This is a book about diplomatic gifts, that is gifts carried by ambassadors from one sovereign to another. These embassies were sent for a political purpose – to seek a dynastic marriage or a military alliance, to congratulate a new sovereign or announce a victory, or to solicit an agreement on trade.
After a general overview of the many such purposes and the gifts that went with them, it then describes the circumstances surrounding some twenty gifts, many of which still survive in collections and museums, over a period of a thousand years. First, he writes of the elephant that Haroun al Raschid the Caliph of Baghdad sent to the Emperor Charlemagne in Aachen in 800 AD. Finally he tells of the gifts that Lord McCartney took on his ill-fated mission to China in 1793. In between are a taste of the first pieces of Chinese porcelain to arrive in Europe, the giraffe that the Sultan of Egypt sent to Lorenzo the Magnificent, the Raphael picture that the Duke of Urbino sent to Henry VII, the suit of armour sent by the Shogun Tokugawa Hidetado to James I, the Italian pictures that the Dutch States-General gave to Charles II, the brilliant silverware in the Kremlin, the amber room that the King of Prussia gave to Peter the Great, and the dazzling pieces of Moghul goldsmiths’ work that Nadir Shah of Persia looted from Delhi and sent to the Tsar of Russia. For each, the book tells the story of the ‘why’, with always interesting and surprising facts, to go with the picture of the gift itself.
This book breaks new ground. While particular gifts have been covered in individual books or articles, or in the catalogues of exhibitions, this is the first to survey the whole field.
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