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Der Hofgelehrte Adam Olearius: Neugier als Methode?

Posted 2/7/2015

June 24-27, 2015 a conference of German, Swiss, Polish, Estonian and Persian researchers took place at Castle Gottorf in Schleswig. The organizers, Dr. Kirsten Baumann and Dr. Uta Kuhl, wanted to learn about Adam Olearius and the different facets of his life work from academic and amateur students of his texts, instruments and images. It was a broad kaleidoscope of themes, historiographical approaches, and evaluations.


For me, the most interesting aspects concerned the great-format paintings of the Black Fraternity at Reval (today Tallinn) of local merchants and scholars, but also of the rulers of Russia and Safavid Iran, which Olearius apparently copied as portraits and used in his book, as well as the analysis of Olearius's preface to the German translation of Sa'adi's Gulistan (Der Persianische Rosenthal), which he had produced together with the former secretary Haq Virdi of the embassy of Sha Safi (r. 1629-1642). The fascination to me of the paintings collected by the Black Fraternity in Reval went beyond the fact that Olearius had incorporated their small-scale copies in his travel account without saying so. It consisted in their seeming similarity with great-format paintings of allegedly Safavid women and men produced only a short time later for European travelers or residents in Isfahan, the Safavid capital. These Safavid oil paintings have been often discussed. But no art historian has so far compared them to the paintings in the collection of the Black Fraternity in Reval and discussed whether they might have been related. The other fascinating aspect of the paintings of the Black Fraternity is the remarkable similarity of the presentation of the Romanov prince with a Tatar ruler and the oriental-style decoration of his precious coat. The Estonian colleague who works on these paintings was not aware about any Ottoman, Timurid, Safavid or Crimean Tatar miniatures in early-seventeenth-century Reval. But it would be worthwhile to trace the commercial and diplomatic relationships between the mostly German merchant community of Reval and the Ottoman and Safavid Empires as well as other Islamicate societies of their time.


A Swiss colleague of German Studies presented Olearius's preface to the Persianische Rosenthal. She highlighted Olearius's explicit acceptance that translating is always more than rendering one language into another one. Olearius emphasized that a good translation presupposed a good knowledge of the culture from where the text came that was to be translated. He reported that translating Sa'adi's Gulistan was very difficult, because he did not know Persianate literary culture nor Islamic religious concepts and values. His companion and partner Haq Virdi was a reluctant facilitator, because he did not wish to make his homeland and its culture the laughing stock of Lutheran Christians in the Dukedom Holstein. That is why he refrained from sharing many of his experiences, insights, and words. The Swiss colleague proposed to consider Olearius's reflections as a form of translation theory.


The talk about Olearius's presentation of the Greenlanders in his travel account by a historian working at a vocational school center contradicted Olearius's generous attitude towards Haq Virdi. While he treated Haq Virdi as a partner and valuable resource of knowledge, he used the three kidnapped Innuit women as a resource for confirming his beliefs about their low status as 'savages' in his hierarchy of human cultures. The competence of his Danish translator did not suffice to identify reliably a play toy, which was an object of Gottorf's 'Kunst- und Wunderkammer' (The Chamber of the Arts and Miracles). Olearius believed it was an idol and 'understood' the translation of the women's report confirming that their religious rituals included a dance in circles around the puppet.


Other talks and conversations that broadened my knowledge of early-modern German court cultures concerned the ballets orchestrated in Schleswig. Olearius apparently was responsible for their intellectual and artful design, the choice of their motifs, the roles each member of the court had to play and the sequence of the movements. The Duchess may also have been prominently involved in this pastime which was an element of disciplining women and men, teaching them their place at court and in society and subordinating them to the new rules of military training of the body.


Altogether, the conference was an interesting learning experience for me, although the historiographical differences between me and numerous participants could not have been greater.


Sonja Brentjes 

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