The Chinese section of the Oriental Museum Umberto Scerrato of the University of Naples “L’Orientale”

Art of China between the 14th and 19th centuries

The Chinese hall of the Oriental Museum Umberto Scerrato of the University “L’Orientale” of Naples houses some specimens, coming from the bequests of private citizens and professors of the Neapolitan University, which allow us to give a relevant look at the art of China in the Ming and Qing periods between the 14th-19th centuries.

An ancient map of China

The most important specimen is a large map of China (3.17×2.15 m) made in 1719 by Matteo Ripa (1682-1746) missionary from Eboli (southern Italy) who, from 1710, had worked in Beijing as a painter and engraver at the court of the Chinese emperors. The map, based on an earlier one prepared by the French Jesuits, consists of several sheets printed from copper plates engraved with a burin. It depicts the Chinese empire with geographical coordinates and indications of place names in Chinese, to the south of the Great Wall, and in Manchu, to the north.

On his way back to Europe, Matteo Ripa took with him a number of printed copies of the map now scattered in Italian and European libraries and archives. When he arrived in Naples in 1724, he had the sheets of his personal copy mounted on canvas, still the only one mounted in its entirety. It was then exhibited in the College of the Chinese, which he had founded in 1732 and from which the present-day “L’Orientale” University originated.

The Chinese section, the map of China by Matteo Ripa and the wooden statue of Guanyin

Two sculptures, of different materials and dimensions, belong to the Buddhist sphere. A wooden statue (h. 127 cm) with traces of colored pigments depicts the Buddhist deity Guanyin in a standing position, the bodhisattva of mercy coming to the rescue of humanity. Stylistically it can be attributed to the production of northern China of the 12th-13th centuries, but laboratory analysis have provided a date to later periods, which suggests that it derives from a model archaic and that it was restored several times.

A gilt bronze statuette (h 21 cm) represents the Buddha Amitāyus and bears an inscription dating it to 1770. The sculpture, which symbolizes longevity, was commissioned in a large number of copies by Emperor Qianlong (1735-1796) to celebrate his mother’s eightieth birthday.


The most substantial group of Chinese objects consists of porcelain, whole and fragmentary. These are export porcelain, made in white and blue, that is, cobalt blue under glazing, obtained in a single firing. The use of cobalt oxide by Chinese potters has a long tradition and was first used in the Tang period, in the 8th century. Cobalt comes from Iran and was therefore used very sparingly due to its high cost. There is precious evidence of it in the famous sancai pottery “three-color” and in the important discovery of three dishes decorated in cobalt blue with a decoration of Islamic type found in an Arab ship of the ninth century, shipwrecked on the coasts of Beilitung, a small island off Indonesia and headed to Basra in lower Mesopotamia. It will be the blue and white porcelain that will be transported by the Portuguese during the sixteenth century and, from the seventeenth century onwards by the East India Companies.

The blue and white is produced in Jingdezhen in the Jiangxi province, in southern China, and will be mainly exported both to Asian countries and especially to the West. It is a type of porcelain not much appreciated by the Chinese who considered it too noisy and “vulgar” if compared to the beautiful and much desired monochrome glazing, in particular the white or green ones that made the joy of literati.

The Chinese section, blue and white porcelain dish, 17th century

The intact objects of the Chinese collection belong to the class of tableware, plates, bottles and kendi (pouring vessel with a long neck and a spout), executed on European commission and datable to the seventeenth century. The porcelain is of the blue and white type called Kraak porcelain characterized by a thin body that often presents imperfections, a decoration that draws on the Chinese iconographic repertoire – floral, zoomorphic, geometric or with landscapes animated by literati, clouds and flying horses – that is inserted in alternately wide and narrow panelling. This type of pottery was very successful in Europe and was often depicted on Flemish still lifes.

The Chinese section, kendi with Javanese metal alloy frames, 17th century

The fragments of the Chinese collection, datable between the 16th and 17th centuries, consist mostly of rims and bases of cups and plates. They come from a surface gathering made in Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, one of the emporiums created by the Portuguese along the sea route that led to China. Few are the closed forms among which is to be reported part of the pourer of a container of water commonly known as kendi for the shape that resembles that of the flask kundika held by the Buddhist deity Guanyin.

To the same centuries is ascribed a small number of fragments of cups and plates with green glazing called celadon in the West.

The Chinese section, fragment of a celadon cup

The Chinese hall is enriched by silk-screen prints of famous paintings used in the workshops for university students, highlighting the museum’s educational function.

The Chinese hall, silk-screen prints

Lucia Caterina

Lucia Caterina

She was full professor of Archaeology and History of Chinese Art at the University of Naples “L’Orientale”. Since 2012 she is director of the Umberto Scerrato Oriental Museum. She is the author of numerous monographic studies and articles published in national and international journals.