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July 23, 2007 7:04 pm

Slideshow: Portuguese merchants and masterworks

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Throughout the 16th century, Portuguese sailors braved international waters to create a global trading network that extended from Europe to Brazil, Africa, the Persian Gulf, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, China and Japan. This naval empire connected civilizations from all the then-known continents, transforming commerce and initiating unprecedented cultural exchange. In a way, the Portuguese – then a nation of only 1m people – were the first to understand the concept of the “global village”.

Contact with these regions, which had been virtually unknown to Europeans, led to the creation of highly original works of art, some intended for export and others for domestic enjoyment.

“Encompassing the Globe” is an exhibition at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC involving over 250 objects produced by each of the cultures touched by Portugal’s early trade routes. There are food boxes made by Japanese artists that make fun of the baggy pantaloons worn by the Portuguese at the time. In Sierra Leone, local artists carved Portuguese sailors onto ivory saltcellars with outsized beards.

Taking six years to put together, the exhibition is the most ambitious show in the Sackler’s 19-year history and comes as Portugal assumes the rotating presidency of the European Union.

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