Records of Reception

Records of Reception: Framing Knowledge on Asian Art in Early Modern Inventories

Anna Grasskamp

In addition to information provided by newspapers, travelogues, correspondences and other written records that provided knowledge on "the foreign," objects made in Asia formed highly complex sources of information to their sixteenth-century German recipients. As “silent messengers,” textiles, weapons, pieces of furniture, boxes, vessels, sculpted bodies, and painted surfaces of all sorts crossed inner-European and intercontinental boundaries, (Alpine) mountain chains as well as (Indian) oceans. As a consequence of this interlinked information and object flow, numerous sixteenth and seventeenth century visitors of collections in the German-speaking parts of Europe were able to identify the Asian origin of some artifacts. Sixteenth century correspondences also abounded in geographically-specific information on some foreign items’ provenance in extra-European areas or cities. As is well known, many sixteenth-century German Kunstkammer inventories nevertheless generically classified Asian and non-Asian items as “Indian.”
Focusing on descriptions of “Indian” artifacts that we can identify as having been made in areas that today form the People’s Republic of China, this project took a closer look at the terms and terminologies that "framed" such objects’ reception in German sixteenth century inventories. Informed by scholarship that addresses aspects of object agency and the representation of symbolic meanings but also, in particular, of presumably intrinsic properties of the artifacts’ materials and designs, the project was particularly interested in the verbal acknowledgment of the skills needed to craft things (e.g., through the repeated use of the attribute “artful” that is equally applied to local objects and items of extra-European origin). Additional consideration was given to the different places attributed to Chinese objects in the frameworks of early modern European object lists as opposed to comparable collectibles’ places and descriptions in sixteenth-century Chinese records.