Few of the so-called 'Compartment' or 'Chessboard' carpets survive today which suggests that their production had been very limited and explains why their depiction in European paintings is so rare. Indeed, the earliest sight of one in Europe is shown not in a painting but in a tapestry of the mid-sixteenth century (Michael Franses, Il tappeto orientale dal XV al XVIII secolo, Eskenazi Milan, London, 1981, fig.8, p.25). In the field of paintings, the first is shown by Marco dall' Angelo dateable to before 1581, the design continuing to be found into the middle of the following century (John Mills, "East Mediterranean Carpets in Western Paintings", Hali vol.4, no.1, pp.53-55).
Their composition is based on banded compartments with rows of circles centred by an interlaced eight-pointed star-medallion radiating miniature cypress and other small floral motifs. This design repertoire stems from the three established East Mediterranean carpet groups: the Mamluk carpets, made in Egypt from the second half of the 15th probably until the second half of the 16th century; the Para-Mamluk carpets, approximately contemporary with the Mamluks but of very different structure and colours, and the Compartment carpets, similar to the Para-Mamluks in type of knot, but of a different colour palette, coarser in weave and with a much lower knot count.
Friedrich Spuhler notes that "only 29 pieces with a consistent chessboard design" are known. Within the small format pieces, there are only two different field designs. The first has the joined triangle-formed diamonds creating octagonal field reserves which offset the star-form motif (see Ibid, p.49, fig.15 for an example of this type in the Victoria & Albert Museum.) In the second small format design, perhaps a simplification of the first design type, the joined triangle-formed diamonds are elongated and joined forming hexagonal field reserves for the star-forms as seen in the Bernheimer example sold in these Rooms, 16 October, 2003, lot 126. All the smaller examples, including the present rug, share an identical border of cartouches alternating with cusped lozenge panels, as do a few of those with more than six medallions. Only the larger carpets display a variety of border designs, see Spuhler, 'Chessboard Rugs', in Oriental Carpet & Textile Studies II, London, 1986, pp. 261-269.
The attribution of the 'Compartment' rugs to Syria is one that dates back a considerable time. In 1909 Konsul Bernheimer bought his example (sold in these Rooms, 14 February 1996, lot 27) as an "alter syrischer Teppich". Yet this attribution is far from certain. While the group has a clear homogeneity within itself, its combination of technical structure and design motifs make it very difficult to place. Egypt, Rhodes, the Adana plain and East Anatolia have all been proposed. The development of many of the motifs from the Mamluk carpets of the 15th century is clear. The continuous knot small medallion surrounded by inverted or radiating motifs is easy to parallel and the balance of colours, although slightly different in hue, gives a very similar overall effect. The structural analysis is however completely different, in particular in the way the wool here is given a 'Z' ply rather than the typical 'S' of the products of Egypt. A linking piece is a rug of the same structure as the present carpet, formerly in the Pietro Barbieri collection, which has the same field panels as are found here but arranged in a classic 2-1-2 formation, the central panel having a larger version of the design than the spandrels (Viale, M. and V.: Arazzi e Tappeti Antichi, Turin, 1952, pl.150). An attribution to Turkey however must also be discounted since the carpets are knotted with an asymmetrical knot open to the left in the same way as the Mamluk carpets but contrasting strongly with the symmetrical Turkish knot. The subject is discussed at length in various places, the fullest of which are Robert Pinner and Michael Franses, 'The Eastern Mediterranean Carpet Collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum', Hali vol.4, no.1, 1981, pp.37-52.
Charles Grant Ellis identifies eight other examples which share a similar design with the Bernheimer 'Compartment' rug (see Ellis, C. G.: Oriental Carpets in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, 1988, p.128 for a listing of these pieces). Ellis illustrates Philadelphia's rug from the Joseph Lees Williams Memorial Collection, which shares the alteration in color between blue and blue-green in the star-forms as seen in the Bernheimer piece. The Philadelphia rug differs slightly to the Bernheimer piece in that its design is more fully complete within the borders, whereas here the upper row of diamonds is slightly truncated by the border, giving a sense of an endless repeat. Interestingly, as in the present example, many of the borders of the 'Compartment' group are incomplete and have either been restored or left fragmentary. Three fragments from a comparable carpet recently sold in these Rooms, 2 May 2019, lot 286 and a more complete carpet, formerly in the Bernheimer collection, sold Christie’s London, 16 October 2003, lot 126.