At the Sackler, Art That Meant the World to Portugal

By Stephen Brookes
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 24, 2007

To look at Henricus Martellus's 1490 map of the world is to behold a strange, unsettling planet. Europe seems vaguely familiar, but beyond the Mediterranean everything dissolves wildly into myth. Africa is a squarish blob, connected to Asia by a long strip of land. A huge island called Taprobana dominates the Indian Ocean, and there's no hint of the Americas or the Pacific Ocean; the map simply stops at China. Half the world is a confused jumble, and the other half is not yet even imagined.

But jump ahead a half-century to Pero Fernandes's map of 1545 -- and the planet is utterly transformed. A huge wave of exploration has brought the world into focus for the first time: Africa has taken on its distinctive shape, India is no longer an insignificant bump, the Pacific is there in all its vastness, and the Americas have appeared. Guesswork has given way to knowledge: A new world, with all its complexities and possibilities, has suddenly come into being.

The two maps -- works of art in themselves -- are part of a massive new exhibit opening today at the Sackler Gallery. Called "Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries," it's a broad, impressionistic look at the trading empire built by the Portuguese that stretched from Brazil to Africa to Japan -- an empire that brought an explosion of knowledge to the Renaissance, fueled European expansionism and launched (for good or ill) the integration of the modern world.

"It's hard for us to imagine how transformatory this period was," says Julian Raby, the director of the Smithsonian's Sackler and Freer galleries. "It's the first moment of globalization -- information about the variety of the world, in terms of its peoples and cultures, was just pouring in. And part of what we want to get across is that sense of wonder at the complexities and textures of the world."

With roughly 275 objects on display, that shouldn't be a problem. "Encompassing" is the largest single exhibit in the Sackler's 20-year history -- taking up all its exhibition space and spilling over into the adjacent Museum of African Art -- and undoubtedly the most diverse. There are African ostrich eggs in ornate gold mounts, intricately carved crucifixes from Sri Lanka, a life-size oil painting of a Brazilian cannibal, Chinese astrolabes, Indonesian puppets, a Japanese shield covered in the skin of a ray, and a bewildering array of other wonders.

Yet, despite its global scope and almost runaway eclecticism, the exhibit is more than just souvenirs from a sprawling empire. "We looked for works of real aesthetic significance," says Jay Levenson, the show's guest curator, who scoured more than a hundred collections around the world to assemble the exhibit. "Works that told the story of the voyages, but that also documented the interchange among cultures."

For all that it changed the world, Portugal's empire remains largely unknown in America, overshadowed by the Spanish voyages to the New World. But the explorations that started in 1419 under Prince Henry the Navigator (particularly Vasco da Gama's opening up of a sea route around Africa in 1498) were at least as important, laying the foundations of global maritime trade and establishing an empire that endured until modern times; the last outpost, Macau, was only handed over to China in 1999.

But it was an unusual empire, designed not for conquest but for trade and, to a lesser degree, for spreading Christianity. The early voyages down the coast of Africa were aimed at breaking the Islamic world's monopoly on trade with the East, and forging an alliance with the mythical Prester John, a Christian king thought to rule somewhere in Africa. Using small, lightly armed flotillas of ships, the Portuguese established trading relationships rather than colonies. And as they ventured ever more deeply into Asia, they found themselves interacting not with the primitive world they'd expected but with complex, deeply embedded cultures and flourishing economies.

"It's much more about relationships between equals," says Levenson. "It's about trade and the exchange of knowledge."

Empire-building of any kind is rarely a pretty business, though. And in fact, the Portuguese weren't out to foster greater understanding among the peoples of the world -- they were after control of the trading routes, and they were ruthless. Slave trading was rampant, uncooperative ports were bombarded, and piracy abounded. In one memorable episode, da Gama himself locked nearly 400 Muslims onto a ship and burned them alive -- including women and children.

"Many of the artworks were gained at a very high price," says Raby, "whether it was the death of indigenous peoples, through the diseases that were brought by Europeans, or by often quite violent encounters."

And in a sense, that's part of what makes "Encompassing" such a fascinating exhibit: It puts objects on display that reflect disturbing ambiguity more often than cheerful multiculturalism. Each of the encounters was different, but the artworks that resulted rarely show a free hybridization of cultures; many, in fact, almost seethe with tension.

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