Conserving the Emperor's Carpet

The magnificent sixteenth-century Emperor's Carpet from Safavid Iran was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in 1941, but its condition was so fragile that it was only displayed for public twice over the next sixty years. This video documents the ambitious three-year conservation program that was launched in 2006 to stabilize the condition of the carpet so its lustrous wools and dazzling colors can be displayed the Museum on a regular basis.

This video is presented in conjunction with the exhibition Making the Invisible Visible: Conservation and Islamic Art, on view April 2 through August 4, 2013.

The exhibition is made possible by The Hagop Kevorkian Fund.

Sheila Canby: We're standing in front of the Emperor's Carpet, one of the greatest Persian carpets in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. The carpet was produced in the sixteenth century, most likely during the reign of the great shah of Iran, Shah Tahmasp. It is a remarkable carpet, and we can only image the impact it must have made on visitors to the imperial court. Somehow, the extraordinary carpet made its way north to Russia, perhaps through trade or as a diplomatic gift. Then, around 1700, the carpet was given to the Hapsburgs in Vienna by Peter the Great.

After various owners, it was purchased by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1943. As amazing as it was, it was also very fragile and the Museum only displayed the Emperor's carpet to the public twice in the next sixty years. By 2006, we realized that we could only share the carpet with our public on a regular basis if we were willing to embark on an ambitious conservation program that would stabilize its condition.

Florica Zaharia: The conservators are always tempted to look pretty much in the details, if possible under microscope, so you see the condition of fibers; you see the condition of the dyed structural condition. However, if you look overall, the condition of this piece is marvelous. Even so, we have problems supported by patches. However, the warp and weft, the pile, the quality of the fiber, the quality of the dyes, it's so high, tells us that it was made for a special owner.

We have to start analyzing previous conservation. Looking at mostly at the back of the carpet, you'll see the lining, first red and rich silk fabric covering the whole carpet, yet damaged. Remove that first level, you find another lining. Now, removing the two layers of fabric, you find other layers of conservation. Front and back of this large carpet. Photography has been done by photo studio that gives us a clear record of the conservation previous to our time.

Midori Sato: This is the first phase after we remove the lining. It's covered with over 660 patches, which is the effort of the previous people who tried to conserve and preserve this precious carpet. And then, we are removing it because some them are really tightly sewn, or textiles shrunk, and it's distorting the original structure.

Yael Rosenield: There's no documentation as to when the patches were put on. And it's probably over different periods, because there are several layers of patches, and a lot of times we remove a patch and then find a whole bunch of other patches underneath. And we collect everything that we lose from the carpet, which we will use afterwards to do dye analysis. And we also collect the warp and the weft, which is actually made out of silk. The pile is wool. That's actually one of the reasons why the carpet is fairly fragile is because the silk deteriorates more than the wool.

Florica Zaharia: And we end up by removing over seven hundred patches from this carpet. After relaxing the carpet, we need to stabilize it.

Yael Rosenield: We'll back it with wool fabric, which we're in the process of dying. We're dying wool in four colors to match the original colors of the carpet: the red, the green, a yellow, and a beige. The dyes of the carpet are natural dyes, and we're using synthetic dyes, so already that's a very big difference. And we went through a process of trying different colors to match as close as possible. And we write the recipes for each color so that we can duplicate it. And we actually give it out to professional dyers afterwards, because we need a lot of yardage, and we don't really have the facility to do that here.

Florica Zaharia: The next challenge is to assure the perfect bounding between our new material and the carpet. The role of the fabric is to support the carpet. We are preparing for consolidating it. We have an example in this corner of damaged area that has been released from its previous treatment, and that's what we're left with. There are not many areas like this. Specific for corners, also the center lines where the carpet must have been folded. The next part of the process is to attach the fabric to the carpet. We have the fabric on the back of the carpet preparing for consolidating it. After this, the carpet will move to the loom, face up, and final stitches will be done from the front.

Janina Poshkrobko: I'm trying to document the structure of this partially preserved selvage. Under microscope, I'm looking at the very small fragment of this selvage. Selvages are on the sides of the carpet, and they have a very important function, because they reinforce the entire carpet. Weavers created this selvage differently, so selvage can tell us what specific area or perhaps even manufacturer the carpet was produced in. There are not too many selvages survived to our time, so that's why it's a great source of technical information for us.

Sheila Canby: Finally, after a massive three-year project, it is laid out in full before us. The conservation work has consolidated the carpet, and we clearly see what has made it so dazzling. There are the beautiful, rich colors with the central field and a border in a contrasting color.

The central field is a forest of animals, as if you have come across an amazing landscape of both real and fantastic creatures. In the borders are several layers of scrolling arabesques and sometimes you find animal heads hidden away in the foliage. The Persian calligraphy reinforces the visual language we see in the carpet. Its verdant beauty is evoked with verses like the one that says: "Come, for the breeze of spring has renewed the promise of the meadow." Other lines praise the king, calling on him to "enjoy eminence forever." A carpet of this complexity and beauty is really only possible by the sixteenth century in Iran, when technical innovations—such the cultivation of silk and the knowledge about dyes—had developed alongside the extraordinary aesthetic sophistication of the Safavid court. It is so exciting that now, as the result of this conservation campaign, the public can experience the carpet as never before.

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