Renaissance Rugs: Treasures of the Art World
Even for those who are just beginning to delve into the fascinating world of antique carpets and Persian rugs, the iconic designs are easily recognizable. The magnificent colors and patterns make them easy to appreciate, even with very little knowledge about them. Many of these iconic designs came into being during the Renaissance period which spanned from the 14th century to the 17th century. When one examines the history of Persian and antique Oriental rugs, it appears that the people of the Renaissance appreciated them just as much as we do today.
Renaissance – The Golden Age of Carpet Weaving
Many of the classic traditional rug designs that are still being produced today, such as medallion designs, vase rugs, allover patterns, and pictorial carpets, came into being during what is known as the Golden Age of Art. Carpet weaving was considered as much of an art form as painting and sculpture.
The designs consisting of a field and borders began to develop centuries before the Renaissance. As time went on, more features and elements were added. For instance, the medallion rug designs developed pendants and quarters in the corners of the field. The borders developed from simple designs to complex, multilayered ones consisting of a main border and several guard borders.
The Safavid dynasty was responsible for the rise of Persian carpets as an art form and as a status symbol among the wealthy. During this time, the other arts were elevated as well, including architecture, tile work, calligraphy, painting, and of course, textile art. Elements with impressive color combinations and a love of silk allowed for more intricate designs and the creation of fine rugs that were rich and elegant.
Not only did the antique rugs themselves become an important commodity for trade all around the globe, but so did the materials needed to produce them. The ability to produce silk in Tabriz meant that Persia was able to capture a market that was previously tucked securely behind the Great Wall of China. The materials and processes for the manufacture of the carpet dyes used to produce the colors and the raw materials to produce the threads were prized trade secrets.
The legend goes that the secret of silk production in Persia was result of a Princess who tucked some silk cocoons away in her clothing and started the Persian silk industry. Whether the story of the Persian Princess is true or not, it demonstrates the importance of Persian carpets as a high demand trade item and export product of the Safavid Dynasty during the 1500’s. The Safavid rulers laid the groundwork for the highly lucrative trade of the rugs that dominated the artwork and interior design of the East and the West from the Renaissance onward.
Rugs in Renaissance Art
The importance of rugs, specifically those from Persia, during the Renaissance is highlighted by their inclusion and status in artwork of the time. The rug artists of the Safavid dynasty reproduced the world around them. The beautiful rugs as art depicted formal gardens, reflecting pools, and tile work that mimicked the patterns found in the interior architecture. The Renaissance rugs were designed to create a reflection of the sanctuary world that the Safavids created.
It was a world that was unknown to Western culture at the time, except for the few noblemen, merchants, and military persons who visited. They were struck by the beauty of the rugs and began to bring them home. Many times, they did not understand the significance of the rug, but they did understand the beauty and magnificence of the colors and designs.
It is not surprising that the rug designs began to appear in art, including works by the famous Renaissance painter Gentile Bellini in his Madonna and Child Enthroned, produced in the late 15th century. Unfortunately, many of the carpets themselves no longer exist, but we can tell what they looked like by examining the very accurate depictions of them found in Renaissance painting.
One example of this is the fine detail and depiction of a latticework rug found in the 1457 painting Virgin and Child with Saints by Petrus Christus. The prominence of these rugs in paintings and art is a testimony to how the Europeans embraced them and treasured them for their beauty. By the late Renaissance, the rugs were treasured equally in the East and the West.
Timeless Renaissance Designs
During the Renaissance, the colors and designs became more elaborate with deep reds, brilliant blues, sunshine yellows, earthy greens and browns, bright pinks, and a rich palette of hues that provided for expensive opportunities in design. Many times, the threads of these carpets were wrapped with gold or silver. The design of the rug was meant to reflect the world of wealth and beauty that was embodied by Safavid dynasty.
The designs of the rugs represented the lush world around them. The designs depicted the gardens and pools that often adorned the front of palaces and estates. The architecture was represented in abstract form, as with the development of the medallion pattern. This pattern represented the pools that were found in the Persian courtyards.
The field and border are often filled with an explosion of interlocking flowers, such as those that one would see on a daily stroll through the gardens. Many of these designs showed a Sufi influence, as they are mirrored both horizontally and vertically. This represents the spiritual harmony that grows from the center of the carpet and the reflecting pool that it represents.
We know more about the designs and colors used in Persian Renaissance rugs by examining the representations of rugs in artworks than from the small number of surviving rugs from this time period. However, a study of rugs using Renaissance paintings gives a rather biased perspective on the range of styles that were being produced. Only rugs produced in the cities and economic centers found their way to Europe. The rugs produced in the nomadic and tribal villages were not depicted in paintings and are missing from the body of knowledge.
It was not until the mid 20th century that these village produced rugs were being recognized for their historic and artistic value. What we know about Renaissance rugs only includes those that were produced using the formal designs that developed during the Safavid dynasty and through the formal schools.
However, many of the classic traditional motifs and symbols found in antique tribal rugs that are still produced today are the same ones depicted in rugs during the Renaissance. Symbols such as birds, the Phoenix, the Dragon, and Oriental rug designs are often found in both extant rugs and in artwork. From these paintings, we see a predominance of geometric and lattice work designs.
There is also a menagerie of animals, both real and imagined. The popularity of animal motifs eventually gave way to floral and garden designs. Many of the designs of Renaissance carpets found in paintings were named for the artist that depicted them. For instance, those found in the works of Hans Holbein are referred to as Holbein Rugs. As a general rule, the artist would tend to depict a certain style or type of carpet. This is more than likely a reflection of the carpets to which they had been exposed.
Where Are The Renaissance Rugs Today?
The plethora rugs depicted in Renaissance art are represented by a very small number of surviving rugs. However, surprisingly, many of the ones that do exist are in excellent condition. They were kept in churches, museums and sometimes only brought out for special occasions. For example, in Denmark a splendid carpet with gold and silver threads was produced for the coronation of rulers in the 17th century. It is still used under the throne for coronations today and is only brought out for special occasions. Persian carpets retain their connection to royalty. During special festivals in Venice, existing 16th century rugs are hung over the sides of boats, over the sides of footbridges, and out open windows.
Although many of the Renaissance rugs only exist in paintings, it is still possible to find a few on the open market. Many museums and churches have notable collections. When one does appear on the open market, it is a real treasure, an investment, and priceless in terms of its historical value. Antique Renaissance period rugs are an irreplaceable piece of history that must be preserved for future generations. To own one is to be a keeper of history.
We invite you to look through our collection of early rugs as these treasures do make their way into our hands and could become a piece of your collection too.