Letter Exercises


This calligraphic practice sheet includes a number of diagonal words and letters written in the common Persian cursive script nastaʻliq. Letters are used in combinations, sometimes yielding fanciful agglutinates and at other times real words, facing upwards and downwards on the folio. The script is executed in brown ink on a cream-colored background, framed by a blue border, and pasted onto a sheet decorated with interlacing vines and flowers. These kinds of sheets, known as siyah mashq (literally, black practice) in Persian, were entirely covered with writing as a means to practice calligraphy and conserve paper. As an established genre, practice sheets adhered to certain rules of formal composition, largely guided by rhythm and repetition. In time, they became collectible items and thus were signed and dated. Many fragments, such as this one, were provided with a variety of decorative borders and pasted to sheets ornamented with plants or flowers painted in gold. This particular siyah mashq is signed in the corner by a famous Persian master of nastaʻliq script, Mir ‘Imad al-Hasani (died 1615). He has signed his name “‘Imad” four times, in a playful gesture emulating the repetitive nature of the practice sheet itself. Like this fragment, a number of siyah mashq sheets executed at the turn of the 17th century by ‘Imad al-Hasani were preserved and provided with illumination by Muhammad Hadi in about 1747−59. This particular siyah mashq thus shows how a master of calligraphy practiced his craft during the Safavid period in Persia (Iran). A number of other siyah mashq sheets are held in the Library of Congress.

Last updated: September 30, 2016