancient triumphs, larger-than-life heroes and grand adventures. Called the Shahnama, or Book of Kings, the epic has been a source of artistic inspiration in Persian culture for centuries and is the most frequently illustrated work of Persian poetry.

Princeton University owns five illustrated versions of the Shahnama, one of which, the Peck Shahnama, named for its donor, ranks among the finest 16th-century Persian manuscripts in the U.S., due to its impressive size and the quality of its materials and decoration. Having recently undergone conservation treatment, for which the entire manuscript was disbound, the outstanding – though relatively unknown – Peck Shahnama is now the centerpiece of an exhibition before the codex is rejoined.

Princeton’s Great Persian Book of Kings – on view at the Princeton University Art Museum from Oct. 3, 2015 through Jan. 24, 2016 – features all of the manuscript’s 48 illustrated and illuminated folios and introduces the captivating splendor and art-historical significance of the Peck Shahnama to the public for the first time. The exhibition has been organized to follow the Shahnama’s narrative, structured around mythical, legendary and historical eras, and offers insight into Persian manuscript production and the history of Persian miniature painting.

The Peck Shahnama was bequeathed to the Princeton University Library in 1983 by Clara S. Peck in honor of her brother, Fremont C. Peck, a member of Princeton’s Class of 1920. Ms. Peck (1896–1983) was a horse breeder and collector of rare books and manuscripts with a particular affinity for literature on natural history, sporting, hunting, and equine history. It was doubtless the varied, and often delightful, representations of horses and other animals, polo games, and hunting scenes that attracted Miss Peck to this deluxe Book of Kings.

“The lasting and universal themes depicted in the magisterial Peck Shahnama remain emphatically relevant and still resonate with individuals and cultures around the world today,” said James Steward, Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director. “This beautiful example of Persian miniature painting is a masterwork of literature and art, and Princeton looks forward to bringing more attention to it through this exhibition and publication.”

The Peck Shahnama was illustrated in 1589-90 in the city of Shiraz in south-central Iran and is an exceptional example of the manuscripts created in that center of learning and culture. Every intricate detail, from the gold-specked paper to the number and content of the illustrated scenes, was conceived in advance by a master book designer.

Shahnama manuscripts trace the vibrant artistic tradition of Persian miniature painting as it developed from late medieval through early modern times. Each deluxe Shahnama is a singular work of art – no two volumes contain the same verses or illustrate the same scenes.

The exhibition was guest curated by Marianna Shreve Simpson, a specialist in the Islamic arts of the book, who was previously curator of Islamic Near Eastern art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, and director of curatorial affairs and curator of Islamic art at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

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