Writing chest

Lacquered and gilded wood; wrought iron fittings
Kingdom of Pegu (Burma, present-day Myanmar)
Mid-16th century
27 x 54.5 x 38.5 cm

A rare and important writing box (or chest) probably made from anjili wood (Artocarpus sp.), coated with Southeast Asian black lacquer, or thitsi, and leaf gilded on the exterior faces and on the inside of the lid, while the internal sides are coated with cinnabar-red lacquer. With a top lid, small exterior drawer on the lower right corner (with its own lock), this writing box has a central division and a pair of nooks on top of the drawer, one being divided in three. The wrought iron escutcheons are shaped like a heraldic shield and decorated in openwork on the upper section; the pullers are scissor-shaped set with rosette-shaped escutcheons and the double loop side handles follow the typical shape found on this type of furniture produced in sixteenth-century Europe. Every exterior face except for the underside is decorated in low-relief highlighted with gold, featuring a lotus scroll pattern and flat borders decorated with foliage in gold leaf over the black lacquered ground (the technique called tiejinqi or jinqi in Chinese, and known as haku-e in Japanese), typical of Burmese and Thai lacquerware (called shweizawa and lai rod nam, respectively).

The interior side of the lid is decorated with a low-relief carved composition in black lacquer and gold leaf modelled after a European print that has been identified. It depicts a rare theme in mythological iconography, the Rape of Amymone by Triton, a rare engraving based (mirrored) in turn on a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) and which has been wrongly attributed to Georg Pencz (1500-1550) on the basis of the monogram and dated from ca. 1530-1580. Nevertheless, it is more likely that it dates from the first half of the sixteenth century. The theme – the virtues of Amymone, literally the "blameless one", who, unlike her forty-nine sisters, the Danaids, did not assassinate her Egyptian husband on her wedding day, here underscored by the representation of her abduction and rape by Poseidon, the supreme god of the sea – would be quite appropriate for a moralizing wedding piece, as an objet de vertù, much to the Renaissance taste. In fact, the female virtues, the chastity and purity of the wife, are recurring themes to be found in these objets de vertù, namely on cassoni (to contain the dowry) or cassette and scrigni da sposa (boxes and writing cabinets), with some figures and episodes from Classical Mythology serving as models of virtue to emulate by Renaissance wives, such as the Rape of Lucretia. In reality, on many Luso-Asian pieces of furniture made from exotic, noble materials such as tortoiseshell or mother-of-pearl, like small caskets for instance, we find precisely this kind of moralising iconography featured on their mounts, being used as bridal pieces. This same didactic and moralising interpretation can be learned from the representation in two of these black lacquered and leaf gilded writing boxes, of Tulia, the wife of Tarquinius, driving her chariot over the body of her dead father, Servius Tullius, an episode based on Livy (ca. 59 BC-17 AD), a Roman historian who serves as anti-model, and Tulia as an anti-heroine.

Alongside better-known Japanese lacquerware made for export and known as Namban, a Japanese word of Chinese origin which was used to characterize the first Europeans to reach Japan in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, other export lacquered furniture productions made for the Portuguese market  exist. These so-called Luso-Asian lacquers, which have resisted consensual identification of its place of production, are somewhat heterogeneous in character and may be divided into two groups. Bernardo Ferrão was one of the first authors to take an interest in this type of production, and identified several extant examples in public and private collections which are almost exclusively Portuguese. As characteristics of this production, which he wrongly identifies as Indo-Portuguese, the author mentions: “the style and decoration, the lacquer coating and in some examples, the presence of coats of arms, inscriptions in Portuguese, figures and mythological scenes, from classical and Christian European culture, carved or painted, all following the canons of Renaissance art”. The first group, to which the rare and important writing chest belongs, has been recently identified as Burmese in origin, thus made in the Kingdom of Pegu, in the south of present-day Myanmar, given strong archival and material evidence (Burmese lacquer or thitsi, from the sap of the Melanorrhoea usitata used in Southeast Asia) and the lacquer techniques used (the Burmese shwei-zawa) in their production, as evident from recent scientific analyses and art-historical research.

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