The collection of pieces denoting an Oriental influence leads us to engage in a series of reflections related not only to their quantity, the quality of their manufacture and their diversity, but also to the question of understanding how they came to be present at this museum.
Although this set of pieces, mainly acquired in the 1950s, cannot be compared to the museum’s central collections, it does represent a significant material testimony to some of the many changes that were produced during the “long voyage” of the Portuguese.
During the period of the Portuguese discoveries, Lisbon replaced Venice as the main centre of attraction, and subsequent dissemination, of the various artistic expressions gathered in the most distant corners of the world. There was a bustling trade and exchange not only of products, but also of ideas and influences.
On arriving in these new worlds, the ships laden with their “European cargo” were to cause (and receive) a cultural impact that was full of dynamism and produced rich and complex results.
This reciprocal exchange of contributions is shown in countless works of art.
In a museum with the diversity of collections that this one has, the founder therefore considered it to be of major importance to be able to exhibit a representative group of Portuguese-Oriental pieces that focused on some aspects of the Portuguese presence in the Orient, ranging from the reality of everyday life to the activity of the missionaries.
This is the case with a writing-box that has the emblem of the Dominican monks inlaid in its lid, evoking the importance of the religious orders, or the delicate plaque depicting the Virgin of Loreto, whose image of faith, essentially conveyed through engravings, was represented here in an exotic material such as ivory.
In another context, a small casket also made of ivory exhibits carvings based on Indian themes, as well as Portuguese hunting figures. This latter theme is, in fact, frequently repeated in various other modes of artistic expression, most notably the Indo-Portuguese coverlets.
It is well known that, in India, there were already many skilled craftsmen working in sculpture, woodcarving, textiles and metalwork. It was, however, precisely because furniture-making did not previously exist as an art form in this region that it was seen as one of the great novelties resulting from this encounter between Portuguese and Oriental cultures.
New materials, techniques and decorations were adapted to the national prototypes taken to the Orient, with the result that the initial functional purpose of pieces of furniture was greatly exceeded in the harmonious integration of such a different language.
The particular interest of this group of pieces is that it shows different types of furniture and decorations, as can be seen, for example, in the case of the small Mogul portable cabinet or the large-sized cabinet with its own quite singular stand.
As one would have expected, the “escritório” or writing-cabinet – one of the pieces of furniture most widely found in this period – is represented here through an important item made in teak, decorated with low-relief wood carving, displaying the coat of arms of its owner in the centre of its fall front.
All of this group of pieces is visually organised around a splendid central table, which, through the diversity of its materials, techniques and expressions, represents an excellent synthesis of the contributions coming from various origins.
It should obviously not be concluded that this section is exhaustive in its diversity, nor that the quality of all its pieces can be compared, since some examples result from revivalisms or the return to fashion of earlier tastes.
More than anything else, these pieces bear witness to the multifaceted Portuguese involvement in the successive comings and goings, presenting an interesting sample of a period when different worlds came together, a period that, after all, still shows itself to be extraordinarily relevant in this present day and age.