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Diplomatic Gifts – Moscow Shares its Treasures


16th century steel helmet with mask from Iran. Courtesy of Sackler Gallery.

Reviewed by Bobbie Leigh

When President Obama  presented the Queen of England with an iPod on his last trip to London,  one pundit dubbed it "another of his boneheaded gifts." Prince Andrew had already given his mother one, but the queen's idea of a  ceremonial gift was just as unimaginative. She gave our president a photograph of herself in a silver frame.  Probably the best case of the most innocuous if not annoying  diplomatic gift was when President Obama gave British Prime Minister Gordon Brown a box of classic American movies on DVDs, which are  totally incompatible with British DVD players.
    Centuries ago, gifts  among  dignitaries  really meant something and you can see it artfully documented in the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery show: The Tsars and the East: Gifts from Turkey and Iran in The Moscow Kremlin.

    Most  of the gifts in this exhibition date from the 16th and 17th centuries when  the Turkish Ottomans and the Iranian Safavids were in the process of  cementing diplomatic alliances and trade concessions with Russia.
    Each group had its own goal. The Safavids of Iran wanted Russia's help fighting  their perennial enemy, the Ottomans. The Turkish Ottomans hoped to discourage an alliance between Russia  and Poland. Basically their gifts to the Russian court were rare  textiles, jeweled weaponry, and elaborate horse trappings. What's on view are lavish Ottoman and Safavid  gifts, usually hidden away in the Kremlin, that were used to foster various  diplomatic exchanges and trading missions. Some other examples of gifts associated with the Russian tsars and their families.   
    In the latter group is an outstanding 16th century phelonion, a poncho-type of cloak  worn by a priest over his other vestments. This is the first time in five centuries that this liturgical extravaganza of gold, figured satin, pearl embroidery, and small silver  plaques has been  exhibited outside the Kremlin cathedrals.  Supposedly, Tsar Ivan the Terrible (1533-1584)  gave the gilded garment to a convent in Suzdal, typical of the  obligatory  gifting  of a tsar to the Church.


15th century stirrups, Turkey. Courtesy of Sackler Gallery.

    Another gift on loan from the Kremlin museums is a small 1653 flask, a thoughtful gift from son to father who happened to be the Romanov Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich.  (Like Putin  who has outlawed casinos, Alexei is best known for launching a campaign against swearing. Whenever special guards heard anyone swear, they beat the culprits.)
    The flask, an ideal gift for a warrior father and supreme leader, is totally encrusted with rubies, emeralds, silver, gold, and other precious gems. It has a  waterproof leather interior to keep its content cold. Its stopper, made of rock crystal  embedded with gems, fits tightly into the neck of the flask. A long twisted cord of silver and silk is eminently practical as it allowed the tsar to hang  the flask on his saddle or perhaps on his shoulder and  easily  take a swig, even when charging into battle.   
    As this show amply demonstrates, the exchange of lavish gifts  from the Safavids and the Ottomans with Russia was a key aspect of diplomacy. Their diplomats and  merchants understood how to gain favor with the Russians. They knew what would impress. According to the show's catalogue, "foreign visitors to Russia in the 16th and 17th centuries often commented on the Russians' love of  'covering and concealing everything' as a local peculiarity."
     One of the best examples of this predilection for covering is a gift from Iran, a  coverlet for the tsar's throne, made from two rare carpets. Another "covering" example is a 16th century engraved steel helmet with a terrifying  face mask, quite unusual for the period,  with openings for the eyes, nose, and mouth, which will surely end up being replicated  in some sci-fi film.


 15th century Turkish helmet, courtesy of Sackler Gallery.  

    The  presentation of gifts to the Russian court was a dramatic, well-staged affair. The delegates from abroad would present their precious shields, helmets, ceremonial armor, and opulent silks and velvets in an elaborate parade before Russian dignitaries. Each item was carefully chosen to appeal to Russian taste, so don't expect quiet grandeur in this show. These gifts were meant to dazzle. The Sackler's galleries are resplendent with jeweled bridles, daggers, swords, and elaborate horse trappings, even a pair of stirrups covered with gold, rubies, and emeralds. 
    The caravans loaded with lavish gifts have disappeared along with the  practice of establishing diplomatic ties through exorbitant gifts, yet this loan from the Kremlin to the Sackler is  in its way the greatest gift of all, demonstrating  generosity and understanding between countries and museums. 

    Arthur M. Sackler Gallery 1050 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC The Tsars and the East is on view through September 13, 2009.


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