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The Damascus Room at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Video transcript

(Jazz music playing) Hi. I am Max Hollein, Marina Kellen French Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Welcome to Bank of America's Masterpiece Moment. Today I would like to talk to you about one of my favorite works from our collection, the "Damascus Room," and tell you what inspires me and why I believe it is truly a masterpiece. To me, one of the most incredible things about The Met is that, walking through the galleries, you can feel transported to different times and places all over the world - perhaps nowhere more than in the Museum's period rooms, which range from an ancient Roman bedroom to a twentieth-century living room designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Minnesota. So I am standing here outside the "Damascus Room," which dates to 1707 from Syria, an important province of the vast Ottoman Empire. Not only is it an architectural jewel, but it is strikingly well preserved and among the earliest surviving rooms of its type. This space was designed as a reception room, and one can easily imagine that it was part of a monumental house of a powerful, affluent family. The complex construction provided an elegant atmosphere for welcoming guests into this remarkably large setting, with its harmoniously balanced proportions and refined decoration. Common for such reception rooms, called "qa'as," of its time, the space is divided into two areas: a raised square seating area, or "tazar;" and a small antechamber, or "'ataba," with a door on the side. This door connects the room with a large courtyard that commonly dominates Syrian houses and around which spaces and rooms are articulated. The opening from which visitors view the room today in the museum would originally have been a wall with a cupboard. The floors are paved in colorful marble and other stones, while the wooden paneling and ceilings of the room are elaborately decorated. These areas are worked in luxurious gesso relief, called "'ajami," incorporating reflective gold and tin leaf, transparent colored glazes and bright egg tempera paints, now darkened over time, to create a variety of surface effects. Poetic Arabic inscriptions along floral motifs are finely applied on the wood. And near the ceiling, polychrome glass set in stucco form floral-patterned windows, which delightfully filter the light. The art resides in the fineness of the details, decoration or calligraphy, and the complexity of the patterns, considered a high art form and characteristic of Islamic art. The opulent decorative repertoire and expensive materials suggest that the "Damascus Room" was designed for the home of a powerful merchant, to host his visitors or other important male guests. Luxurious objects, such as Eastern ware or fancy Chinese porcelain, would be displayed in the built-in shelves -all aimed to impress the guests with Near Eastern hospitality. Imagine you are among the audience, seated on the low cushions. You taste delicious appetizers served in small bowls and presented on a large round tray; you sip from a glass of rose water, while listening to a musical performance. The air is imbued with incense or other enchanting perfume, and the sound of the water resonates in the room. The flowers on the wall recreate a virtual garden, blossoming all year long. The Arabic poetry decoration recalls the Gardens of Paradise and invokes blessings for the owner and the Prophet Muhammad. This luxurious chamber thus becomes a metaphor for a heaven on earth, a place where all the senses would engage and a welcome reprieve from the hectic city. Damascus was a bustling metropolis with a rich antique past that stood out as a prosperous commercial center on the Silk Road and the route to Mecca. This room reflects that cultural heritage. Records indicate that it came from a private house in the area southwest of the famous Great Mosque in Damascus, known for its splendid mosaics. In 1925, part of this neighborhood was destroyed in a French aerial bombardment aimed at suppressing a Syrian resistance movement. The room was probably salvaged from the wreckage of the airstrike or from a later campaign to widen the narrow streets. By the early 1930s, the room had been removed from its original setting and was sold to an Armenian-American dealer, who brought it to New York. He added the fountain in the lower antechamber, which is a couple of centuries older from the Mamluk period. Made of opus sectile finely cut mosaic stonework, it reflects the spirit of such reception rooms, and particularly the ones in noble residences, which include a similar fountain. Period rooms like this one have a unique power to evoke the spirit of an era and the people who once created and inhabited these spaces. I hope you will have a chance to visit The Met and experience your own journey through time. I want to thank you for taking the time to watch today and to learn more about The Met's "Damascus Room." I encourage you to join the conversation and discuss this unique installation with friends and family. And please visit the Bank of America Masterpiece Moment website to sign up for alerts and ensure that you never miss a moment. To sign up to receive notifications about new Bank of America Masterpiece Moment videos, please visit: www.bankofamerica.com/ masterpiecemoment.