“The conceits of Poetry”: Firdausi’s Shahnama and the Discovery of Persian in Early Modern Europe
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AbstractIn erudite European milieus astride the fifteenth- and sixteenth centuries, a small number of pioneer intellectuals started to acknowledge the existence of Persian as a second prestigious language of the Islamic East, distinct from Arabic. The first Persian language study and acquisition of manuscripts seem to have taken place mainly in Italy, and were based in part on the circulation of poetic narrative works. In this context, the first fragmentary awareness of the poet Firdausi and his Shahnama began to take shape. With its approximately 55,000 rhyming couplets, this ‘Book of the Kings’ is unanimously considered a milestone in the Persian epic; it is also a masterpiece of human literature. Drawing, on one side, on a vast web of ancient stories, some of which reach back – although indirectly – to Near-Eastern or even Greek traditions, on the other side the Shahnama and its author’s aura reach well into the modern age, gradually yet falteringly entering the consciousness of cultivated Europeans, up to the first substantial translations of the nineteenth century. Through a series of textual and visual references, this paper follows some key strands of this book’s route into early modern Europe, exploring its place at the crossroads of Eurasian literary history.