Encompassing' an Empire

Print
Print
Share This Page
Increase Text Size Text Reset Decrease Text Size

Massive Display Chronicles How Portuguese Sailors Connected World

Call it the first age of globalization: Instead of cell phones, instant messaging and iPods, there were merchant ships, land caravans and a brisk trade in ivory, teakwood and silver. If the 16th century had a forward-looking superpower, it was a nation made wealthy by trade rather than conquest, built on the backs of sailors more than soldiers.

“Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries,” which recently opened at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, tells the story of how a tiny nation on the rocky edge of Europe made itself into the world’s greatest maritime trading power, connecting Europe, Africa, Asia and South America into a single, global maritime economy.

The nearly 250 objects in this exhibit, the largest the Sackler has ever mounted, attest to the dynamic interplay of cultures that resulted from these Portuguese voyages of discovery. Ming Dynasty Madonnas, an elephant bone stool made for a European king and countless other objects reflect the exchange of goods and ideas that influenced the development of East and West.

The eclectic exhibit—spread out over five large sections in the Sackler and another in the National Museum of African Art—features ceremonial artwork, traditional portraiture, glassware, vases, European-style cloaks, priestly vestments, European and Asian furniture, and much more.

Among the first objects visitors encounter, in the European section titled “Age of Discovery,” are vellum and parchment maps of the world created just before and after Christopher Columbus’s historic voyage to America. One can imagine the surprise on the face of a Portuguese gentleman once he had compared Henricus Martellus’s world map circa 1489 with that of Francesco Rosselli’s map, completed about 1508. Suddenly, two new continents had surfaced above the rolling seas and the shapes of Europe, Asia and Africa had all shifted. But perhaps that was slender amusement compared to the delights of an elephant bone stool or an ostrich eggcup, courtesy of Portugal’s newly acquired territories in India, known as the Estado da India.

As the Portuguese and their European cousins created veritable museums out of the unusual creatures and crafts they found overseas, the indigenous cultures began to reflect the influences that these Europeans brought to them. A beautiful 16th-century ivory nativity from Sri Lanka speaks to the influence of the Jesuits, who followed Portuguese traders into the subcontinent. Although the subject matter is primarily Western, Asian accents reveal its multicultural origin.

The ambiguous frame of reference is more pronounced in the case of several ivory Madonnas from early 17th-century China, less than a century after the Portuguese opened their first permanent trading post on the Chinese-controlled island of Macau. The Madonnas have a stoic, detached look, which, along with their Asian features, makes it difficult to tell whether the artists were really trying to depict the Virgin Mary or a version of the popular Buddhist goddess Guanyin. It may very well be that these ivory depictions fulfilled both functions, as needed.

Some of the most interesting art in this exhibit is from West Africa, where Portuguese sailors first made landfall in the 1430s. Encountering the Edo peoples of Benin, they swapped guns and armaments for raw materials to take back to Europe. An 18-inch-high Edo warrior raising a musket lays claim to the dual forces that have spawned him. More arresting is a fierce-looking 16th-century Bini-Portuguese saltshaker in the shape of a slave ship, featuring stylized European taskmasters at its base (with faces resembling African masks) and the head of a slave popping out of the mast above. What feelings, one wonders, did the African craftsman experience as he made this dainty object for some rich European’s table?

Also represented in this exhibit are Japan and Brazil, furthermost outposts of colonial Portugal. The Japanese section, titled “Southern Barbarians in Japan” (as the Japanese called the Europeans), documents the often heated tensions between the xenophobic Shoguns and the Christian missionaries who followed in the wake of the European traders.

Large folding screens show the “barbarians” conducting their daily business among the people of the rising sun, but one senses a peculiar tension in the quiet scenes. That tension fully erupts in the early 17th-century painting “Martyrs in Nagasaki.” By that time, Christianity had been outlawed in Japan and missionaries and their converts were persecuted by the hundreds. A group of shoe-size, bronze “Fumi-e” (“picture-treading”) plaques engraved with Christian iconography testifies to the horrors that believers faced.

Apart from tiny Macao, Brazil was the only unqualified, long-term colonial success of the sea-going Portuguese, and yet, its history is marred by the fact that slavery was used to support a once-vibrant sugar plantation economy. Samples of dark, richly carved Brazilian wood are on display here, an important early export. But the most interesting elements in this display are neither Brazilian nor Portuguese, but Dutch—specifically a series of mid-17th-century paintings of Brazilian Indians and slaves by the otherwise unknown portraitist Albert Eckhout.

Ironically, Eckhout endows his subjects with something of a romantic sensibility, heightening their native wildness and inscrutability. His depiction of a Tapuya Indian woman, whose people were rumored to be cannibals, shows the rather innocent-looking woman carrying a severed human hand in her own and a portion of a leg in the basket behind her. One wonders whether the Portuguese would have dared to remain in Brazil if every native were as casual about decapitation as she appears to be.

Although its displays are so wide-ranging as to border on distraction, “Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries” is more than just the sum of its parts. An essay into the first great age of global communication, the exhibit reminds us of the often creative, sometimes dangerous sparks that fly when two cultures meet for the very first time.

Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries through Sept. 16 Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave., SW National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave., SW For more information, please call (202) 633-1000 or visit www.asia.si.edu.

About the Author

Deryl Davis is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999