In the late18th century, the cult of the Orient became a widespread phenomenon all over Europe: not only evocative paintings, but the decorative arts, fabrics, furnishings, even whole palaces reflect the taste of an era and an entirely Western view of that far-off world.
“There is no city like it anywhere that can offer you so many delights that you might think you’re in paradise”, wrote Marco Polo in his book Il Milione talking about Hangzhou. The East, a far-off land, admired and re-created by Western imagination as an opulent, mythical place in a cyclical need for ‘the exotic’, became a style in its own right from the 17th century onwards. The vogue invaded every aspect of life and art, assuming the importance of a literary kind of escapist painting, and was also manifested in everyday life, denoting magnificence, extravagance, and, sometimes, excess. The book tells the story of what was a European trend, having started in France: China and its decoration (Chinoiserie) became exotic variants of the Rococo style and were reproduced and echoed all over Europe, through every medium, on every surface. The prevailing taste involved everything, from wallpaper to fabrics, from lacquer paneling to furniture, together with highly-prized Chinese porcelain, the secrets of which the French were the first to discover. Pagodas and pavilions sprang up in the parks and gardens of the nobility and the rich bourgeoisie, like Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg and the King George’s Royal Pavilion in Brighton, an incredible building whose fabric is interwoven throughout with art and ambition. But the Orient didn’t just mean China or Japan: the book also talks about the influences that arrived from the Middle and Near East, from India with its spices, cotton and cashmere, South-East Asia, and Baghdad, and all the suggestions of the Thousand and One Nights, which translated into a form of European architecture of everlasting value.