In early modern Europe, the Portuguese capital, Lisbon ruled over the trading empire as one of the first ‘global’ cities, extending from Brazil to India. The Wallace exhibit will give a comprehensive overview of day-to-day life along Lisbon’s Rua Nova. It will focus on the “cross-cultural influences” between Lisbon and Africa, Asia, India and the Far East, and survey Lisbon’s status once held as a ‘global city’ and multicultural port on the Atlantic Ocean and the River Tagus.
The 16th century was Lisbon’s Golden Era, and the city was an “import-free port” – the hub of commerce. It was the first port stop where ships traded their cargo in order to avert long-distance trade routes. Subsequently, Lisbon authorities would then sell the goods to other ships and buyers at a higher price. Much to the detriment of Venice, the profitable trade, especially in Eastern spices such as cinnamon and pepper, was monopolized by the Portuguese. Lisbon became an unparalleled destination for luxury goods, the port prosperous, and in the process, the city was culturally diverse and cosmopolitan.
As global trade routes and Portugal’s networks expanded around the world, the Lisbon court capitalized on its dominance over Asian and African luxury goods brought to Portugal. By the late 1500s, affluent Europeans became eager and worldly-wise shoppers. Marketables such as Ming blue-and-white porcelain-ware, Asian lacquerware, ivories, jewels and Ceylon and Goa intricate goldsmith work were among the extravagance found in merchant shops along the Rua Nova. Even wild and exotic animals like rhinoceros and Asian elephants were paraded by the waterfront.
The primary commercial street in Lisbon was the Rua Nova dos Mercadores. Built parallel to the waterfront, it was a crossroad for the masses, from foreign merchants, migrant nationals and the local Portuguese to Jews, slaves and black Africans. Two late 16th century cityscapes, on loan from the Society of Antiquaries of London, provide the only early pictorial representation of the Rua Nova to have survived. Considered one of the of the most noteworthy historical art discoveries for Portugal, the works detail traders from around the world, and give a chronicle of the street that was reduced to rubble in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.
Along Rua Nova, Eastern spices, medicines and drugs from Portuguese Asia were sold. By 1580, several shops specialized in Chinese porcelain, animals from Africa, Americas and Asia, including wild turkeys from America. The Rua Nova typifies comparable issues that impact business people today – global markets, global communities – with the world being viewed, then as now, as a ‘global village.’
The Wallace Collection in London will present Global City: On the Streets of Renaissance Lisbon from November 6, 2014 through February 15, 2014. The exhibition spotlights a selection of luxury items that could have been purchased on Rua Nova, from the Wallace Collection, and on loan from collections in Portugal and the United Kingdom. One of the ‘Global City’ exhibit’s treasures includes “the moving rock crystal figure of Christ as the Good Shepherd.” Carved in Ceylon, the figure is handsomely adorned with gems and gold. The carved piece exemplifies how closely bound East and West were not only commercially, but culturally.
At present, London is considered a global city, making it an ideal venue for the upcoming ‘Streets of Renaissance Lisbon’ exhibit at the Wallace Collection. Recently, archival research in Portugal has revealed new discoveries that will be made public for the first time at the exhibit. In addition, it will be the first exhibit in Britain that addresses Portugal’s climatic role as a center for global trade.
By Dawn Levesque