Philobiblon: Early encounters

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Early encounters

On the weekend I managed a quick rush around the Encounters exhibition at the Victoria & Albert.

Sharon at Early Modern Notes (with whom I on Monday enjoyed a very pleasant "bloggers' lunch" - my first) has already ably reviewed the exhibition, and selected some of the items that I too would highlight.

But there's a few others I'd also mention, particularly the first item in the exhibition, a celandon vase that is the "earliest recorded piece of Chinese porcelain in Europe". It was "probably" given to Louis the Great of Hungary, when a Chinese embassy passed through his kingdom on the way to visiting the pope. (Not what you'd call a fine example of the designer's art, it is, however, a virtuoso display of technology, with the decorative flowers growing out of the vase apparently unsupported.)

This pointed me in the direction of Giovanni de' Marignolli, a traveller of whom I had not previously heard. He was sent to China in the return embassy, making it to Beijing in 1341.

Not much later - (1475-1500) - is a coconut that somehow made its way to England, where it was richly decorated with silver, a measure of its value and a great display of supply and demand.

There's also the wonderful portrait of Shen Fu Tsang, who came to Europe in 1681 and had a prominent place at the court of James II. I've been focusing on that recently for other reasons; you have to wonder what he made of all the political ferment. In 1688 - perhaps after the Glorious Revolution, it didn't say - he left England and became a Jesuit. he died in 1691 near Mozambique, as he was heading home.

The world was perhaps never quite so large as we tend to think.

Finally, worth the price of entrance alone, is Tippoo's Tiger; a must-see.


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