Gems in Transit

Gems in Transit
Materials, Values and Knowledge in the Early Modern World
V&A Museum, April 2016
Speaker abstracts (in order of presentation)
The Plundering of the Ceylonese Royal Treasury, 1551-52: its Character, Cost
and Dispersal
Hugo Crespo, University of Lisbon
Following the mysterious death in 1551 of Bhuvanēkabāhu VII (r. 1521-1551),
king of Kōṭṭe and chief monarch (cakravartī) of the island of Ceylon,
purportedly as the result of accidental Portuguese gunfire, a thorough
inventory of the Ceylonese royal treasury was drafted by Simão Botelho, vedor
da fazenda (financial superintendent) for the Portuguese State of India. In fact,
the king's death was most probably a planned assassination orchestrated by
the new viceroy Afonso de Noronha (1550-1554), who forced Bhuvanēkabāhu
VII's grandson and successor, Dharmapāla (r. 1551-197) to relinquish not only
the contents of the royal treasury but also the treasury of the Buddhist private
royal temple. Although published in full by Sousa Viterbo in 1904, this
extensive document, used by its first editor as a mere biographical note in his
account of Simão Botelho as vedor da fazenda, has received little attention
from scholars. Published in its original sixteenth-century Portuguese language
and teeming with long forgotten words and an exotic vocabulary of Asian
origin, this precious and rich document has remained almost unknown since it
was first printed. Meticulously drafted as a general ledger, this document
encompasses the inventory (receita) of the monies (both European and Asian
gold and silver coins), Ceylonese gold pieces and jewels that were taken from
the royal treasury, the money, gold objects, jewels and gems from the treasury
of the private royal temple (located inside the royal palace, the Daḷadā
Māligāva, or 'Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic' of the Buddha), and also the
revenue (receita or recepta) that resulted from the sale of the items in Goa,
including the names of the buyers, and the expenses (despesa). This
presentation will attempt the first systematic analysis of its invaluable art
historical content, in light of the high level of detail offered by the Portuguese
officials when recording each object, its weight, value or cost and ultimate
buyer. The printed text will feature an annotated English translation of this
important sixteenth-century source, thereby making it available to a wider
“From Katay to Kachemere”: Mughal Lapidaries and the Inherited Modes of
Taylor Viens, Victoria and Albert Museum
Abstract TBC
Anselm De Boodt’s Classification of Stones
Sven Dupré, University of Utrecht
What is a stone? In Gemmarum et lapidum historia (The History of Gems and
Stones), published in 1609, and arguably the most important work on stones of
the seventeenth century, the Flemish physician Anselm De Boodt listed
precious stones brought to Europe from Asia and the New World, illustrated
with specimens from the collection of Rudolf II in Prague where De Boodt was
court physician, and the successor of Carolus Clusius as overseer of Rudolf’s
gardens. De Boodt also included stones mined and sculpted in Europe, such as
various marbles, porphyry, alabaster and rock crystal, as well as stones of
organic origin, such as amber and coral, fossils and a diversity of animal body
stones, the bezoar stone being the most famous one. Making the provenance
of stones more difficult to judge, global trade made the issue of fake stones
only more pressing. This papers argues that the definition of stones was
shaped by the use, transformation and imitation of materials by sculptors,
jewellers and goldsmiths as much as by the categories and concepts of
Aristotelian natural philosophy and history. It will be argued that artisanal and
mercantile knowledge of stones, focused on their physical qualities, such as
the behaviour of the stone when cutting it, or the size as the most important
element in determining the value of a stone in commercial exchange, underlies
De Boodt’s classification of stones.
Exotic Taxa: ‘Oriental’ Gems in Mineral Classification Schemes in Europe,
Michael Bycroft, University of Warwick
The classification of gems is a subtle and striking example of the impact of
global commerce on natural history in early modern Europe. It is subtle
because the burgeoning trade in gems, unlike the trade in exotic plants and
animals, did not lead to the introduction of many new species of gems to
Europe. It is striking because, despite this dearth of new species, or perhaps
because of it, the concept of the ‘Oriental’ gem made its way to the heart of
the taxonomy of gems in European books of natural history from the late
sixteenth century to the end of the eighteenth. Indeed, ‘Oriental precious
stone’ remained an official category in mineralogy even after the category
‘precious stone’ had fallen into disrepute. This paper considers two major
causes of the emergence and persistence of this example of taxonomic
exoticism. One cause was the decline of the traditional classification of gems
according to their colour. Naturalists learned to downplay colour from gemcutters, who stressed the importance of the hardness of gems; from jewellers,
who drew attention to the existence of such things as white rubies and pink
diamonds; and from travellers, who reported that gems in the East and West
Indies changed colour as they ‘matured’ in the earth. The second driver of the
‘Oriental gem’ idea was the fact that European jewellers used the term
‘Oriental’ to advertise the quality of their wares and to signify stones of
particularly high quality. The naturalists’ tendency to use ‘Oriental’ as a term
for the identity of stones is explained by the close ties that existed in this
period between jewellers and naturalists and between notions of mineral
quality and notions of mineral identity.
Pearls and a Baroque Body Politic, c. 1660-1700
Molly Warsh, University of Pittsburgh
This paper considers the importance of context in assessments of pearls’ worth
in the late 17th century, with an emphasis on the English imperial sphere. In an
era of increasing objectification of profit and precision in financial calculation,
pearls demanded recognition of the relative, subjective nature of value. I argue
that the pearls’ worth was calculated at least in part based on the relationships
they facilitated, or furthered. I argue that in spite of pearls’ relative
insignificance within a larger world of imperial commerce, they continued to
appear in treatises on prosperity and trade because of their lingering
associations with the wealth of seaborne empire. Furthermore, they continued
to prompt migrations of labor and capital and imperial and personal
investment. The ease with which pearls evaded control and objectification
challenged the impulse to categorize and channel subjects and objects. At the
same time, pearls were often evoked in art and writing to illuminate the nature
of the places that produced and consumed them and the bodies that wore
Capturing and Interpreting Crystals in French Collections, 1760-1800
Emma Spary, University of Cambridge
The introduction of a criterion of regularity into the definition of crystals by the
1760s corresponded to a growing interest in crystals as specimens within
eighteenth-century French collections. This paper will explore some of the
ways in which crystals, particularly rock crystals, were captured in collections
as exemplary neoclassical naturalia. It will tie the widening interest in
mineralogy both to new formulations of the nation, articulated in the new
School of Mines, and to a flurry of texts on crystallography published in the
1770s and 1780s which established regularity as a key diagnostic criterion. I
will suggest that the study of crystals must be understood as a practice
emerging out of the dialogue between commerce and aesthetics taking place
within natural history cabinets, and not only in relation to chemical analysis or
the Vulcanism/Neptunism debate