Dr Leah Clark
10 May 2019
What gift would you give to a Renaissance prince?
Historically, the exchange of gifts has been a key part of diplomacy in courts around the world. The objects presented to and collected in Italian Renaissance courts can reveal the dynamic relationships developed through their exchange.
A list of gifts that Qaytbay, Sultan of Egypt, gave to the famous merchant-banker and de facto ruler Lorenzo de’ Medici of Florence in 1487 gives you an idea of the variety of objects exchanged between Renaissance princes: a giraffe, a lion, spices in stunning vases, Chinese porcelain, and a large striped tent in the ‘Moorish manner’. Such gifts were given in public ceremonies by ambassadors who had travelled from afar.
The fascination with such gifts is reflected in Renaissance paintings of the Magi who bear gifts to the Christ child, often with a retinue of exotic animals and lavish gifts. Such gifts are visible in Andrea Mantegna’s painting of this subject, in which the Magi proffer gold, frankincense, and myrrh – in a Chinese porcelain cup, a hardstone vase, and an incense burner. The question is, what gift would you give and what would it say about you, the giver?
A Chinese porcelain cup
Enigmatic and intelligent, you would gift a Chinese porcelain cup. A particularly sought-after item by European princes as well as by the Ottoman and Mamluk sultans in the 15th and 16th centuries was Chinese porcelain. Blue and white Chinese porcelain did not come directly to Italy from China, but through Persia and then gifted to Europeans from the Mamluks and Ottomans. Sending porcelain to Italian elites, like the Mamluks did throughout the 15th century, was a form of advertisement – promoting a costly new product that had begun arriving in their territory in sufficient amounts to export. How porcelain was made remained a mystery outside of China. In Europe, scholars speculated that it was a precious stone, a marvellous liquid that solidified underground, or a mixture of water and crushed shells.
An incense burner
Inspiring and compassionate, you would give an incense burner. These spherical objects could serve multiple purposes: they were used for burning incense in the Islamic world and in Europe, could serve the same function by being hung up, but could also be employed as a hand-warmer, a perfume burner, a decorative piece and a collectors' item. The piece here is decorated with arabesque patterns associated with damascene metalwork made in Syria.
An ancient hardstone vase
Reliable and pragmatic, you would gift an ancient hardstone vase. With increased interests in Classical antiquity, vases in hardstones such as porphyry, alabaster, and granite were often prized items in princes’ collections. The tonal differences already visible in certain hardstones and gems were manipulated by craftsmen – antique artists were particularly praised for their dexterity in this. Such hardstones were also sometimes embellished with gold mounts, which would enhance the value of the object.
Bold and strong-willed, you would present a rhinoceros! This rhinoceros was gifted to King Manuel I of Portugal (r. 1498-1521) from Sultan Muzafar II of Gujurat in 1515. Manuel in turn sent the large animal as a diplomatic gift to the Medici Pope, Leo X. Unfortunately, it never made it to Rome alive as the ship that was carrying it sunk, but it was washed ashore and stuffed, and sent on to Rome in February 1516. In its short stay on European shores, the animal created a sensation, particularly because it was the first rhinoceros to reach Europe since Roman times. The animal was also made famous by its portrait, executed by Albrecht Dürer in the form of a woodcut.
Charming and artistic, you would offer expensive textiles. This beautiful textile is similar to ones that were frequently gifted from Ottoman rulers to European princes. These textiles were prized in Europe, both for the high quality of the materials (silk and brocaded velvet) and their patterns. The motifs, such as the feathery leaves around the artichokes, were frequently employed by Ottoman weavers and ceramicists. In Europe, these textiles were often used in ceremonial costumes (as seen on the Magi’s clothing in Mantegna’s painting), while in the Ottoman empire, they were used for furnishings, such as cushions, curtains, and wall hangings.
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Dr Leah R Clark is a Senior Lecturer in Art History at the Open University. She was awarded a BA / Leverhulme Small Research Grant in 2015.
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