Naples: treasures of Sichuan in ancient China

It is always a pleasure to visit a museum and get the sensation that it is alive, well organized, open to the world—achieving more than its mandate. These were the feelings I experienced recently at the MANN (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli) where I saw the exhibit “Mortals Immortal, Treasures of Sichuan in Ancient China” (Mortali Immortali, I Tesori del Sichuan nell’Antica Cina). The show features 130 extraordinary archaeological pieces from China’s southwestern Sichuan province that have been brought to Europe for the first time. The artifacts include bronzes, jades and terracottas spanning from 2000 BCE to 200 CE. The show is staged in the splendid Salone della Meridianawhere the contrast between these sumptuous quarters and the relics—some so archaic that they seem to be creatures from another world—bring about an astounding effect.

The exhibit is arranged in two sections, and thanks to excellent background information thoroughly illustrates the art of Sichuan from the Bronze Age (1600-316 BCE) to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). The first section, “Religious Culture in the Shu States” presents numerous jade ritual objects, as well as a large number of bronze masks. There are faces of shamans or priests, forceful mediators between the human and supernatural worlds, heavy with geometric volumes, highly stylized lineaments, and bulging eyes rendering the impression of the mystical. The highlight in this section is a human figure that is over 2-1/2 meters tall and bearing a geometrical, ritualistic-looking head. Barely anything is known about these objects, only that they were found buried in two large pits in the Sanxingdui area and brought to the Sanxingdui museum. These mysterious pieces are unique in the Chinese archaeological panorama.


The second section of the exhibit, “History of Daily Life in the Real World” (316 BCE-220 CE) fast-forwards by many centuries and takes us to the more classical Chinese culture when the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) conquered Sichuan, ending the region’s political isolation as it merged into the history of unified China. The ascension of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) brought further social and cultural changes to the region. Religious practices typical of the Shu culture (1600-316 BCE) falls into oblivion and the cult of the soul’s immortality leads to the construction of magnificent underground tombs where precious objects are placed to replicate the earthly environment in which the deceased lived.

The production of mingqi(spirit objects) also spreads in Sichuan, but takes different stylistic forms compared to those of other regions. The grey terracotta burial bricks are decorated with precise and sharp bas-reliefs of quotidian scenes that give us a glimpse into the lives and costumes of the people. Also displayed are large individual human figures realistic in their modeling and proportions; and the smiles on their faces reflect a truly unique joie de vivrein the mingqi.

In addition to images of these figures accompanying this article, very similar pieces from my gallery are also posted below.

The exhibit’s 250-page catalog “Mortali Immortali: I Tesori del Sichuan nell’Antica Cina”(Gangemi Editore International) includes all the works on display and several essays by Chinese scholars documenting the discovery of the finds and their excavations.The exhibit continues until March 14, 2019. Information can be found on the MANN website, or by searching “Mortali Immortali.”

Renzo Freschi

“Immortal Mortals. The treasures of Sichuan in ancient China
Napoli, MANN (Museo Archeologico Nazionale)
Dec. 15 2018 – March 11 2019

Some Sichuan statues from the Han Dynasty of the Renzo Freschi Asian Art Gallery.

Renzo Freschi
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