As an academic discipline, Turkology in both pre-Islamic and Islamic times had already been developed as early as the first half of the 19th century, especially in Austria, owing to its diplomatic links with the Ottoman Empire, and in Hungary, thanks to its once-presumed linguistic tie with the ancient Turks. Arabic was also widely studied in Central and East Europe as a principal tool for the understanding of Islam, and this was closely linked to the translation and interpretation of the Holy Qur’an and other Islamic religious texts.
On the other hand, Persian studies lagged behind in the region, compared with West Europe, and remained a secondary subject that was merely part of Islamic, Middle Eastern or Oriental studies, as well as in some cases part of Indology. Nevertheless, some important achievements in Persian art studies were made as a by-product of Turkish philology, such as Einführung in die persische Paläographie (Budapest, 1977) by the Ottoman scholar Lajos Fekete (1891–1969 CE), published posthumously, which remains the standard work in the subject until today.
In contrast to the slow emergence of Persian studies in Central Europe, art historians of the region discovered Persian art much earlier than those of West Europe, and Persian art was already included into the discussion of general art history. For example, the first general survey of world architecture, the Entwurff einer Historischen Architektur by the Austrian architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (1633-1723 CE) provided examples of the then recently built monuments of Isfahan.
This marked the beginnings of a tradition of non-western art historians in the region, namely those without formal training in Oriental studies but with openness to look at the history of art from a global perspective, such as Alois Riegl (1858-1905 CE) and Joseph Strzygowski. It is also interesting to note that, while carpets, textiles and architectural decoration remained focal points of connoisseurship, the first essay ever written for a journal about the Persian paintings from the Topkapi Saray albums was, rather unexpectedly, published in Hungarian in the 1880s by the art historian Jeno Radisics (1956–1917).
Poland established a strong academic interest in the art of Persia in the early 20th century, with the growth of a small yet exquisite scholarly community as well as its international reputation, and despite the long interruptions due to the war and communist times, the Polish scholarship of Persian and Islamic art has been, albeit slowly, in the process of recapturing its pre-war spirit.
The works of several figures in the region has so far received little international recognition, but the Austrian Joseph von Karabacek (1845-1918 CE), another Austrian Ernst Diez (1878-1961 CE), the Hungarian Nándor Fettich (1900-1971 CE) and the Polish Tadeusz Mankowski (1878-1956 CE) deserve special attention for their contributions to the development of Persian art studies in Central Europe.
In the meantime, the Ukrainian-born Mikhail Rostovtzeff (1870-1952 CE) and others discovered the Irano-Greek archaeological substratum of South Russian art across the Eurasian steppe at the turn of the 20th century. This had strong repercussions in the Persian-oriented scholarly minds of early 20th-century Poland and Hungary — both of which nurture a rich tradition of Sarmatian and Scythian mythology.
Persian art does certainly exist in other neighbouring states, although its presence is virtually unknown outside the region. Apart from Slovakia, which, along with its collections, was formerly part of Hungary, the Czech Republic possesses small but interesting collections of Persian art, including the Persian manuscript collection in the National Library.
The above is a lightly edited version of part of a chapter entitled, ‘Why Persian art needs to be studied and collected’, from a book entitled, ‘The Shaping of Persian Art: Collections and Interpretations of the Art of Islamic Iran and Central Asia’ edited by Yuka Kadoi and Iván Szántó, published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing.