Exhibition view of ‘The Porcelain Room – Chinese Export Porcelain’.
Exhibition view of ‘The Porcelain Room – Chinese Export Porcelain’. Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani. Courtesy of Fondazione Prada

A pig’s head in a china shop

In Milan, Fondazione Prada’s ‘Porcelain Room’ is shining a spotlight on a particularly significant chapter in the history of globalisation. It’s also a story of design tailored to the tastes of customers willing to pay a premium for what they want.

Hibou Pèlerin

Hibou Pèlerin

For many years, Hibou Pèlerin has been winging his way to cultural and historical exhibitions. For the Swiss National Museum’s blog, Pèlerin picks out one or two pearls and showcases them here.

Most of us only know the precious Chinese Ming vase, with its elaborate decoration, from museums or tired old jokes. And long gone are the days when a fine china service from a well-known manufacturer was part of a young lady’s trousseau. An elegantly laid table is no longer an object of prestige, and the dishwasher has put an end to the gold rim. But for all that, porcelain still has a strong presence in our everyday life. Increasingly, mass-produced porcelain products are once again coming from China where, as we all know, it was invented. This is not without a certain irony; for a long time, the finest Chinese porcelain was the pinnacle of luxury in Europe.
In the ‘Porcelain Room’, Fondazione Prada explores a chapter of this story. At first, this may seem somewhat surprising for an institution that in recent years has mainly offered ambitious art exhibitions, in Milan and Venice. But since the Prada fashion company affiliated with the Fondazione has had a large Chinese clientele in Milan, at least until the outbreak of the corona pandemic, one can assume a certain calculated reasoning behind this latest move. The title and concept of the ‘Porcelain Room’ exhibition confirm this by explicitly showcasing a speciality from the many-branched history of luxury and fashion. Porcelain rooms were special areas set aside for porcelain in which princes, Arabian sheikhs and European merchants, especially in the Netherlands, used to display their fragile ‘china’. Lisbon’s Santos Palace with its section of ceiling decorated with porcelain items, and the porcelain room in Berlin’s Charlottenburg Palace, are examples that have survived to the present day.
Vase with Portuguese cardinal’s coat of arms.
Vase with Portuguese cardinal’s coat of arms. Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani. Courtesy of Fondazione Prada
The exhibition begins with what are known as the ‘First Orders’. This is the term used for the first European commissions to Chinese porcelain producers, which the Portuguese under King Manuel awarded after their arrival in China in 1513. The Chinese had already accumulated a great deal of know-how. Porcelain is first evidenced in the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). Even in those days, porcelain was finding its way along trade routes to the Southeast Asia region in particular, and occasionally to Rome via the ‘Silk Road’. There was a first wave of expansion during the Tang and Yan dynasties (618-1361). Towards the end of that period, Marco Polo was travelling in China. But it was the Portuguese who really got the trade moving during the Chinese golden age of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). From that point on, the Chinese also began to adapt their porcelain design to the wishes and tastes of their clients. This is precisely what the term ‘First Orders’ refers to.
At Fondazione Prada, visitors can see what is probably the largest assortment ever displayed of pieces made at that time, including rare items from various museums and collections, in the first room of the exhibition. The exhibits here include vessels featuring the coat of arms of King Manuel, elements of Christian iconography, and Latin or Portuguese inscriptions. To begin with, these features were simply added to the original Chinese decoration. Some objects show that the Chinese artisans struggled with the unfamiliar Latin script. The coat of arms might be misshapen, or the symbol IHS for Jesus and an ‘s’ written upside down. Even more noticeable is the challenge they faced with vessels or plates that were produced soon after for the ruling houses of Arabia. The Arabic characters are quite clumsily written. Over time, not only the decoration but also the shape of the products increasingly changed to reflect the requirements of the clients. Jugs were produced that were modelled on Portuguese ceramics. In the small number of display cabinets, a key chapter from the very dawn of globalisation is sketched out. The Chinese learned quickly: if you want to tap into new markets, adapting to the tastes of your buyers is a smart move.
The exhibition presents some amazing and bizarre pieces from various museums and collections.
The exhibition presents some amazing and bizarre pieces from various museums and collections. Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani. Courtesy of Fondazione Prada
The second room, visually the highlight of the exhibition, showcases the amazing and bizarre pieces that were produced especially at the beginning of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). By then, porcelain had established itself as a sought-after luxury item in Europe and had begun its triumphal procession on to the tables of Europe’s rulers. The famous porcelain kilns of Jingdezhen, which were fired up again under the Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722) and still exist today, started churning out what the European clientele wanted. This output included lovingly crafted, lavishly decorated centrepieces in the shape of every animal and fruit imaginable. The parade of duck or boar’s head soup tureens that became fashionable at the time calls to mind a chapter in the famous book The Civilizing Process by sociologist Norbert Elias. According to Elias, the increasing sophistication in table manners started with the aristocracy. Instead of the whole pig on a spit, people now served the cut-up animal in a tureen, the shape of which revealed the origin of the stew it contained. The value of these artistic pieces as a starting point for polite dinner conversation cannot be underestimated. The owners of the delicately crafted crab bowls, the carp, pomegranate and mango tureens, and the decorated candlesticks and ladles made of porcelain would have been assured of the admiration of their guests.
Instead of the actual pig’s head, at the refined dining table the animal was served in a vessel, the shape of which revealed the origin of the stew it contained.
Instead of the actual pig’s head, at the refined dining table the animal was served in a vessel, the shape of which revealed the origin of the stew it contained. Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani. Courtesy of Fondazione Prada
The third room showcases the acme of Chinese export production. Like one of the porcelain rooms from the pages of history, the walls are covered with a profusion of china plates; below that there are ships and porcelain figures, along with multi-piece dinner services specially made for privileged clients such as Madame de Pompadour. The sophisticated fine dining culture put forth more and more intricate blossoms. It now included items such as salt bowls, butter pots and wine coolers, as shown by the exquisite service produced for Portugal’s wealthy Sampaio e Melo family. Commissions of up to 500 pieces are recorded in the archives of one of the major importers, the Dutch East India Company. The ornamentation, interweaving chinoiseries and western visual material, fills entire pattern books. This high point was surpassed after Europe discovered the secret of producing the ‘white gold’, first of all in Meissen; soon afterwards, every self-respecting royal house had founded its own manufactory. The middle classes emulated the table manners of the aristocracy; Europe’s porcelain industry flourished. This process coincided with the decline of the Qing dynasty and the ensuing subjugation of China by the West, and finally the demise of luxury production for political reasons in the 20th century. Only recently has the ancient ‘porcelain city’ of Jingdezhen started producing high-quality tableware again.
This latest chapter is not part of the story told in Fondazione Prada. But the punchline is easy to understand: today it is, of all people, the richer Chinese, who have made a lot of money through globalisation, who are important customers for Western luxury goods, even if it is less porcelain than fashion. They want to be wooed. To be successful in retail, it pays to adapt your design to the tastes of the paying clientele. The porcelain exhibition can thus be an eye-opener, stimulating visitors to look at the fashion collections and the advertising in the epicentre of Italian fashion, the Via Montenapoleone, just a few metro stops away, from that perspective. This much is apparent: although it has recently hit a few speed bumps, globalisation is not a one-way street.

The Porcelain Room

‘The Porcelain Room’ is an exhibition curated by Jorge Welsh and Luísa Vinhais that explores the historical context, scope and impact of Chinese export porcelain.

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