Orient to Occident—silk Road Meets the Renaissance
More than 200 relics from 21 Italian museums and 17 Chinese museums evidence ancient cultural exchange between Asia and Europe.
This is a story narrating the communication between the Orient and the Occident in ancient times. In modern times, Western culture has strongly impacted Chinese society. But throughout history, Chinese civilization exerted profound influence on the West. Numerous travelers like Marco Polo connected the continents of Asia and Europe by bringing Oriental novelties and stories to the West. Their activities left a lasting influence on both continents.
Such is the narration of the exhibition “Embracing the Orient and the Occident—when the Silk Road Meets the Renaissance,” which features more than 200 relics from 21 Italian museums and 17 Chinese museums. These exhibits testify to the cultural exchange between Asia and Europe.
Li Jun, a professor at the School of Humanities of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, curated the exhibition after he was inspired by one of his overseas experiences. Between 2002 and 2004 when Li Jun worked at France’s Musée Guimet for a short time, he visited an exhibition featuring furniture from China’s Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It opened with
a comparison of Ming furniture and Rococo-style European furniture from the 18th century. In terms of both design and decoration techniques, the latter obviously imitates the former. “At that moment, I was stunned by the realization that the ancient has shaped the modern and the East has influenced the West,” says Li. In his subsequent research, Li found more Oriental traces hidden behind many Western artworks and cultural phenomena.
A few years ago, Li visited an exhibition about the Maritime Silk Road at Guangdong Provincial Museum. He was stunned by a pair of wooden female statues that looked eerily familiar but he couldn’t place them— until he curated this exhibition. While organizing this show, it dawned him that they resemble protagonists in the Fontainebleau-style painting Gabrielle d’estrées and One of Her Sisters, which is housed in the Louvre. The two pairs of females share similar appearances but differ in posture. The wooden pair was once a print on a gate of a Mazu temple. After careful examination, he discovered that they originated in a Western oil painting. But how they came to China remains a mystery. This is just one case dating back to the 16th century. Many similar cases are presented in the exhibition, which is divided into six parts, based on the category of the exhibits and their themes. J Juxtaposed for compariso comparison, many relics have never before be been displayed togethe together, but from the perspe perspective of cultural comm communication, they have alway always been “old friends.” T The exhibition begi begins with a mural depicti picting Flora unearthed from Pompeii and The Feast Feas of Gods painted by G Giovanni Bellini, the foun founder of the Venetian Sch School. The mural dep depicting the Roman god goddess of flowers, whi which dates back to the 1st century, shows her in a silk gown, while th the figures in The Feast of Gods hold bluean and-white porcelain. Next to the painting, two w Chinese bluean and-white porcelain pi pieces from the Ming D Dynasty were placed for comparison.
The first part of the exhibition is titled “Land Silk Road” and presents cultural exchange along the route. Bronze vessels, glass beads and silk items discovered in Italy and China evidence the mutual influence between the two countries. Glass beads resembling the dragonfly’s eye were once used in ancient Egypt as amulets to guard against evil forces and became popular throughout Eurasia. When the bead arrived in
the Chu State during China’s Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256 B.C.), the Chu people adapted it to their own aesthetics. The fact that the two continents conducted such far-reaching and profound exchange back then is incredible.
The second part, “Traversing the Seven Seas,” features stories of the Maritime Silk Road. After the compass, invented by the Chinese, was introduced to Europe, the continent’s oceanic navigation abilities increased dramatically, which helped European countries more conveniently reach rich and mysterious Eastern nations by water. In this part of the exhibition, the earliest navigational maps from China and the West reveal ancient assumptions about the world. A map drawn in 1459 by Fra Mauro, an Italian cartographer from Venice, included Beijing, then capital of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and even its Lugou Bridge. It also noted that a Chinese sailboat had reached and passed the southwestern tip of Africa, while Portuguese navigators had only explored the middle of the western African coast. This graphic clue helped the Portuguese reach the southern tip of Africa, heralding their further expeditions to India and other Eastern countries.
From the perspective of a traveler like Marco Polo, the “Silhouette of an Empire” section revives the magnificence of the capital (now Beijing) of the Yuan Dynasty. European travelers were enchanted by the city’s buildings, porcelain and art, which were recorded in historical materials and displayed in this exhibition. Those cultural ambassadors opened the door to a wealth of culture from the Eastern country. The section “Phoenixes Back to West” displays commodities and gifts carried back by those travelers, which served not only as souvenirs but also as carriers of Eastern culture, later fusing into Western lifestyles and culture.
The “Silk Dream” section demonstrates interaction between Eastern and Western cultures via the commodity of silk. The patterns on ancient silk pieces from Italian and Chinese museums resemble each other considerably. More interestingly, silk embroideries on the robes of ancient Chinese officials became fashionable designs for the garments of upper-class Westerners on important occasions at the time. The “World of Integration” part emphasizes that cultural exchange is mutual and traces how Chinese culture was influenced by the West as evidenced by material, cultural and artistic marks.
Traditional exhibitions often highlight the influence that Western art exerted on China, but this exhibition took a converse approach to illuminate Chinese art’s influence on the European Renaissance. “Before the dominant ‘modern world system’ evolved from the Renaissance, there were many world systems,” Li explains. “Among them, many diverse countries across the vast Eurasian supercontinent conducted interaction so intimately and profoundly that it’s hard for us to fathom today. Regardless of the era, mutual exchange, mutual learning and common development among different cultures have remained the mainstream trend.”
Zhang Guolao Meets with Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty by Ren Renfa, silk scroll, 4.15×107.3cm, 1254-1327.
by Ren Xianzuo, silk scroll, 32.2×188.7cm, 1342. Three Steeds
Marble statue of Aphrodite, 129cm tall, dating back to the 1st to 2nd century.
Testament of Marco Polo, ink on parchment, 67×24.5cm, 1323.
The Coronation of the Virgin by Sano di Pietro, 239×197×14.5cm, 1406-1481.