Jean Pozzi's collection of Iranian and Persianate Art: A Documentation in Progress

Cabinet d'Arts Graphiques, Museum of Art and History in Geneva (MAH)


Jean Pozzi (1884-1967), the French Plenipotentiary Minister in Iran and Egypt, can be considered one of the most renowned collectors of Iranian and Islamic arts in twentieth-century Europe. Of his legendary collection, today only remain some 600 manuscript paintings, calligraphies and illuminations in the Cabinet d’arts graphiques of the Museum of Art and History in Geneva (MAH). Jean Pozzi bequeathed indeed part of his collection, including Persianate paintings and European engravings to the MAH in the Fall of 1966, and made Geneva as one of the European cities holding a unique collection of Persianate art. 

Pozzi loaned seven Persian book illustrations to the famed Miniatures persanes exhibition in 1912. Held in the Pavilion of Marsan in the Musée des arts décoratifs of Paris the exhibition was curated by Georges Marteau and Henri Vever, two of the French pioneers of Persian and Islamic art collections. Pozzi participated also as an official representative of the French government at the International Archaeological Congress in Syria and Palestine in 1926.

We may note two major works on Jean Pozzi’s collection: the first dates back to 1930, when the French Orientalist and curator of the Bibliothèque nationale of France (BNF), Edgard Blochet (1870–1937), studied and published the first essay on Pozzi’s collection by presenting several black and white paintings and nine coloured plates. The second major catalogue was published in 1992 by B. W. Robinson following an exhibition on the Pozzi collection in Geneva’s Musée d’art et d’histoire, presenting some 671 paintings and objet d’art gathered from around the world. One may note here that Robinson had already published an essay (now out of print) on some of 300 book illustrations and calligraphic pages of Pozzi’s collection in 1974, when the collection first arrived in the Musée d’art et d’histoire.

Pozzi in essence had some of the most remarkable pieces from the Safavid and Qajar periods. As Robinson listed the collection in the MAH, Pozzi held some “610 items, comprising 17 from the 14th century, 42 Timurid (15th century, but one may also include here the Turkmen Shirazi styles), 75 early Safavid (16th century), 161 later Safavid (17thcentury), and 193 post-Safavid (18th and 19th centuries).” 

All these pieces are now digitalized and accessible on the MAH’s website; however several documentations and modifications need to be realised. The works previously grouped under Timurid style, for instance, should be verified in order to clarify if they are rather executed under the Turkmen princes mostly in central and occidental Iran, or those patronized by the Timurid princes, then mostly in the Oriental lands. At the same time, various titles and subjects previously mis-read should be re-examined in order to become more accurate.

Nowadays, Pozzi’s collection is rather unknown to the scholars and a larger public, but its several drawings, calligraphies and manuscript paintings could offer a large scope of research to the art historians, and those who are interested in Iranian and Persianate world of art.

Recently, Dr. Negar Habibi, lecturer of Islamic and Iranians arts and Soudavar Memorial Foundation Fellow in the University of Geneva started to review Jean Pozzi's fabulous collection in Geneva. As a specialist of Persian art of the book and painting, she and her MA students examine different folios of the collection, read them more properly and inserting the Persian names for authors, artists and the title of manuscripts, while giving also the Muslim or Iranian dates (Hegira). As the responsible of this project, Dr. Habibi puts the paintings in their art historical context, while relating them to the other works of art in several other museums in Geneva or around the world. A 17th century Iranian porcelain dish now conserved in the Ariana Museum in Geneva (AR 1997-152) seems for instance to be inspired by or even realized after a very delicate drawing datable to the last quarter of the 14th century presenting four Kylins, a composite animal from Chinese mythology.

One may indeed wonder if an in dept study would not help us to relate Geneva’s collection to some other famous or local institutions. We know currently that the Persianate art collection of Geneva holds some of the most refined folios of the Iranian Royal manuscripts such as the Mongol Shâhnâmeh, Injuid Shâhnâmeh, Shâh Tahmâsp’ Fâlnâmeh, and several signed drawings and single-sheet paintings, that one may be able to trace their homogenous in the most prestigious European and American museums. 

We wholeheartedly support Dr. Negar Habibi's research and hope that she will find the necessary funds to continue her research on the Geneva collections!