Dates: Monday 11 April 2016, from 10:30am and Tuesday 12 April 2016, until 5:30pm
Venue: Seminar Room A, Research Department, Victoria and Albert Museum, London (with a session at Blythe House, London, on Monday afternoon)
Click on paper titles to show individual abstracts, or click here to
Monday 11 April, 2016
Following the mysterious death in 1551 of Bhuvanēkabāhu VII (r. 1521-1551), king of Kōṭṭe and chief monarch (cakravartī) of the island of Ceylon, purportedly as the result of accidental Portuguese gunfire, a thorough inventory of the Ceylonese royal treasury was drafted by Simão Botelho, vedor da fazenda (financial superintendent) for the Portuguese State of India. In fact, the king's death was most probably a planned assassination orchestrated by the new viceroy Afonso de Noronha (1550-1554), who forced Bhuvanēkabāhu VII's grandson and successor, Dharmapāla (r. 1551-197) to relinquish not only the contents of the royal treasury but also the treasury of the Buddhist private royal temple. Although published in full by Sousa Viterbo in 1904, this extensive document, used by its first editor as a mere biographical note in his account of Simão Botelho as vedor da fazenda, has received little attention from scholars. Published in its original sixteenth-century Portuguese language and teeming with long forgotten words and an exotic vocabulary of Asian origin, this precious and rich document has remained almost unknown since it was first printed. Meticulously drafted as a general ledger, this document encompasses the inventory (receita) of the monies (both European and Asian gold and silver coins), Ceylonese gold pieces and jewels that were taken from the royal treasury, the money, gold objects, jewels and gems from the treasury of the private royal temple (located inside the royal palace, the Daḷadā Māligāva, or 'Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic' of the Buddha), and also the revenue (receita or recepta) that resulted from the sale of the items in Goa, including the names of the buyers, and the expenses (despesa). This presentation will attempt the first systematic analysis of its invaluable art historical content, in light of the high level of detail offered by the Portuguese officials when recording each object, its weight, value or cost and ultimate buyer. The printed text will feature an annotated English translation of this important sixteenth-century source, thereby making it available to a wider public.
Tuesday 12th April, 2016
What is a stone? In Gemmarum et lapidum historia (The History of Gems and Stones), published in 1609, and arguably the most important work on stones of the seventeenth century, the Flemish physician Anselm De Boodt listed precious stones brought to Europe from Asia and the New World, illustrated with specimens from the collection of Rudolf II in Prague where De Boodt was court physician, and the successor of Carolus Clusius as overseer of Rudolf’s gardens. De Boodt also included stones mined and sculpted in Europe, such as various marbles, porphyry, alabaster and rock crystal, as well as stones of organic origin, such as amber and coral, fossils and a diversity of animal body stones, the bezoar stone being the most famous one. Making the provenance of stones more difficult to judge, global trade made the issue of fake stones only more pressing. This papers argues that the definition of stones was shaped by the use, transformation and imitation of materials by sculptors, jewellers and goldsmiths as much as by the categories and concepts of Aristotelian natural philosophy and history. It will be argued that artisanal and mercantile knowledge of stones, focused on their physical qualities, such as the behaviour of the stone when cutting it, or the size as the most important element in determining the value of a stone in commercial exchange, underlies De Boodt’s classification of stones.
The classification of gems is a subtle and striking example of the impact of global commerce on natural history in early modern Europe. It is subtle because the burgeoning trade in gems, unlike the trade in exotic plants and animals, did not lead to the introduction of many new species of gems to Europe. It is striking because, despite this dearth of new species, or perhaps because of it, the concept of the ‘Oriental’ gem made its way to the heart of the taxonomy of gems in European books of natural history from the late sixteenth century to the end of the eighteenth. Indeed, ‘Oriental precious stone’ remained an official category in mineralogy even after the category ‘precious stone’ had fallen into disrepute. This paper considers two major causes of the emergence and persistence of this example of taxonomic exoticism. One cause was the decline of the traditional classification of gems according to their colour. Naturalists learned to downplay colour from gem-cutters, who stressed the importance of the hardness of gems; from jewellers, who drew attention to the existence of such things as white rubies and pink diamonds; and from travellers, who reported that gems in the East and West Indies changed colour as they ‘matured’ in the earth. The second driver of the ‘Oriental gem’ idea was the fact that European jewellers used the term ‘Oriental’ to advertise the quality of their wares and to signify stones of particularly high quality. The naturalists’ tendency to use ‘Oriental’ as a term for the identity of stones is explained by the close ties that existed in this period between jewellers and naturalists and between notions of mineral quality and notions of mineral identity.
This paper considers the importance of context in assessments of pearls’ worth in the late 17th century, with an emphasis on the English imperial sphere. In an era of increasing objectification of profit and precision in financial calculation, pearls demanded recognition of the relative, subjective nature of value. I argue that the pearls’ worth was calculated at least in part based on the relationships they facilitated, or furthered. I argue that in spite of pearls’ relative insignificance within a larger world of imperial commerce, they continued to appear in treatises on prosperity and trade because of their lingering associations with the wealth of seaborne empire. Furthermore, they continued to prompt migrations of labor and capital and imperial and personal investment. The ease with which pearls evaded control and objectification challenged the impulse to categorize and channel subjects and objects. At the same time, pearls were often evoked in art and writing to illuminate the nature of the places that produced and consumed them and the bodies that wore them.
The introduction of a criterion of regularity into the definition of crystals by the 1760s corresponded to a growing interest in crystals as specimens within eighteenth-century French collections. This paper will explore some of the ways in which crystals, particularly rock crystals, were captured in collections as exemplary neoclassical naturalia. It will tie the widening interest in mineralogy both to new formulations of the nation, articulated in the new School of Mines, and to a flurry of texts on crystallography published in the 1770s and 1780s which established regularity as a key diagnostic criterion. I will suggest that the study of crystals must be understood as a practice emerging out of the dialogue between commerce and aesthetics taking place within natural history cabinets, and not only in relation to chemical analysis or the Vulcanism/Neptunism debate.
Student-led roundtable discussion involving students from the V&A/RCA History of Design MA and the History Department at the University Warwick. Papers on early modern gem-related arts will be circulated in advance, briefly introduced by discussants, and discussed in the group. Discussants and topics: Michael Bycroft on cutting the French crown jewels, Rachael Morton on the marketing of eighteenth-century metalwork.
Discussants and topics: Marta Ajmar on hard-stone technological knowledge and tools in Renaissance Florence, Sven Dupré on a topic TBC.