The ‘place’ of objects: Chinese porcelain in the museum of Spinola Palace, Genoa

Iside Carbone, PhD Student, Anthropology, University College London
As a result of the intimate connection of space, perception and cognition, the location of objects in a specific environment expresses the dynamics of reception of cultural images and representation of cultural identities. The placement of Chinese artefacts in the context of ancient Italian palaces well exemplifies the cultural implications in the physical interaction between objects and people. The observation of these artefacts within the whole picture of the surrounding settings is led bearing in mind that space is not just emptiness or void area, but it acquires a material dimension when considered in its function of connecting things (Merleau-Ponty 1996 [1962]: 243).
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Figure 1 Galleria Nazionale Palazzo Spinola, Genoa. Photo by the author.
A particularly clear case study is provided by Spinola Palace (Fig. 1), an ancient Genoese aristocratic residence donated to the Italian State by the Spinola family in 1958 and become a public museum shortly afterwards. While considering this example, two main characteristics have to be taken into account. Firstly, it is important to point out the very strong link between Italian museums in general and the local history, culture and tradition of the territory in which they are located. In the specific instance of Spinola Palace, the integration in the urban network, the interaction with the local community, as well as the sense of belonging to the city and the immediate regional surroundings are essential factors in the museum’s situation and identity. Secondly, it has to be noticed that, as established in the conditions for the donation, the museum’s displays include exclusively the palace’s own furniture and fittings; in particular, the design of the second floor reproduces as faithfully as possible the original 18th- and early-19th-century settings and features. Thus, the analysis of the arrangement of the displayed Chinese objects allows to reconstruct and to understand the mechanisms of Italian representations of China from two points of view: that of the house’s private space and that of the museum’s public space. At the same time, through this example it is possible to highlight the role played by the perception of images of China in Italian cultural self-expressions.
In the rich rooms on the second floor of Spinola Palace, the big, monumental Chinese vases appear distinctively among the precious furniture, ornaments and paintings, mostly of Genoese manufacture. The position chosen for the vases in connection with the floor plan and the other objects reveals the relationship between these exotic commodities and their 18th-, 19th-century Italian users. In this regard, as Marilyn Strathern (1990:29) emphasises, space emerges in its function of enabling the acknowledgement of oneself and the Other through the observation of images, while the display of artefacts allows the observer to perceive the Other’s image, grasp the difference and make it reflect on oneself.

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Figure 2 Dining room of Palazzo Spinola, Genoa. Photo by the author.
The design of the dining room at Spinola Palace (Fig. 2) vividly expresses the essential influence not only of visual perception but of a multisensorial exercise on this cognitive and identifying process. This room is located after lavishly embellished drawing-rooms and the sumptuous mirrors’ gallery. Its more sober decoration epitomises a more intimate and retired atmosphere and allows the people sitting around the table to fully take in the harmonious effect of the ornamentation without being overwhelmed by it while enjoying their meal. Furthermore, in this context the observer has the opportunity to notice and experience in different ways the various elements and the compositional intentionality of the whole decorative settings. Looking at the room itself, the Chinese porcelain vases have been placed on two console tables against the wall in order to discreetly complement the interior decoration. From an aesthetic point of view, their shiny white balances the bright gilding of stuccos, frames and furniture, while the delicate colours and birds-and-flowers motifs well match the tones and natural elements of the walls and the console tables. From a thematic point of view, although the vases are clearly recognisable by the people of the time as ‘different’ for their Chinese manufacture and provenance, they do not upset the much more familiar settings: the furniture is all locally produced, the wall decorations are by local artists, and the biggest framed pictures portray three Doges of Genoa. In the dining room, the perception of this sort of artistic and cultural syncretism is not limited to the visual level. As the focus is the table, the participants can experience even more closely the intricate combination of exotic and familiar: Chinese features at times prevail manifesting their own distinctive essence, and at times appear more faintly, just hinted, used as a means to expose characteristics from a different – Genoese/Italian/European – cultural heritage. Typically, the 18th-, early 19th-century table is laid with porcelain plates and cups of Chinese or Italian manufacture, the surfaces of which are covered in Chinese designs, western motifs, or the coats of arms of Genoese aristocratic families. Small porcelain figurines of Meissen manufacture, reminiscent of chinoiserie-style objects – namely Chinese-inspired artefacts produced in Europe – are orderly added in the middle, along the length of the table, as ornaments.
This description aims at emphasising the composite nature of the Chinese artefacts as emerges from their placement in relation to the spatial and socio-cultural context as well as in relation to their consumers’ perceptions. If it is true that these objects – as mostly presented – are symbols of prestige for their owners, fashion items for the wealthy, source of inspiration for artists, and useful accessories for the interior design of rich palaces, it is also undeniable that they convey cultural images and messages. In the specific 18th-century settings, even if their arrangement and contextualisation usually serve the endeavour to prompt strong overall visual impacts and decisive sensorial effects, it is not entirely correct to state that the formal and decorative details of each object – in the way this represents images of China – are completely neglected. The long-nurtured European curiosity for non-western artefacts and the cultures that produced them is widely recognised, as it is also the 18th-century desire of deeper knowledge of the different and unfamiliar by means of both phenomenal experience and scientific approach (Thomas 1991:127; Stafford 1994:1). Thus, this cognitive purpose is achieved only partially through the inclusion of Chinese artefacts in private, mundane circumstances, and the interaction with them on different levels. The direct intervention on them through the determination of shapes, decorations and uses, as well as through the production of chinoiserie, is also essential to bridge a cultural distance and to fill the gaps in the awareness and understanding of the Other.
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Figure 3 Ceramics collection on the fourth floor of Palazzo Spinola, Genoa: room for Chinese porcelain. Photo by the author.
The same needs and tensions still appear unresolved and are reflected in nowadays display at Spinola Palace. Visiting the museum, one easily realises that the curators’ main intention is to present the typical residence of an ancient Genoese aristocratic family. Yet, at a closer look, it seems that the effort to keep unaltered the physical and symbolical position of the Chinese objects is pursued with a purpose that goes beyond a historical and contextual faithfulness. While the monumental vases are placed in the rooms according to the information drawn from original records and inventories, a whole room on the fourth floor is allocated to the Chinese porcelain sets for convivial occasions (Fig. 3). The latter retain their representative, metonymic role. Located within the section of the Spinola family’s ceramics collection, their place in a separate space stresses on the one hand the preciousness and exclusiveness of these exotic objects, and on the other hand the ambivalent status of integration and difference in regard to the rest of the display. The overall arrangement of Chinese porcelain in the museum context of Spinola Palace strongly suggests two tendencies. The careful placement of these pieces in both temporal and spatial dimensions aims at reconstructing a historical situation of a certain balance among the Chinese artefacts, the people and the environment of these interiors. At the same time, it is instrumental to establish a cultural connection and to redefine the relationship between cultural identities.

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1 Comment

  1. Simon Schaffer has an excellent article on the reverse of this – the collection of scientific instruments from Europe by the Chinese:
    See Instruments and Cargo in the China Trade, History of Science, vol. 44, p. 217, 2006.

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