Robert Finlay, the Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History

By Bartlett, Stephen | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

Robert Finlay, the Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History


Bartlett, Stephen, Southeast Review of Asian Studies


Robert Finlay, The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. xvii + 415 pages.

As a scholar of high Renaissance Venetian history, Robert Finlay appears, at first glance, an unlikely author of a history of porcelain. Upon reflection, however, fascination with one of the first globally traded manufactured commodities is perfectly consistent with a professional interest in La Serenissima, a city whose fortunes rose and fell with the ebb and flow of international trade coursing through its canals. As gateway of Asian and Indian Ocean trade into Europe, Venice provides the perfect vantage point from which to witness the patterns and complexities of early international commerce. In The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History, Finlay has turned away from the Venetian lagoon and taken up a commodity whose appearance in Europe heralded the arrival of a new economic era in which Dutch and Iberian merchants charted the first truly global trade routes. While recent monographs exploring the impact of specific commodities on world history have been popularized by authors such as Mark Kurlansky, the story of porcelain represents a special case. Porcelain manufacturing influenced and assimilated the cultural changes of producers and purchasers, both locally and internationally, to a degree unequaled by commercially traded raw materials. In The Pilgrim Art, Finlay uses porcelain's unique position within the burgeoning global marketplace to ponder the growing interconnectivity of world history.

Finlay's first chapter, "The Porcelain City," introduces the book's themes of shifting domestic and international policies, advancing technologies, and social stratification as viewed through the lens of Chinese ceramic production, all cleverly illustrated and punctuated by the observations of the Jesuit master of industrial espionage, Francois-Xavier Dentrecolles. Of particular interest is the sense of divine influence, whether Chinese, Buddhist, or Christian, upon the almost magical production of porcelain.

Finlay's introduction continues into the second chapter, "The Secrets of Porcelain," in which he reviews the origins of Europe's fascination and frustration with the elegant ceramic. The discussion focuses on the financial drain created by the obsession with porcelain and most everything Asian, termed by some the "porcelain disease," and the various attempts to remedy this illness through domestic production. Despite both foreign espionage and native "scientific" research, the secret to porcelain production would elude Europe for centuries.

The next three chapters trace the development of Chinese ceramic manufacturing from its origins in the fortuitous earth of the Middle Kingdom to the famous blue-and-white pieces of the later Chinese dynasties. While covering the technical aspects of this evolution, Finlay is primarily interested in the exploration of the various socio-economic themes that impacted porcelain production. He explores metallurgy and money, the terrestrial emphasis of Tang China and the expansion of the Silk Road, the maritime perspective of Song China and growth of Indo-Pacific trade, the impact of Confucian ideology and Islamic/Mongol expansion, and changes in the decorative and functional aspects of porcelain in response to tastes at home and within the larger Southeast and Southwest Asian marketplaces. Most interesting are the unifying themes of objectification of social status and the growing awareness of cultural heritage. According to Finley, preoccupation with both bronze and ceramic antiques, fluctuating attitudes toward opulent silver and lacquer wares, and changes in food and dining habits all played a significant role in the types and amounts of porcelain produced for the Chinese domestic market. Yet no single factor may have changed Chinese porcelain usage as much as the adoption of tea as the unofficial national drink of China. …

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