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July 23, 2007 5:10 pm

The ancient art of globalisation

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In 1502, an Italian diplomatic agent working in Lisbon for the Duke Ercole d’Este of Ferrara pulled off what must rank as one of the boldest thefts of a state secret. Somehow, he managed to make off with an item of inestimable value to the Portuguese king: a copy of the “Cantino Planisphere”, a large map. This was no ordinary map. Using information brought back by Portuguese sailors in the latter half of the 15th century, it represented the most accurate view of the known world at that time, allowing the Portuguese to project their emerging maritime empire more effectively than any rival.

With the beginning of the reign of João II in 1481, Lisbon had become the seat of a vast project of exploration, carried out along the African coasts, with the objective of reaching the Indian Ocean and southern Asia. The Portuguese had begun their explorations in the early part of the century, colonising Madeira and the Azores, moving later along the west coast of Africa in search of slaves and gold. Asia soon followed, then Brazil.

Royal cartographers fashioned the map using information brought back by sailors from four series of voyages: Columbus to the Caribbean; Pedro Álvarez Cabral to Brazil; Vasco da Gama to eastern Africa and India; and finally the brothers Corte-Real to Greenland and Newfoundland. Except for Columbus, all had sailed under the Portuguese flag. The original of the Cantino map is presumed to have been lost in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. But the stolen version – a copy – has been housed at a library in Modena ever since.

This summer, its three fragile panels of vellum made their first journey outside Europe to be part of Encompassing the Globe at Washington’s Sackler Gallery. Six years in the making, the exhibition of about 250 objects produced by each of the cultures touched by Portugal’s early trade routes is the most ambitious attempt yet to portray the extent and influence of the Portuguese maritime empire.

As empires go, the Portuguese seems to get less attention than those that followed. But Portugal was the first European nation to build an extensive commercial empire, creating a global network that relied more on trade than conquest of land. In the process, they not only made contact with regions previously unknown to Europeans, but also left a legacy that was more cultural than political.

At many of the places where the Portuguese landed, art was commissioned of local craftspeople for consumption back home. Merchants imported luxury goods such as ivory fans from Sri Lanka, tortoiseshell and silver flasks from India; and saltcellars from Sierra Leone. Shipped back to Lisbon, they quickly entered princely “cabinets of wonder” and other aristocratic collections. Like the maps that were so coveted by Lisbon’s rivals, the objects had a dramatic effect on Europe’s knowledge of the outside world.

Each of the objects at the Sackler shows how new artistic techniques developed as Portuguese sailors, missionaries and traders touched each culture they encountered. With much of the furniture, decorative features such as carved figures were copied from European woodcuts given to local artists to follow. But, left to their own devices, the artists would also incorporate local twists.

Ivory saltcellars made in Africa, for example, were popular back in Lisbon. On one example from Sierra Leone – reached by the Portuguese in 1460 – a sphere bearing the motto of king Manuel I is supported by the writhing coils of snakes, resting on three carved lions – clearly African touches. Porcelain made in China at the same time gets similar treatment. Manuel’s coat of arms appears on blue and white bowls alongside an “Ave Maria” inscription and a Buddhist lion, in one example.

Artistic licence worked in other ways too. While the empire had a huge effect on European culture, its effect on Africa, Asia and Brazil was, as guest curator Jay Levenson points out, quite different. Jesuit missionaries who accompanied the Portuguese traders, anxious to impress the Asian ruling elites, brought not only religious images but also the latest maps and astronomical charts. The result? Portuguese colonists were often regarded with curiosity and amusement as they arrived onshore with sundials, globes and astrolabes.

They were even incorporated into the local artwork. In a stunning six-panel folding screen made for the domestic market, entitled “Southern Barbarians in Japan”, a row of three Jesuits – and a Franciscan friar – appear on a shoreline, welcoming a ship full of Portuguese merchants. The Europeans are portrayed wearing the baggy pantaloons that were common at the time but which were clearly a source of amusement for the Japanese. Portuguese figures in pantaloons also appear on the top of wooden writing cases and – in one fabulous example – a tiered food box, where the exaggerated noses of the Portuguese reveal another source of light mockery.

The humour was not limited to Japan. In India, miniatures painted in the late 16th and 17th centuries by artists of the Mughal court provide a window on the activities of the Portuguese in India, where they created a series of fortresses, trading posts and strategic coastal cities that ultimately stretched from Mozambique to Macao. In one picture of a Portuguese family in Hormuz, the local artists has them dining at a table in a water-filled pool, to escape the heat.

This two-way mirror on the Portuguese empire gives the exhibition its main thematic thread, showing that Europe’s first naval empire connected civilisations for the first time through oceans that had hitherto divided humanity. Julian Raby, the Sackler’s director, says the exhibition attempts to “catch that moment of wonder” as the world enfolded before the eyes of Europeans, and as the rest of the world encountered Europe, from the Benin kingdom of Nigeria to the shogunate of Japan.

If Portugal was the first actor in a new age of globalisation, it was no mean feat for a country that, in the 15th century, had a population of only 1m.

‘Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the world in the 16th and 17th centuries’ continues at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington DC until September 16, Tel +1 202 633 4880.

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