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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Wu

Renaissance Venice Chinese Porcelain Highlights in the Gardiner Museum!!!

Updated: Dec 24, 2021

If you haven't had a chance to visit the Gardiner Museum in Toronto recently, I highly recommend checking out their current exhibition 'Renaissance Venice: Life and Luxury at the Crossroads'. The show ends on January 9, 2022, so it's only around for a couple more weeks!

Renaissance Venice at the Gardiner Museum Toronto

Image 1. A view of 'Renaissance Venice' including a painting in the far back of 'The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine' (c. 1550-1560) by the Venetian painter Veronese (1528-1588) in the background.

The show focuses on how Venice was at the epicentre of the trade world during the 15th and 16th centuries. This was because of Venice's strategic proximity to the Middle East and links to the rest of Europe.

The 110 objects in the exhibition showcases the wealth of Venice during this period. Numerous luxury objects from the domestic market are included such as majolica wares, a tin glazed earthenware ceramic made popular in Italy during the 15th century. These were the items that were sought after by the Italian nobles classes.

In 'Renaissance Venice', many of the majolica objects on display are from the Gardiner Museum's own collection. However a lot of the other art objects are on loan from Canadian institutions such as the Aga Khan Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and the Royal Ontario Museum. International museums such as the Corning Museum of Glass, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum also loaned important pieces for this show.

Renaissance Venice at the Gardiner Museum Toronto

Image 2. A view of some of the colourful Italian maijolica pieces in the exhibition.

Italian Majolica Charger at the Gardiner Museum Toronto

Image 3. A Deruta Maiolica Charger with the Lion of St. Mark (the emblem of Venice), c. 1510-1530. On loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In the exhibition, there are also myriad of items that could have been acquired through the Venetian trade. Many of these objects would have been brought to Venice through its close ties with the Mamluk Sultanate, a kingdom of traders based in Egypt and the eastern coast of the Mediterranean from the 13th century until the early 16th century. These items include Islamic ceramics, glassware and metalwork, as well as Chinese porcelain.

Large Egyptian Carpet at the Gardiner Museum Toronto

Image 4. A Massive Wool Carpet from Cairo, circa 1500. On loan from the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.

If you have read my other blogs and Instagram posts over the past few months, I have really been trying to promote 'Renaissance Venice.' I even wrote an exhibition review about this show in an online Orientations article that can be found here.

One of the reasons this exhibition is of such interested to me is that it is the first decorative arts exhibition in Toronto since the pandemic that features Chinese art objects.

For my many website and blog readers, you will know that during pre-pandemic times, I try my best to travel around the world looking and visit as many Asian-themed exhibitions and museum collections. 'Renaissance Venice' is one of the rare moments that there is an exciting new exhibition with Chinese objects in my home city!

Chinese Ming and Yuan Dynasty Porcelain at the Gardiner Museum

Image 5. Some of the (mostly) Ming Dynasty Chinese porcelain pieces featured in 'Renaissance Venice'. From left to right: A Blue and White Ewer, Jiajing Period (1522-1566), a Longquan Bottle Vase, Hongwu Period (1368-1398), a Longquan 'Dragon' Charger, Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), a Sacrificial Blue 'Incised Dragon Dish', Jiajing Mark and Period (1522-1566), and a White Glazed 'Monk's Cap Ewer', Yongle Period (1403-1424).

Many of the objects featured in 'Renaissance' Venice are on loan from museum's across Toronto, including one of my favourite pieces, a Yongle white-glazed tianbai (sweet white) monk's cap ewer. This particular piece is from the Aga Khan Museum. It is one of the few Chinese art objects in their collection, but quite important.

The ewer in itself is rare and used for Buddhist rituals. However, the ewer features a rare Islamic inscription on its handle 'shah jahan, son of jhaangir, the emperor' with a date to 1053 AH/1643-44 CE. This inscription shows that the early 15th century ewer was traded along the Silk Road and somehow ended up in the Islamic world!

Note that the Chinese did not trade directly with Venice during the 15th and 16th centuries. Rather, Chinese objects would have been brought to Venice through trade with the Mamluk Sultanate.

Yongle Period Monk's Cap Ewer from the Aga Khan Museum

Image 6. Close up of the White Glazed 'Monk's Cap' Ewer. On loan from the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto.

Detail of a Yongle Period Monk's Cap Ewer from the Aga Khan Museum

Image 7. (Fuzzy) detail of the inscription and dating of the white-glazed ewer.

Other than seeing a new exhibition featuring Chinese art in Toronto, my other interest in 'Renaissance Venice' is that I had some personal involvement in this show. Back in 2019, the curator of 'Renaissance Venice', Karine Tsoumis, asked if I can help the museum source a couple of objects to enhance the quality of the Chinese art section. The criteria had to be that these items were from the 15th century and would have been accessible through the Venetian trade.

In total, I was able to find four objects from a few of my clients and colleagues. While some of these objects were more recent acquisitions, many haven't been shown to the public in many years.

It was such an honour to work with the curator and the Gardiner Museum in presenting the following four items for the exhibition:

Yuan Dynasty Longquan Celadon Charger at the Gardiner Museum

Image 8. One of the items I helped with the loan to the Gardiner Museum exhibition is this Yuan Dynasty Longquan 'Dragon' Charger. The overall celadon glaze is even and it has a very rare raised design of a dragon in the central area.

Ming Dynasty Longquan Celadon Vase at the Gardiner Museum

Image 9. Another item I helped loan to the Gardiner Museum exhibition is this early Ming Dynasty Longquan Celadon Bottle Vase from the Hongwu Period. The body features an elegant 'pear-shape' with incised design of florals throughout.

The vase features a rare Spink & Son London and a 1990's Sotheby's Hong Kong provenance, and it was published in the great Julian Thompson's Arts of Asia article 'Chinese Celadons' (November/December 1993, pg 70).

Ming Dynasty Yongle Lotus Dish at the Gardiner Museum

Image 9. This highly important Blue and White Lotus Dish is from the Yongle Period of the Ming Dynasty, and on loan to the show from one of my important mentors of the past twenty years.

These dishes are exceptionally rare in today's market and extremely sought after. The design imitates Central Asian and Middle Eastern ceramic designs from the 12th to 14th centuries, but the vocabulary used is very Chinese.

Ming Dynasty Xuande Blue and White Hexafoil Bowl at the Gardiner Museum

Image 10. And finally one of my favourite pieces that I helped secure for this exhibition is a Blue and White Hexafoil Bowl from the Xuande Period (1426-1435) of the Ming Dynasty.

Back in 2009, this bowl was one of the first major items I sold in my career while I was working at my first Toronto auction house. It originally came from the collection of an important Canadian diplomat who lived in Ottawa. This bowl was amongst a grouping of hundreds of Chinese ceramics and porcelain.

Just recently, this bowl was acquired by two of my really close clients who were kind enough to loan it for the exhibition. These types of bowls are very rare with only a few left in private hands. They are known for their delicate potting and graceful depictions of numerous floral and fruit sprays on the front and back.

(Note: I now consider myself extremely fortunate to have dealt with two of these Xuande blue and whole bowls during my career. In 2018, I helped Hindman Auctions in Chicago to authenticate, research and then sell a similar bowl that was formerly part of the collection of Chicago civic builder Stanley Field (1875-1864). At that time, we had the international record price for this type of bowl when it sold for a whopping 1.4 million USD!)

Ming Dynasty Xuande Blue and White Hexafoil Bowl at the Gardiner Museum

Image 11. Nothing like seeing an 'old friend'. Examining the Xuande Period Blue and White Bowl prior to its exhibition at the Gardiner Museum in September of 2021. It has been over 12 years since I last examined this important bowl!

Ming Dynasty Xuande Blue and White Hexafoil Bowl at the Gardiner Museum

Image 12. Detail of the interior of the blue and white bowl.

Ming Dynasty Xuande Blue and White Hexafoil Bowl at the Gardiner Museum

Image 13. The base of the bowl with the reign mark daming Xuande nianzhi 大明宣德年製 (made during the Xuande reign of the Ming Dynasty).

Finally, if you aren't able to visit the exhibition, you can purchase a copy of the accompanying hardcover catalogue that the Curator Karine Tsoumis put together. It is fully illustrated in colour and goes into more detail about the objects and themes present in 'Renaissance Venice'. Copies of the book can be found at the Gardiner Museum's online shop.

Maiolica in Renaissance Venice: Ceramics and Luxury at the Crossroads

Image 14. The hardcover exhibition catalogue 'Maiolica in Renaissance Venice: Ceramics and Luxury at the Crossroads' (2021) that accompanies the Gardiner Museum exhibition.

Anyways, that's it for this blog and thank you for reading! Hope everyone has a very happy holiday and New Year.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to send me an email. I'll hopefully to rest for a bit during the holidays, but once 2022 hits, I'll be on the road for an appraisal trip in Ottawa and Montreal through Heffel Auction. This will be followed by a two week business trip to Vancouver. If you are in those areas and want me to look at your Asian art collections, please let me know!


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