However, the chronological context that has been strictly established by historiography – from 1543 (the date of the first landing of the Portuguese on the island of Tanegashima) to 1639 (the year of the last edict issued by Shogun Tokugawa) – must only serve as a factual indicator of a presence and way of life that, in terms of both time and geography, clearly stretched far beyond the boundaries that are normally established. It is also important to remember that when we talk about the continued presence of the Portuguese in Japan, mainly consisting of traders and merchants, we are in fact referring to their sphere of influence. Through its activities undertaken under the auspices of the Portuguese Patronate of the Orient, the Society of Jesus, the most cosmopolitan of the Religious Orders, was the other fundamental reference at that time on the Japanese stage.
The Namban pieces at the Museu do Caramulo form an important group, not only because of their impressive technical quality and great iconographic value, but also because they highlight the multifaceted reality and artistic dialogue that existed between the two civilisations. However, given the tiny number of examples, it is hard to establish here the existence of any really close links between the pieces, the same thing happening with the other Japanese works, all of which come from private collections.
Nonetheless, behind the apparent randomness in the formation of this group of pieces, we can still note the existence of a highly refined taste and a clear interest in the theme, as well as a profound knowledge of the universe in question. Only in this way can we explain the existence of works that direct our attention to the continued European presence in the Japanese archipelago, namely through the Dutch, and the particular fondness in 18th-century Portugal and Europe for the art objects originating from the far east.
A good example of the first case is the lacquered cabinet-on-stand, which, because of its formal and decorative hybridism, directs our attention towards both the continuing fashions and changing forms to be found during what was a particularly active period in the activities of the VOC (Dutch East India Company) conducted from its trading post on the island of Deshima in Nagasaki. In so far as this piece is an eloquent testimony to the other reality that followed on from the Portuguese presence, albeit already showing some signs of an individuality that would only be effectively consolidated later on, it has earned itself a certain pride of place in the collection.
Belonging to a new political, cultural, and indeed mental, universe, the porcelain pieces, donated to the institution by Fernando Moniz Galvão and originally part of a much vaster collection of ceramic objects, direct our attention to the context of a carefully conceived “exoticism” that was much sought after by the Europe of the Enlightenment and quite different from the one that we were to find a century earlier. In this way, we are confronted with problems of a quite different nature and forced to adopt different kinds of approach.