The Metropolitan Museum of Art Conserves an Emperor's Carpet

In 1941, the Metropolitan Museum, New York City, acquired a 16th Century carpet made in Safavid, Iran. At the center of the intricate design is a forest of real and fantasy creatures. The borders have arabesques and animal heads peeking from foliage. The warp and weft are silk, and the pile is wool.

Persian calligraphy nudges the viewer into this enchanting landscape with a poetic invitation. "Come, for the breeze of spring has reviewed the promise of the meadow." Other phrases praise the emperor whom experts believe was Shah Tahmasp who ruled from 1524 until his death in 1576.

The Safavid Dynasty ruled Iran until the 18th Century and were sophisticated patrons of the arts. Their court carpets are famous for their ornate designs and luxurious materials. Animal and hunting scenes were common in Iran in the 16th Century. Hunting was the sport of royalty and a popular subject in all the Safavid arts. Large carpets were produced in court workshops and used both indoors and out.

A long journey to the Met

After impressing visitors to the imperial court, the carpet went to Russia, although no one knows how. Diplomatic gift or trade is the most likely explanation as carpet and textiles were among Iran's important export items at the time. Around 1700, the carpet was in the hands of Peter the Great who passed it on to the Austrian Habsburgs who used it in their summer residence. The carpet remained the property of the Austrian Imperial House until 1921. After that, it was displayed in various museums and acquired by the Rockefellers before becoming part of the Metropolitan Museum's collection.

Restoring a masterpiece

The carpet was so fragile that in sixty years it was on display only twice. The museum began a three-year conservation project in 2006 to restore and stabilize the carpet so it can be part of a permanent exhibit, or at least displayed more often than once every 30 years. Its lustrous wools and dazzling colors make the carpet a rare textile treasure. Museum conservator Florica Zaharia describes the condition as "marvelous" and the high quality of fibers and dyes suggests it was made for an important patron.

Many repairs had been made over the centuries. The carpet had several linings, the latest of red silk. The other layers of lining had more than 600 patches. Some were sewn so tightly that the original design was distorted. When many of the patches were removed, other patches were found beneath them. The silk of the original carpet had deteriorated more than the wool.

After the linings and patches were removed, the carpet was stabilized with a backing of wool fabric. Wool was dyed in red, green, yellow, and beige to match the colors in the carpet. Although the carpet is colored in natural dyes, the conservators used synthetic dyes after testing different recipes to find dyes that most closely matched the original colors. The last stage of the process was bonding the lining to the carpet so the fabric supports the carpet without distorting it. The restored carpet is 25 feet by 11 feet and weighs 144 pounds.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art included the carpet in its exhibit "Making the Invisible Visible" in 2013. Although not on display at the present time, the carpet has been preserved for the enjoyment of the public and the edification of scholars for many generations.

Discover your treasure

The carpet experts at Landry & Arcari will be happy to answer your questions about rug and carpet selection, maintenance, and repair. They have a huge inventory of fine handmade rugs to select from and are happy to weave a one-of-a-kind carpet that your family will treasure through the generations.

Photo courtesy of The Met

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