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The Persian Tile

Technically, Melville’s Persian tile is not a print on paper, so it does not necessarily deserve a place in this catalog of Melville’s print collection. Aesthetically, however, it achieves much the same function as a print, conveying a pictorial narrative through a graphic medium on a nearly two-dimensional surface as a means of cultural expression. The pictorial medium in this case is underglaze painting on molded tile from the mid-nineteenth-century Qajar period. Such tiles were produced primarily in the Qajar capital of Tehran, but also in Isfahan and Shiraz. The border at the top of this tile indicates that it would have been used in the upper border of a frieze in a building. Its figurative subject indicates that the building would have been secular rather than religious. The human figure on the horse “is probably a prince, since the animal can be identified as the fabulous bird Humā, whose shadow was cast only over persons of royal status” (Carboni and Masuya, no. 39, p. 44). 

The latter interpretation was written about a Qajar tile from the same mold as the one Melville acquired. It was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1883 but was not exhibited or interpreted until the Museum’s 1993 exhibition and catalog of Persian Tiles. As with the engraving after della Bella, Melville showed impressive foresight in acquiring this representation of Persian and Near Eastern culture. As the 1993 catalog indicates, “tilework has been widely used to adorn the surfaces of Persian architecture since ancient times. . . . A number of square, polychrome tiles molded in relief were found at Susa in Luristan; their dates range from the twelfth to the seventh century B.C.” (Carboni and Masuya, p. 2). In its historical roots, then, as well as in its depiction of a prince upon a white horse, Melville’s Persian tile relates to the “white steeds” in The Persians by Aeschylus and Les Perses by Flaxman (see CAT 2). Although tile production had virtually ceased after the Islamic conquest of the Sasanian empire in the seventh century A. D., the tradition revived during eleventh century and continued to flourish up through the Qajar period—which was itself marked by “the revival of Sasanian times and of the Persian national epic” (Carboni and Masuya, pp. 2-5, 45).

Although Melville does not mention the acquisition of his Persian tile in his journal, he does mention the “rascally priest” in Constantinople who “fleeced me out of ½ dollar, following me around, selling the fallen mosaics” (NN J 59). His granddaughter Eleanor Melville Metcalf, who visited Melville and his art collection at 104 East 26th Street as a young girl, always referred to his tile as “Persian” and traced it to his 1857 voyage. Melville himself appears to have ordered its wooden frame, for the latter was made by a framer on Fourth Avenue near his home on East 26th Street. Pictorially, this depiction of a Persian prince on a horse is fascinating to compare with della Bella’s depiction of Persian slave standing with his camel. This same tile is also certain to have had rich associations for Melville as a collector of Persian poetry, especially in his annotated and illustrated editions of Sa’di’s Gûlistân and of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. It also relates to his extremely sophisticated discussion of the sculptural relievos on the ancient Persian vase in “Under the Rose”—a vase “that being on a bridal festival filled with roses in the palace of the old Shar Gold-Beak in Shiraz, had tempted their great poet, one Sugar-Lips, to a closer inspection” that resulted in an ekphrastic poem (NN BBO 238).

  • Works Cited in this section
  • Berthold, Dennis. “Political Intertexts for Battle Pieces: Melville at the National Academy of Design, 1865,” in Melville as Poet, The Art of “Pulsed Life”, ed. Sanford Marovetz (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2013), 9-24.
  • Carboni, Stefano, and Tomoko Masuya. Persian Tiles. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993.
  • Omar Khayyám. Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, the Astronomer Poet of Persia. Rendered into English verse [by Edward Fitzgerald]. Boston: Houghton, Osgood, 1878 (Sealts no. 391).
  • Sa’di. Gûlistân, or Rose Garden; by Musle-Huddeen Shaik Sâdy, of Sheeraz. Tr. Francis Gladwin. London: Kingsbury, Parbury, and Allen, 1822 (Sealts no. 434).
  • Tamarkin, Elisa. “A Final Appearance with Elihu Vedder: Melville’s Visions.” Leviathan 18.5 (October 2016): 68-111.
  • Vedder, Elihu. Drawings and Notes to the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Rendered into English by Edward Fitzgerald. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, c. 1886 (Sealts no. 392).