The Ossolineum is one of the largest scientific libraries, as well as one of the oldest still existing publishing houses in Poland. It was founded in 1817 in Lwów by Count Józef Maksymilian Ossolinski (1748-1829).
After World War II, the Ossolineum was moved to Wroclaw, the historical capital of Lower Silesia. Both Lwów and Wroclaw, which had already developed a scholarly interest in the Oriental world since the 16th century, thus became a centre of linguistics, especially Hebraic philology. This explains why the great number of Oriental manuscripts is found in Lower Silesian libraries. Most books from church and monastic libraries of the province were relocated to the National Museum of Wroclaw when it was established in 1947.
At present the collection preserves only one illustrated Persian manuscript, a two-volume copy of the Masnavi-ye Ma’navi of Rumi, copied in Shahjahanabad, Delhi, in 1662-3 and illuminated with twenty illustrations.
Although the first Polish translations of parts of the Masnavi — made from a third language — were published in the later 1800s, it was a slightly more recent attempt by Tadeusz Micinski (1873-1918) that inspired the composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) in 1914-6 to write his Third Symphony, entitled Song of the Night. It is worth mentioning that the influence of Persian poetry and music can be recognised in some of Szymanowski’s earlier compositions too. Such an Orientalist, “Sufi”-like predilection was characteristic of the early modernist Young Poland movement (1891–1918), and this phenomenon affected a wide range of Polish culture of the time, including music, literature and the visual arts. Proponents of the movement combined diverse tendencies and, in a continuation of Romanticism, often turned to a vaguely defined “East” for mysterious settings.
The Wroclaw University Library also has a collection of Persian manuscripts, including two illustrated copies. This Library was established after World War II by merging two pre-war libraries, the former Municipal Library and University. Originating from the library of Count Hans Oppersdorf at Oberglogau, one of the manuscripts is a late 18th-century copy of the Tuti-Name of Ziya’ al-Din Nakhshabi, with ninety-seven illustrations. The history of the Oberglogau library reaches back to the 16th century, to the times of Hans Oppersdorff (1514-1584). Successive owners continued to acquire new books and thereby by the end of 19th century it consisted of several thousand volumes. One of the most important trustees was Count Hans Georg von Oppersdorff (1866-1948), who inherited the library in 1889.
He was well-educated and interested in Oriental languages: He is said to have been fluent in eight languages and even able to write essays in Hebrew.
In 1927, Oppersdorff donated the Tuti-Name, together with a few other Oriental manuscripts, to the Wroclaw (then Breslau) University Library. He also assigned 49, 000 books from the family library to the Regional Library (Landesbibliothek) of Upper Silesia. But the books that remained in Oberglogau have so far counted 35.000 volumes.
In addition, Oppersdorf was the owner of another huge library in his Berlin residence. Some historians suggest that his unquenchable desire to increase his libraries went beyond his financial capabilities and brought him to the brink of bankruptcy.
The second illustrated Persian manuscript in the Wroclaw University Library is a copy of the Yusif wa Zulaykhe of Jami, which originally came from the Church of Mary Magdalene. Based on mediaeval foundations, the golden age of this library occurred in the 16th century, when the collection of the religious reformer Jan Hess (1490-1547 CE), among others, was incorporated into the library. The library of the church, including the Yusif va Zulaykhe, became part of the Municipal Library in 1865, and, after World War II, the Wroclaw University Library. The previous ownership of the Jami manuscript cannot be established.
The above is a lightly edited version of part of a chapter entitled, ‘From Armchair Literates to Art Historians’, 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.