Feature Archive

Giving "New Worlds to the World"

Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries
Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.:until Sept. 16, 2007
Palais des Beaux Arts, BrusselsOct.27, 2007-Feb.3, 2008     
By K. Kimberly King
Cantino Planisphere (detail)
The Cantino Planisphere (detail)
Long before Google Earth, GPS, and gigabytes girdled our globe, Portuguese explorers using then-cutting-edge technology of redrawn maps, sun-tracking astrolabes, and lighter ships networked the world's first connectivity 500 years ago. That initial wave of globalization landed Lisbon, capital of a nation then numbering just a million, as nerve center of the commercial world. Its version of the worldwide web - and objets d'art thus circulated - is celebrated in the Smithsonian's star exhibit, "Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries."

Museum-goers virtual and real can ply the high seas of discovery, docking at five Sackler Museum modules and a sixth in the National Museum of African Art, to survey - via 250 objects in an exhibit six years in the making - the dramatic interplay of Portuguese influence on newly discovered ports and peoples, and, in turn, foreigners' effects on the homeland and Europe at large. Guest curator Jay Levenson, director of international programming at New York's MoMA, labels the legacy of the Portuguese Empire: "Bringing people together... and creating cross-cultural art."

That unprecedented interchange of knowledge, images, and ideas produced exhibit items such as a Ming dynasty Madonna with distinctly Asian features (click here, then go to "South China" for a zoomable image), Japanese screens lampooning pantalooned "southern barbarians" (click here for a zoomable image), a gold filigree casket from Goa (click here, then go to "Goa and Gujarat" for a zoomable image), and "Musketeer" (click here, then see the lower zoomable image on the "Kingdom of Benin" page), a copper alloy statue made by the Edo people of present-day Nigeria.

Stage center in a chamber of five antique maps opening the exhibit stands the most stunning historical prize: the 1502 Cantino Planisphere. For a millennium, Europe had relied on renderings such as Florentine Henricus Martellus's 1489 version, based on Ptolemy's 2nd century connection of Africa to eastern Asia (click here, then go to "World Views" to see these two zoomable maps). The rare Cantino world map, hand drawn on vellum in Portugal, depicts all of Africa, India, the West Indies, and the coast of Brazil according to up-to-the-minute seafarers' findings.

As the most accurate view of the then-known world, the Planisphere held inestimable worth for the Portuguese, permitting them to outdistance any rival in expanding their emerging maritime empire. Prominent is the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) demarcation bifurcating the world into Hispanic and Lusitanic spheres of influence.

The original Cantino map was likely lost in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. These three fragile vellum panels - on their first sortie outside Europe - escaped destruction because Lisbon-based Italian diplomatic agent Alberto Cantino spirited away a copy to his master, the Duke of Ferrara, by hiding it in the lining of his cloak.

Alfonso de Albuquerque (detail)
Afonso de Albuquerque (detail)
"Seamen of Portugal," writes historian Daniel Boorstin in The Discoverers, "had an assignment from geography" because the "Portuguese people naturally faced outward, away from the classic centers of European civilization." Their "enterprise of discovery... was more modern, more revolutionary than the more widely celebrated exploits of Columbus [who] pursued a course suggested by ancient and medieval sources. By contrast, the Portuguese voyages... were based on risky speculative notions.... Portuguese discoveries... required a progressive, systematic, step-by-step national program for advances through the unknown."

That unknown was first tested in 1415 when, under the 19-year-old Prince Henry (later "the Navigator"), the Portuguese launched a Crusade against spice depot Ceuta, opposite Gibraltar. The Portuguese armada, well-armed and armored, in a single day vanquished the Maghrebis, who were reduced to hurling rocks.

Prince Henry returned a hero and established a navigation school on Cape St. Vincent, Europe's southwestern tip. "Sacred Promontory" Ptolemy had christened that land; the Portuguese bent the term into "Sagres." A lighthouse still marks the ruins of the fortress Prince Henry turned into a center for cartography, navigation, and shipbuilding. He ordered every detail be accurately recorded on navigation charts, all of which were collected in Sagres so that cartography could evolve scientifically. He stimulated experiments in shipbuilding that produced a lighter vessel, the caravel, without which the next century's great explorations could not have succeeded. Specially designed to ensure explorers' return, caravels were not meant to haul goods, but to carry cargo far more precious: details of new discoveries. The caravel became the explorers' standard ship, even adapted into Columbus's famed 1492 trio, the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María.

That lightweight ship proved crucial to empire-building, as historian Boorstin observes, because it guaranteed "the ability to come home again... essential if a people were to enrich, embellish and enlighten themselves from far-off places. In a later age, this would be called feedback."

Besides ship innovation, the land of the Lusiads led the world in nautical science and developed a system of maritime insurance. Regents of the small mountainous kingdom at the crossroads of the Atlantic and Mediterranean sought maritime expansion for two motives: enrichment via domination of trade routes - principally for spices - and the search for converts to Christianity. All of Europe coveted spices, not only for taste, but as the last word in de luxe conspicuous consumption: pepper from India, cinnamon from Ceylon, and nutmeg and cloves from Indonesia's Moluccas Islands. Questing for unbaptized souls ranked equally; the Portuguese firmly believed history beckoned them to be standard-bearers of Christianity. (The Inquisition took root in Portugal in 1536, with the first auto-da-fé four years later. Over the next 150 years, approximately 1400 more people were burned at the stake.)

Portuguese explorers followed the Ceuta conquest by sailing down the west African coast in search of a route to the Indies. In short order, Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope (1488), Vasco da Gama found the route to India (1498), and the first Portuguese flagship reached Canton (1513). Under the leadership of Afonso de Albuquerque, Lusitanic bases sprang up at Goa (1510), Malacca (1511), and Ormuz (1515). Albuquerque headquartered "o Estado da India" - a series of fortresses, trading posts, and strategic coastal cities stretching from Mozambique to Macau - in Goa, which remained Portuguese until its 1961 incorporation into India.

Goan governor Albuquerque's portrait (click here, then go to "The Fight for the Indian Ocean" for a zoomable image) shows "what resolute and incredibly bold people these early governors were," emphasizes curator Levenson. "It took a long, long time to go around Africa, and the trip could only be made in certain seasons.... To keep something like that going so far from the mother country with a relatively small number of troops was an amazing achievement."

Key to that success was the Portuguese preference for establishing a network of trading settlements, rather than amassing large land holdings like the Spanish. "In the course of setting up a commercial empire," Levenson notes, "they also set up a mechanism for the production of new types of art. So they really were at the vanguard of creating cross-cultural art."

They also embedded linguistic roots that would sprout the world's sixth most-spoken language - behind the top three (Mandarin, Spanish, and English), but far outdistancing numbers of native speakers of German (10th) and French (18th). Explorer Richard Burton called the only Romance language to have conserved the future subjunctive "nearest the speech of the ancient mistress of the world."

Founded in 1143, Portugal boasts the oldest established borders in Europe, a factor contributing to its cohesive national identity. That spirit is still infused by The Lusiads, Luís Vaz de Camões's 1572 celebration of Portuguese seafaring. The national epic praises "heroes who opened a way to Ceylon, and further, across seas no man had ever sailed before."

For the next century the sons of the Tagus harbor dominated sea lanes between Asia and Europe, redefining national identity, empire-building, and cultural exchange. Portugal's seaborne network connected previously isolated reaches of the globe and led - from the 1415 campaign in the Maghreb to the last ceding of territory, Macau's 1999 absorption by China - to a worldwide exchange of information, art, and ideas.

Regrettably, the empire's new-found wealth was not used to transform a quasi-feudal structure based rigidly on rank and class. Stratification into a tiny elite and huge mass of peasants choked off any middle class that might have arisen to modernize the nation and run affairs of state. Instead, leadership remained in the hands of a military aristocracy and declining royal house.

By the 17th century that slippage was evident on world maps: the Dutch drove the Portuguese from the west coast of Africa, Ceylon, Malacca, and - Lisbon's biggest loss - the Spice Islands. With establishment of the East India Company in 1600, the English plied Asian waters, robbing the Portuguese of commercial supremacy in India and China.

This exhibit, the largest in the Sackler's 19-year history, showcases art that underlines the enduring nature and course of empires: their world views, foreign relations, priorities for homelands, and dubious awareness of history's finite glow. Twenty-first century powers still contend for Northwest Passage rights and the nature and duration of Pax Americana, in the wake of Paces Romana, Lusitannica, and Britannica, is widely debated.

Missing from such colloquy is the confidence poet Camões could repose in his generation's discoverers giving "new worlds to the world."

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