THE BLUE AND WHITE PORCELAIN IMPACT ON THE WEST IN THE 16TH AND 17TH CENTURIES
In Europe, the deep fascination for Chinese porcelain was almost immediate and spread like wildfire. It wasn't one of those sudden, violent fires, destined to end soon, however: it was a blaze that lasted for centuries.
In the early 16th century, the Chinese blue and white porcelain was perceived in Europe as the perfect blend of exoticism, rarity, luxury, and mystery: at that time, none in Europe knew exactly how the Chinese made it and how to copy it. Delicate and resistant at the same time, the Chinaware told the story of a fabulous and rich empire at the edge of the known world and carried the salty smell of audacious and dangerous journeys through unknown oceans. Portuguese and Spanish coveted it for its brilliance, transparency, smooth, and silky texture, and even for its crystal-like sound when hit. Porcelain or the "white gold" had everything to become an object of praise and adoration to be displayed in a cabinet of exotic curiosities or, more often, exhibited in a 'porcelain room', as part of a royal luxury collection. Between the late 16th and the early 17th century, almost every European prince or great nobleman had a collection of porcelain pieces, well displayed in a cabinet de curiosités, a porcelain room, or Porzellanzimmer.
In the 17th century, Chinaware escaped its confinement to aristocratic Kunstkammer to become a passion shared by crowned heads, aristocrats, rich notables, and the bourgeois. Grand displays of Chinese porcelain continued to make up blatant demonstrations of power, social status, and good taste, but its large availability on the European market, especially on the Dutch one, turned the pieces into objects of refined household use: blue and white chargers, cooking pots, tankards, tea sets, salt cellars, wine ewers, fruit bowls, butter dishes, mustard pots, and dinner services invaded the European tables, until then dark and gloomy for the presence of coarse brown earthenware and silver-plated or pewter plates, bringing light, color, and life. The blue and white porcelain tableware made food look and taste better than metallic dishes.
The 17th century also saw the fast development of the so-called Chine de Commande, porcelain ware massively produced in China according to the needs and tastes of Western customers.
In 18th-century Europe, when one would expect a physiological decline in interest, Chinese porcelain turned into an obsession: the Age of Enlightenment experienced a real mania that expressed itself as an enthusiastic quest for flamboyant Chinoiseries in art, architecture, interior design, theatre, and music.
Almost all of Europe succumbed to the Chinese and Japanese porcelain mania and the pieces force their way into the daily lives of rich and powerful families, regardless of their patents of nobility. The Asian porcelain pieces were first and foremost purchased to be spectacularly displayed everywhere, not only in the so-called cabinets de porcelaines; they were also the object of an intense collecting fever, and, last but not least, they were bought as sophisticated objects of use: the more extensive their availability became, the more elegant tableware they became.
While collectors used to choose a few rare pieces of the highest quality, the wealthy went for the accumulation: the fashion and taste of the moment turned Chinese porcelain into a must-have element of the furnishings, far beyond the function of a purely decorative knick-knack. Those pieces invaded the richest European homes to be shown and arranged according to the refined taste of the master and some unwritten, sacred rules. Porcelains have their obligatory spaces at home: they had to be displayed en masse, divided into groups called garnitures, always in odd numbers (from 3, or even better, from 5 to 21). They had to be placed on fireplace mantels and overmantels, cornices, overdoor panels, tables, wall-mounted shelves, and étagères, by taking advantage of any recess, niche, arch, ornamental molding, and furniture piece. The French noblewoman Anne de Rohan (1648–1709), Duchesse de Luynes, member of the powerful House of Rohan, and wife of the Prince of Soubise, was famous for her garnitures: in a room of her mansion, she displayed 37 fine porcelain pieces on a single fireplace mantel.