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Origin of marbling in Asia

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  • Jake Benson
    I am curious to know if any new evidence has been found to support the production of marbling at any location in China or Turkestan, or along the Silk Road.
    Message 1 of 2 , Jul 12, 2001
      Origin of marbling in Asia I am curious to know if any new evidence has been found to support the production of marbling at any location in China or Turkestan, or along the Silk Road.  It is my hope that this list could be used to communicate any evidence as it comes to light, directly informing everyone about the potential origin of marbling.  Is there new evidence that proves that Urumqi, Xinjiang is the "ancestral homeland" of marbling?  I have provided some section of a paper that I presented, which I'm now reformatting.  Any comments or additions would be greatly appreciated.

      A Chinese manuscript entitled Wen Fang Ssu Phu, "Four Implements of Writing in the Scholar’s Studio" by Su-I- Chien (953-996) mentions 'drifting sand notepaper', the design of which was printed from a flour paste sprinkled with various colors creating a free and irregular design. Additionally, there is mention of a method where paste was prepared from honey locust pods mixed with croton oil and water, and black and colored inks applied to the surface. Colors were scattered when ginger was added to the color and gathered if dandruff was applied with a hair brush. The various designs which looked like human figures, clouds, or flying birds were transferred from the surface of the liquid to the paper.  Unfortunately , there are no extant examples of this type of paper, so it can be proven for certain if what is referred to is actually marbling, though the description is very similar.  

      This account was translated and published by Tsien Tsuen-Hsuin (I'd love to know how to pronounce that name correctly!), in Chapter 28 of his work, Paper and Printing from China Part 1, Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology , Science and Civilisation in China, Needham, Joseph ed. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1985

      examples provided by him date from the 19th century, and appear to be types of spattered papers, though they may appear similar to marbling.  To my knowledge no independent investigation has been made to confirm what he is saying is correct, nor has any evidence come to light that would further prove the technique originated there.  It's too soon to tell

         The earliest marbled papers are from Japan, where they are known as Suminagashi (Japanese: "spilling ink on water").  The oldest examples extant are found in the Sanjuroku nin Kashu of the Nishihinaganji Temple.  It is a collection of waka poems of 36 eminent poets , bound in 1112 (another source gives a date of 1118 ad).  Einen Miura states that the oldest reference to suminagashi papers are in the waka poems of Shigeharu, who was the son of Narihira, who lived between 825-880 AD.  I think a better outline of the history of Suminagashi could be developed, as we know of the earliest examples, one 16th century example in the Freer Gallery of Art's Tale of Genji, and then the 19th century examples.  While I understand that the Hiroba Family marbled for generations until the present day, I wonder if this has ever been fully documented.

      Origin of paper marbling in the Islamic World.

         It is not known, nor can it be proven when and how marbling came into use in the Islamic world.  Many theories abound, among them that it was invented in Turkestan, or came from China along the Silk Road.  Many writers have supported these ideas, but we must keep in mind that no specific evidence has ever been found to substantiate these theories  Whether or not the technique used in the Near East was the independent "invention" of Islamic craftsmen, or whether it developped out of the earlier foreign techniques mentioned above cannot be substantiated. What is do know is that the method used in the Islamic world involved a mucilaginous colloid size bath, rather than plain water, and various dispersants were added to the pigment colors, primarily an extract of ox bile.  The method bears similarity to the one described in the Wen Fang Ssu Phu, so it is a possiblilty that it developed out of  Chinese techniques, though the evidence is insufficient to make far reaching conclusions.  Marbled papers were manufactured in the Islamic East: Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, Iran, and in some Eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire, with the exception of Egypt, where we know 2 marblers from Istanbul lived in the beginning of the 20th c.  

      Meaning of the word Abri
         The word for marbled paper in Persian and old Turkish is
      ابري‮ ‬ abri, which can be translated coming from the Persian word for cloud. The word abr with meaning "cloud" is known in the ancient Pahlavi language of the Persians.  The final letter "ya" of the word abri, gives the connotation that it is an adjective, and was likely  used in conjunction with the word "paper"- giving the meaning "cloudy paper" or "clouded paper".  The word for paper in Persian Kaghiz, كاغظis known to be of Turkish origin, and is written as ÿıt in modern Turkish, though the word is written using the same characters in old Turkish.   Another theory holds that abri it is a Chaghatay Turkish word, meaning "colorful" or "variegated", similar to the wordابرش‮ ‬ Abrash, a word used to refer to ikat weavings produced in Central Asia.  Whatever the origin of the word, it is clear that all the manuscripts mentioning marbling use the word abri, and among Persian speaking people, it was taken to mean "clouded" or "cloudy".  Most early examples of marbling from the Islamic world are soft pale bluish green Hafif or "Pale" patterns, that often resemble clouds or smoke.   

      At some point, likely the turn of the 19th/ 20th centuries, the word Abri, pronounced Ebri in Turkish voice, transformed into a new word,
      ابرو‮ ‬ Ebrû in late Ottoman Turkish.  It is listed as such in the Redhouse "Yeni Sözluk" Ottoman dictionary at the beginning of the 20th c.  How this happened has yet to be determined, but such examples of word corruption.  Since the revolution in Turkey, and the abolition of the Arabic script, it has been called Ebrû.  The abandonment of Arabic script has only cast further confusion over the potential origin of the word.  Arguments have been based on the theory that marbling developed in tandem with papermaking, as practiced by Turkic peoples in Central Asia, and that it must have a Turkish origin.  This theory ignores the enormous cultural contributions made by indigenous people whom the Turks conquered, and the resulting new synthesis that emerges throughout the Islamic East.  Persian and Subcontinental origins have been largely unexplored, and the technical manuscripts from India remain largely unknown to contemporary Turkish writers.

      Use of kaghiz-i abri by scribes for Nasta'liq qita’

      A number of masters of the Persian nasta’liq script did make use of marbled papers for their compositions, including larger compositions known as qita’.   Since these calligraphers signed their names directly on the surface of the paper, it is possible to relatively date them, even if they didn’t give the actual date of the composition.  The oldest known works that can be authenticated are the qita’ of Mir ‘Ali ul Haravi, who often signed his works using the eponym al-Katibi, meaning "The Scribe".  He died in Bukhara in 1544.  Originally a scribe in the kitab-khana of the last of the Timurid rulers Sultan Husayn ul Bayqara in Herat, he was captured by the Uzbek leader ‘Ubaydullah Khan around 1535, and taken to Bukhara along with other artists.  A systematic and thorough study of these and subsequent works written on marbled paper has yet to be attempted.  Among them are simple compositions of famous poetry, original compositions, panegyric poems in praise of a prevailing ruler, and riddles, known as mu’amma, as well as chronograms, a type of numerological word play by which the letters in the final line or words of a poem add up to the number of the year in which it was composed.  Only one qita’ of Mir ‘Ali written directly on marbled paper is known, which is dated to of 1540, currently in the Art and History Trust Collection.  

      Use of kaghiz-i abri in muraqqa’ album production.

      The main use of marbling in Islamic manuscripts can be identified in qita, and in the construction of albums, known as muraqqa, meaning "patched" in Arabic.  These albums were designed to collect various separate works into a single unit- often incorporating elements of poetic and artistic works of very different provenance, according to the whim of the patron or artisan.  One type of small oblong book, termed safina meaning "boat" in Arabic, contained poetry, often decorated and written in nasta’liq script.  These books were very popular from at least the 15th c., but none utilizing marbled papers have ever been found.  Many muraqqa do contain works which are similar in size to the safina format, and it may be possible that if marbled safinas existed, they could have been taken apart and integrated into album formats.  

      Many albums themselves were later dispersed, collected by others, and re-assembled into a new album format.  Marbled papers are often found in later muraqqas where it has been used as a decorative "gap filler" and border material.  While a number of albums in existence today, such as examples executed at the Mughal Court, incorporate lavish decoration, marbling is less likely to be utilized.  Others muraqqas were assembled by the artists themselves, who could not afford , or didn’t wish to use the services of an illuminator.  There do exist muraqqas of this type, which contain the works of an Ottoman painter Abdullah Bukhari, who lived in Istanbul in the mid 18th c.  He painted portraits including erotic scenes, which were put into albums, some of which have contemporary marbled papers on the borders.  Perhaps he just didn’t want anyone to know what he was doing, other than his patrons, and he preferred to simply use marbled papers in assembling his muraqqas.  One intact Muraqqa from the 18th century is in the MFA in Boston, the calligraphy is executed by Abdullah Himmet Zadeh, a student of Hafiz Osman.  Another unfinished muraqqa in the Sackler Museum at Harvard University incorporates a variety of marbling techniques, such as a stenciled reverse border ‘Aks, stencil resist painting, heart motifs, and curious 3 color floral motifs that were made from the simultaneous application of three differently colored drops.  One signature on the reverse of one of the leaves is attributed to a Sultan from Mandu in central India.    

      The manufacture and use of abri in Islamic Society.

      Scant mention is made to marbling in the many artists manuals, and tazkiras, or historical biographies.  In contrast, the lives of calligraphers and painters, and to an extent illuminators and bookbinders are often mentioned.  The Golestan-i Huner written by Qadi Ahmed mentions craftsmen who decorated papers in preparing a manuscript, sizing "ahar", sprinkling "serpme", stenciling "’Aks", polishing, "muhra", often executed in conjunction with a device called a mistar, which resulted in lines impressed in the paper for the scribes use, gold ruling "jadval", and other preparatory activities, assisting the scribes.  While we can assume that it was used in the Kitab-khana of royal courts, it is likely that it held a low rank, and could even conceivably have been the product of slave assistants to the major artisans.  Another possibility is that the paper was manufactured by the papermakers themselves, and sold to the kitab-khana for their own use. While we are able to determine a fair amount of information about how marbled papers were used, we really have very little information about the manufacturers themselves.

      It has often been suggested that marbled papers were produced by dervishes and Sufis who were too humble to sign their work.  This notion is curious, especially given that scores of calligraphers, painters, and illuminators were highly devout, yet they signed work.  What I think can be discerned is that while important artists and craftsmen signed their work, assistants and paper decorators didn’t.  Was this a result of profound ascetic humility that was a prerequisite for paper decoration?  Or was paper decoration of only minor importance, and not accorded  with special recognition?  Trades such as calligraphy, painting and illumination, and even bookbinding have better documentation that show a higher level of respect than that accorded to paper decorators.  A highly organized system of of studying with a particular master, obtaining their approval and an "ijazet", or a diploma that would acknowledge an artist’s mastery of traditional techniques was standard practice.  There is no evidence for such a tradition as related to marbling, nor is there evidence that marblers were somehow a part of particular guild.

      Another important aspect to consider in studying the development of marbling, is the role of the private manuscript manufacture.  There is substantial evidence showing the existence of such trade in cities such as Shiraz in the 16th century, where entire families were said to be involved in manuscript production as a cottage industry.  Individual calligraphers, and itinerant artists who migrated from region to region and patron to patron may also have used marbled papers, since they worked independently of the court, outside the Kitab khana.  At other times court artists were hired by courtesans, provincial rulers, and upper class citizens to produce works.  The manuscripts were often on a luxury scale, and produced for the wealthy; courtesans and provincial rulers, though cheaper volumes in derivative imitative styles were also made.  Sometimes these were given as gifts to the court, or the court accessioned them through other routes, such as forfeiture upon execution.   Manuscript collections and artisans were prized as booty by  invaders, and were taken back to work for their new master.  Some manuscripts were worked on by successive generations of artists assembled by the invaders.  Hence we find a plethora of Central Asian works in the albums of Ottomans, Mughals, and Safavids, as well as Safavid works in Ottoman, Mughal, and Deccani albums.  Older works by famous masters were reformatted in new albums constructed to honor them, but in accordance with the new ruler’s taste.  

      While it is clear that there were guild for various trades, a Marbler's guild is not found, though they may have played a role as a part of a larger paper guild.  Such a guild could have provided the public with the necessary goods.  Ottoman works known as "Surname" document the festivities surrounding processions held in honor of particular events, such as weddings and circumcisions.  Esin Atil, in her work on a famous 18th c  Sername featuring the painter Levni, that most of the guilds featured in the Ser, or procession, has determined the guilds represented are somehow associated with the military, and don’t necessarily feature court artisans.  Until more evidence is produced showing otherwise, it seems likely that marbling was produced outside of a formal guild or court environment.       

      There was a great trade in paper from many different parts of the Islamic world.  A 15th c tazkira the Menaqibi Hünervan written by ‘Ali Effendi,  mentions that high quality papers were available in Istanbul which came from as far away as China, Central Asia, and India.  The theme of an international trade in paper and artist’s materials underlies most technical manuscripts concerning Islamic Art.  The Gülzar-i Savab (Rose Garden of the Righteous), written by Nefiszade Ibrahim, also neglects mention of the technique despite covering a full range of methods for producing colors and vegetable pigments, sizing agents for coating paper, and methods of paper coloring, in addition to detailing the lives of artists who are known to have used marbled paper.  The scant mention of marbling in tazkiras and technical manuscripts is compelling, and may indicate that while it was a decorative technique, it may not have been widely used, or was under-appreciated, and last, that it may have been of foreign manufacture, and purchased from paper vendors who imported paper from all over the Islamic world, eventually paving the way to European mass production of paper for the Islamic market.

      While some manuscripts that use marbling do have a connection with royal ateliers and certain Sufi mystics, it is by no means pervasive, nor can it be specifically proven that they were manufactured on location.  Marbling is an element used in manuscript along side of the many different and varied methods of decorating paper.  Some have held that the lack of evidence is due to the fact that it the technique was kept hidden, however since there are several manuscripts giving very exact details for the marbling process, it seems that it might not have been as secretive as previously thought, and consideration must be given to other factors: the relative difficulty of the process and lengthy preparation time involving costly and rare ingredients.  The lack of evidence may well indicate that it was something more ordinary, or common, perhaps something that was done in the imitations of the prevailing court styles for those who could afford it, rather than a luxury item that was greatly esteemed by rulers in the court.  

      Manuscript sources documenting kaghaz-i abri.

         Manuscript references to marbling are found in the Golestan-i Huner "The Rose Garden of Art" written by Qadi Ahmed, in two editions, the first in 1596, and a later revised edition of 1606.
      It is a treatise about the lives of various calligraphers, painters, illuminators, and other artists.  Qadi Ahmad's father was Mir Munshi, who worked for Ibrahim Mirza, nephew of the Safavid Shah Tahmasp and governer of Mashhad from 1567-77.  Ibrahim Mirza was a famous patron of the book arts, lavishing great expense on the kitab-khana, or "scriptorium" which was particularly well endowed with gifted artists executing beautiful deluxe manuscripts.  Consequently, a youthful Ahmad spent much time in the Kitab-khana (Book-atelier in Persian), and became intimate with many artists and observed many techniques.  In the treatise he mentions that Maulana Muhammad Amin of Mashhad, who had been his teacher, made various types of abri and Qadi Yahya of Qazvin was a contemporary marbler.  Porter has discovered another Mohamed Amin mentioned in connection with the atelier of the General Abdul Rahim Khan-Khanan, who served under the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan.  

         Another ambiguous reference is found in the Qanun-i Suvar or "Treatise on Painting" written by Sadiqi Beg Afshar.  He mentions the word
      ابرabr among seven styles of painting Haft-iQalem, or "Seven Pens".  Richard Ettinghausen originally described the meaning of the term referring to Chinese derived stylized cloud bands.  Porter has argued that others terms can be found that refer to cloud bands and suggests that abr may refer to marbling, but remains cautiously inconclusive.  One problem is that all of the other Haft-i Qalem techniques are executed by painters using a pens and brushes in the conventional manner.  They refer to sylistic variations found withing decorative art, such as islimi, or arabesque,  Firengi, literally "Frankish", referring to European methods, Khata’i refers to Chinese etc.  There is little technical variation among the different methods mentioned in the Qanun-i Suvar.  If abr does indeed refer to marbling, then it would depart from Sadeqi’s  theme of detailing stylistic variations.  More evidence is necessary to make any conclusions.

      Technical manuscripts detailing marbling materials and procedures.

      Four technical manuscripts works from the Islamic world that describe the marbling process are known to exist.  The oldest is written in Persian and is called Risale-ye Khoshnevisi and is spuriously attributed to the 15th c. calligrapher, Abdullah Sayrafi.  The scholar Yves Porter has determined it to be from India, and dates it to the reign of the Emperor Akbar, although the oldest known copy is dated 1708, located in the Khuda Baksh Library in Patna, India  Colors mentioned in this manuscript include vegetable dyes, known as abi (diluted in water) such as safflower, turmeric, and indigo, as well as ahari colors (meaning starch or sizing- indicating a binder was used in the manufacture of the paint), made from mineral and other pigments such as cinnabar, orpiment, lapis lazuli, ceruse, and lampblack.  It mentions the name of one Mir Mohamed Taher, who is credited with the invention of marbling around 1540.  This figure is not to be confused with another Persian artist of the same name who emigrated to India from Iran at around the same time, according to Porter.  Yet it is unlikely that this individual actually invented marbling, as there are a number of datable examples from other places in existence at that time.

      The next manuscript in chronological order, is in Ottoman Turkish, bearing the date 1608, and is called the "Tertib Risale-i Ebri ", "An Organized Treatise on Marbling", and is in the private collection of U
      ¸ÿur Derman in Istanbul.  It gives a detailed description for using a bath of gum tragacanth, preparing colors from pigment without the use of gum binder, using ox bile to float the colors, and various additives and recipes for special effects including gum lac, egg white, vegetable oils, fish bile, fig leaf juice, tobacco leaf juice, and a curious reference to opium.  It has never been translated, but was published in Derman’s seminal work in Turkish, Türk Sanatında Ebrû, in 1977, and he has recently completed a critical edition of the full manuscript in Turkish.  It makes posthumous mention of an individual named Shebek, and mentions recipes that are used to create patterns in his particular style.  It is possible to read the name as Shaiban which is also the name of the invading Uzbek tribal leader who ransacked what was left of the Timurid Dynasty, and drove Babur into India at the turn of the 16th /17th c.  Unfortunately, some contemporary writers who are unaware of this historical information have literally translated the name Shebek as "monkey".

         The next manuscript of importance is written in Persian and is entitled the Khulasat ul Mujarrabat "The Quintessence of Prescriptions", and is dated 1766, and is kept in the India Office Library in the British Library in London.  This was translated by Dr. Salim Quraishi, and was published in Ink & Gall Magazine in 1988.  It mentions the use of Fenugreek mucilage for the marbling bath, mordanting the paper with alum, and how to prepare various colors, adding soapberry extract to make them float, and mentions specific types of paper considered suitable for marbling.

         The fourth Persian manuscript is entitled the Risala-ye Jeld Saz, which is dated 1812, and is kept in the Government Oriental Manuscripts Library in Madras.  A later copy dated 1859 is kept in the Library of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.  A critical edition of the text was published in a Persian work on bookbinding by the historian Iraj Afshar in 1977, but has never been fully translated.  It mentions size baths made from boiled white onions or flax seeds in addition to fenugreek.  It also suggests a number of additives and floating agents such as boiled gum lac, borax, milk, soap, soapberry, and myrrh.  Much work remains to be done to translate the remaining manuscripts, and correlate them with existing evidence.  

      Poetic references

         The scholar Annemarie Schimmel, retired Professor of Islamic Languages at Harvard University, has provided us with a few interesting poetic references to marbling from India.  She writes that the poet ‘Azad stated "When one writes one's grief on abri paper one may draw the beloved's attention to the lover's weeping eyes".  She asserts that clouds are often symbolic of tears in Persianate poetry among both Sufi mystic and non-Sufi writers.  Schimmel has translated a couplet by Munir Lahori:

      The spring cloud makes its ruler from the thread of paper
      When the air writes the description of the rose on cloud paper.

      She also translates the verses of the Kashmiri poet Umid to his beloved:

      I shall write from now on my letters on cloud paper
      So that you may become acquainted with my weeping eye!

      In yet another reference, Schimmel mentions the Indo-Persian poet Abu Talib Kalim musing from a riverside perch in Kashmir on a winter day in the 17th century.  He saw the frozen river as a scroll of abri paper with ducks on it positioned in the lyric patterns reminiscent of those gracing cloud paper.

      I am providing these examples to illustrate how much confusion , and a general lack of consensus exists among contemporary marblers and writers about the craft.  It is very important to use words like "maybe" "possibly" and "perhaps" when speaking theoretically about the origins of the craft.  Any effort to promote marbling should be applauded, and searching for historic examples is a worthwhile experience for any marbler.  I just wonder sometimes if the information used to promoted is accurate, and urge everyone to check and make sure first.

      A‭ ‬collective‭ ‬enthusiasm‭ ‬and‭ ‬investigation‭ ‬of‭ ‬marbling‭ ‬over‭ ‬the‭ ‬last‭ ‬20‭ ‬years‭ ‬or‭ ‬so‭ ‬have‭ ‬led‭ ‬to‭ ‬a‭ ‬number‭ ‬of‭ ‬interesting‭, ‬unsubstantiated‭ ‬claims‭ ‬regarding‭ ‬marbling‭ ‬history‭.  "‬Possibilities‭" ‬have‭ ‬become‭ "‬probabilities‭" ‬in‭ ‬the‭ ‬minds‭ ‬of‭ ‬some‭, ‬and‭ ‬even‭ "‬fact‭" ‬in‭ ‬the‭ ‬minds‭ ‬of‭ ‬others‭.  ‬Few‭ ‬writers‭ ‬have‭ ‬checked‭ ‬their‭ ‬sources‭ ‬in‭ ‬order‭ ‬to‭ ‬authenticate‭ ‬claims‭ ‬that‭ ‬are‭ ‬being‭ ‬made‭.  ‬While‭ ‬most‭ ‬contemporary‭ ‬writing‭ ‬about‭ ‬marbling‭ ‬has‭ ‬done‭ ‬much‭ ‬to‭ ‬publicize‭ ‬the‭ ‬art‭ ‬and‭ ‬contemporary‭ ‬artists‭ ‬working‭ ‬in‭ ‬the‭ ‬medium‭, ‬very‭ ‬little‭ ‬original‭ ‬research‭ ‬has‭ ‬been‭ ‬performed‭.  ‬I‭ ‬would‭ ‬define‭ ‬original‭ ‬research‭ ‬as‭ ‬investigations‭ ‬dealing‭ ‬with‭ ‬primary‭ ‬sources‭ ‬regarding‭ ‬marbling‭- ‬the‭ ‬translation‭ ‬of‭ ‬relevant‭ ‬manuscripts‭, ‬the‭ ‬identification‭ ‬of‭ ‬actual‭ ‬pieces‭, ‬and‭ ‬study‭ ‬of‭ ‬their‭ ‬specific‭ ‬context‭.  ‬

      While I eagerly anticipate the discovery of convincing proof firmly establishing the invention and development in China, or along the Silk Route, or anywhere else, until that proof is provided I feel that claims cannot be put forward.  Any claims for an "ancestral homeland" for marbling is unconvincing if there is a lack of proof.  
      It is not a simple matter of "connecting the dots" as some would have it.  This is equally true of the notion that Marbling is somehow sufi art or practice.  While one particular tekke (sufi lodge, out of over 500 at the time!) in Istanbul is known to have manufactured paper, there is no evidence to support this occurence anywhere else.  Certain aesthetic were certainly enjoyed by the populace, such as literature, but we know so little about the marblers themselves, I often wonder if some may have been illiterate.  "We don't really know" is a sufficient enough statement to cover these topics. Believe me, I would jump and down for joy for a whole month if anything new evidence were found to substantiate some of the claims that have been made.


    • J Dolphin
      Origin of marbling in AsiaAlways--it is a terrific education that you bring us! :) Jill ... From: Jake Benson To: Marbling list Sent: Thursday, July 12, 2001
      Message 2 of 2 , Jul 14, 2001
        Origin of marbling in Asia
        Always--it is a terrific education that you bring us! :)
        ----- Original Message -----
        Sent: Thursday, July 12, 2001 12:42 PM
        Subject: [Marbling] Origin of marbling in Asia

        I am curious to know if any new evidence has been found to support the production of marbling at any location in China or Turkestan, or along the Silk Road.  
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