For the first time, rare and beautiful exhibits from Renaissance Lisbon will go on display, evoking the capital of the Portuguese trading empire and one of the first ‘global’ cities of early modern Europe. London, a global and multicultural centre of the present day, will provide the perfect location.
This will be the first exhibition in Britain to focus on Renaissance Portugal and its pivotal role as a centre for global trade. Sixteenth-century Lisbon was an import-free port: an initial stopping point where ships traded their cargo to avoid continuing on long trading routes. This in turn allowed the Lisbon authorities to sell the goods on to other ships and buyers for a higher price. The city was a unique destination for luxury goods, and was culturally diverse and cosmopolitan. This exhibition will highlight the cross-cultural influences between Lisbon, Africa, Asia and the Far East, and celebrate Lisbon’s position as a truly ‘global city’.
As global trade routes and Portuguese networks expanded around the globe, the Lisbon court capitalised on its monopoly over African and Asian luxury goods brought to Portugal. By the late 1500s, wealthy Europeans had become avid and well-informed shoppers. Asian lacquers, Ming blue and white porcelain, and ivories, carved crystals, jewels and intricate goldsmith work from Ceylon and Goa were among the products which sold for extraordinary prices at exclusive shops located on the Rua Nova in Lisbon. The Rua Nova dos Mercadores was the most important commercial street in the city. The street was the meeting point for everyone from indigenous Portuguese to Jews and black Africans. Medicines, drugs and spices from Portuguese Asia were sold by apothecaries there; by 1580, six shops alone specialised in selling Chinese porcelain; exotic animals from Africa, Asia and the Americas could be bought, including wild turkeys from America. The Rua Nova reflected just those concerns which preoccupy us today: global markets, global communities and the world being seen, then as now, as a global village.
The exhibition will show a stunning selection of the types of luxury objects which could be bought on the Rua Nova, including ivories, rock crystal carvings and silver, from the Wallace Collection and on loan from leading collections in the United Kingdom and Portugal. One highlight will be one of the Wallace Collection’s great treasures, the moving rock crystal figure of Christ as the Good Shepherd, carved in Ceylon and exquisitely embellished with gold and gem mounts, probably in Goa. First recorded as early as 1702, this stunning object exemplifies both the quality of objects made for the luxury European market and how closely bound East and West were culturally and commercially, even at this early date in our modern history.
The wonderful objects in the exhibition will be given a superb context, through the first exhibition in London of two late sixteenth-century paintings from Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire (collection of the Society of Antiquaries of London). As the only detailed early depictions of the Rua Nova to have survived, they are one of the most important art historical discoveries for Portugal to have been made in recent decades. The paintings, with their wealth of fascinating detail – from traders, black and white, from all parts of the known world, down to a vignette of a dog killing an American turkey – give us an unparalleled view of this lost street, reduced to rubble in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Recent archival research has been undertaken in Portugal, and the new findings will be presented here for the first time.
This exhibition, to be held in London, a very contemporary global city, will contextualise Renaissance Lisbon, giving an in-depth view of life on the Rua Nova, and offer intriguing new insights into daily life in this early globalised and multicultural port.
The exhibition is curated by Jeremy Warren (Director: Collections and Academic, the Wallace Collection) and guest curators Dr Annemarie Jordan Gschwend, one of the leading authorities on Renaissance patronage and trade, and Kate Lowe, Professor of Renaissance History and Culture, Queen Mary, University of London.
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