On the Silk Road. Ancient Pathways Between East and West
GLOBALISATION IN THE MEDIEVAL WORLD
Over two thousand years ago merchants, pilgrims and soldiers braved the soaring mountains and hazardous deserts of central Asia to trade in luxury goods, to unearth sacred texts and to encounter and dominate distant peoples, leading to the gradual creation of a network of routes grouped together under the evocative name of the "Silk Road". The exhibition retraces the long journey between east and west from the 7th to the 14th centuries AD, illustrating the numerous different cultures along the Silk Road route with reconstructions of four iconic cities: Chang'an, today's Xi'an, the cosmopolitan capital of the Chinese Tang Dynasty; Turfan, an oasis city in the Gobi Desert; Samarkand, a major centre of trade and culture; and Baghdad, capital of the Muslim world and seat of the Caliphate.
A unique section produced exclusively for the Italian exhibition and curated by Luca Molà, Alexandra Wetzel and Ludovica Rosati, explores the relationship between certain Italian cities, particularly Venice and Genoa, and the Far East in the final few centuries of the Middle Ages. For while Marco Polo is unquestionably the best-known traveller, we should remember that he was not the only man to go seeking his fortune in China at the time of the Mongol domination: documentary sources testify with absolute certainty to the presence of a sizeable group of Italian merchants in the China of the day. The exhibition's design is curated by Marisa Coppiano.
The exhibition begins with the capital of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), located in the heart of the central Chinese plain and celebrated for its religious tolerance and its solid administrative structure. The extremely numerous finds of statuettes depicting camels laden with goods, and grooms, dignitaries, mummers and musicians with markedly foreign features, offer a lively and vigorous picture of the metropolis that marked the point of departure for the caravans heading northwest.
The oasis of Turfan, lying on the northern route around the fearful Taklamakan Desert, was to become one of the most important trading posts on the Silk Road thanks to its sophisticated irrigation system. A faithful reconstruction of an irrigation "karez" allows the visitor to appreciate the importance of an invention that made it possible to turn small oases into substantial cities surrounded by fertile farmland.
Located in present-day Uzbekistan, Samarkand was the heart of the Sogdian civilisation and its merchants travelled as far as India, Persia and China. The city offered every kind of luxury and every form of diversion, but it was also one of the most important meeting points for distant cultures. The exhibition highlights the way in which the use of paper facilitated the recording of business deals and the transmission of sacred texts.
The city, founded on the west bank of the river Tigris in 762 AD, was the capital of the Arab Abbasid Dynasty from 750 to 1258 AD. Towards the end of the 8th century Baghdad was the intellectual heart of the Muslim world and home to thriving research and exploration in the fields of science, technology and literature. The manufacture of objects in glass offers us an insight into the extraordinary heights of technological expertise achieved in the crafts.
In Baghdad the roads diverged. To the south the caravans pressed on towards the Persian Gulf, while to the northwest they crossed Syria to reach the Mediterranean Sea. However, political change and technological progress led to the growth of maritime trade, which was both faster and safer. Thus maritime transport began to develop in the 9th and 10th centuries and goods started to travel from the southern shores of China.
ITALY AND THE ORIENT
The section produced exclusively for the Italian exhibition focuses on the relationship between the SIlk Road and Italy at the time of the Mongol Empire (13th and 14th centuries), when a group of Italian merchants settled in China under the rule of Kubla Khan and his successors (1272-1368), when European missionaries reached the Far East, and when Mongol envoys travelled as far as the court of the Popes. Illuminations record the exotic imagery spawned by accounts coming out of the Orient, while a 14th century merchant's manuscript offers practical advice for the journey, ranging from itineraries, travelling times, customs duty and levies to the peoples and cities encountered en route. A selection of products imported from the East reveals that, far from being unilateral and based exclusively on silk, mutual trade at the time revolved around a broad range of luxury items.