Dr Caroline Campbell, interim head of the Curatorial Department and Curator of Italian Paintings before 1500, National Gallery, London
One of the most remarkable objects in the British Museum’s extraordinary BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China isn’t Chinese at all. It’s a quiet, subdued painting, made by Andrea Mantegna in the late 1490s, probably in the north-eastern Italian city of Mantua. It is in the exhibition because of the delicate blue-and-white porcelain vessel held by the oldest of the three Magi, who kneels bareheaded before the tiny infant Christ, humbly proffering his gift of gold coins.
Mantegna (1430/1–1506) is one of the most extraordinary talents of the 15th century. He trained as a painter in Padua, the pulsating university town near Venice, at the time one of the most exciting places in Europe to live and to learn. Indeed, Mantegna was such a remarkable artist that Jacopo Bellini, the greatest Venetian painter of his day, arranged a marriage between his daughter Niccolosa and Mantegna so that the Bellini family workshop could benefit from his genius. The marriage endured, but the benefits to the Bellini were short-lived: Mantegna moved to Mantua, where he spent the remainder of his life as court painter to the city’s rulers, the Gonzaga family. Mantegna was one of the first artist-printmakers, and his inventions spread throughout Europe in the form of prints by him and his students.
We know that Mantegna had a life-long passion for antiquities. It’s a feature of much of his surviving work as both a painter and graphic artist, and it evidently permeated his life. One of the most famous anecdotes about the artist – which also happens to be true – concerns a boat trip he made to Lake Garda in 1464, together with the scholars Felice Feliciano and Samuele da Tradate. Not only did they search for and copy old Roman inscriptions, they dressed up as classical Romans and made ancient music as they worked – ‘Emperor Samuele constantly playing the cithara and jubilant’. We can see Mantegna’s response to Greek and Roman forms, such as survivals of antique sculpture and architecture, in an engraving such as the ‘Battle of the Sea Gods’, a vigorous, lively, and very un-classical recreation of ancient sarcophagi and friezes.
Many of his works also meld classical form with 15th–century function, but perhaps none do this as beautifully as the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah of around 1500. It has been painted to look like a cameo, a miniature relief carved in the different strata of a precious stone by Roman gem-cutters. Such objects were much admired and collected in Mantegna’s circle.
But Mantegna also recreated lost forms of classical art. Although he had never seen an ancient Roman painting, his highly-coloured pictures ‘The Triumphs of Caesar’ made for Francesco Gonzaga around 1485 (probably his greatest achievement, now in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court) were inspired by written accounts of Julius Caesar’s military celebrations in Rome, as well as surviving Roman antiquities.
It is in the context of Mantegna’s interests in antiquity that we should view the blue-and-white porcelain cup in the ‘Adoration of the Magi’. Chinese ‘export ware’ wasn’t directly traded with Europe until the 16th century, but the potteries of Jingdezhen were producing Ming porcelain that made it to Europe in the previous century. The bowl in Mantegna’s painting is decorated with a delicate floral motif which is typical of some bowls and cups produced in the Imperial factory in Jingdezhen, still the symbolic centre of China’s porcelain industry, during the Yongle reign (1403–24). Interestingly, Mantegna’s bowl was not a new object by the time he painted it in the late 15th century.
How had it come to Mantua? Chinese ceramics, highly valued for its rarity and beauty, are recorded in European collections as early as the 14th century. During Mantegna’s lifetime, only a few major gifts of Chinese porcelain were made to European rulers, such as the twenty objects sent by the Sultan of Egypt to Lorenzo de’ Medici, de facto ruler of Florence, in 1487. Several examples are recorded in Mantua – there are four mentioned in the 16th-century inventory of Isabella d’Este’s possessions – but none are for certain the bowl depicted in the ‘Adoration of the Magi’.
What we can be sure of is that these were highly valued objects, often embellished with European metal mounts, and found either in princely collections or ecclesiastical treasuries. These collections were also often home to other luxury objects from outside Europe, from the far closer Eastern Mediterranean, including carpets, fabrics, metalwork and glass. These could also be set into mounts or ‘Europeanised’ in some other way, and many were also celebrated for their connection with the Holy Land. As objects made in the geographical regions where Christ and his disciples had lived, they could have a sacral value. But as some scholars, particularly Alexander Nagel, have argued persuasively, they could also, legitimately, be considered ‘antiquities’, even if they were made in more recent centuries. Their foreignness could make Europeans think of them as objects made in a distant time, which was far removed historically as well as geographically.
Could the same be true of the Ming bowl in Mantegna’s picture? Its very rarity and value manifestly adds dignity and prestige to Mantegna’s elderly Magus, but it also serves to situate the sacred story of the Magi’s discovery of Christ as taking place outside of historical time, as well as to accentuate how exotic he and his companions were. Mantegna’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’ may seem a simple retelling of a familiar story, and a straightforward depiction of a Ming bowl, but, in fact, nothing is quite as it seems.
The BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum until 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP
The exhibition catalogue The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China is available in paperback and hardback from the British Museum shop online