'Exploring the Early Americas': A Sense of Continent's Direction

Library staffers assemble the custom-made case for Martin Waldseemueller's 1507 world map, which introduced the word "America."
Library staffers assemble the custom-made case for Martin Waldseemueller's 1507 world map, which introduced the word "America." (Susan Walsh - AP)
By Cathryn Keller
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 26, 2007

It's not that Amerigo Vespucci discovered the place. Among the European explorers, Christopher Columbus got here first. But Columbus thought he'd reached Asia, while Vespucci later posited the "revolutionary concept," says the Library of Congress, that Columbus had actually sailed to a separate continent altogether.

In honor of Vespucci's new understanding of the world, German scholar and cartographer Martin Waldseemueller called this new continent America on his 1507 world map -- the first document to name our hemisphere and the first map to show the Pacific as a separate ocean.

The 36-square-foot map has gone on permanent display at the Library of Congress as part of "Exploring the Early Americas," an exhibition offering a mesmerizing look at the early encounters of Europeans and native peoples and the remarkable objects they made.

The Waldseemueller map, purchased by the library for $10 million in 2003, is believed to be the only one in existence. It had languished for four centuries in a German castle but now is on view in a hermetically sealed custom-made case that took nearly a year to design. And for the first time, it is paired with Waldseemueller's 1516 Carta Marina, or Navigators' Chart, thought by some to be the first printed nautical map of the entire world.

That nautical chart is among the 3,000 rare books, manuscripts, maps, paintings, prints and objects that were gifts from collector Jay I. Kislak. "Exploring the Early Americas" uses 200 objects from the Kislak Collection, dating to 1500 B.C., to focus on the intersecting narratives of the mostly Spanish explorers and the cultures of Mesoamerica (the modern countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras and El Salvador) and Peru.

Collecting, says Kislak, is "an adventure, a journey of exploration."

Among the most important items in the collection, he says, are the 1493 and 1494 copies of letters that Columbus wrote to report on his voyage of discovery.

Despite its low-key opening and perhaps because of its modest scale, the show is not only accessible but surprisingly moving and powerful. Three themes are, for the most part, clearly identified: "Pre-Contact America," "Explorations and Encounters" and "Aftermath of the Encounter."

The exhibition invites visitors to follow and explore several simultaneously unfolding narratives. The juxtaposition of manuscripts, such as a 16th-century plea by Bishop Bartolem¿ de Las Casas for better treatment of native peoples, with the sophisticated and sometimes heartbreaking artifacts of Maya, Aztec, Inca and other indigenous cultures confirms what archeologists and scholars have been telling us for years: We need to get over the notion that Columbus "discovered" America.

You enter the main exhibition gallery through an Aztec-style arch flanked by fierce ceramic Mexican warriors made more than a thousand years ago.

If you didn't know that in 1491 the Inca empire was larger than that of the Ming Dynasty in China and Ivan the Great's Russia, look at the 15th- and 16th-century maps of Cuzco and Tenochtitlan. They depict the sophisticated urban life, complete with temples and public athletic and ceremonial spaces, that existed in what is now Peru and Mexico.

In front of a row of vases covered with Mayan hieroglyphs, Kislak Collection curator Arthur Dunkelman comments, "This is as good as a Greek black figure vase." But anyone who has ever tried to put a sentence together might prefer its neighbor, which portrays a scribe -- complete with brushes and a sheaf of fig bark paper in his headdress -- and the "old god" of writers presumably protecting him. How can you see both figures at once? Turn to the adjacent interactive monitor to rotate a beautifully detailed image of the vase, which you can enlarge and move around with a touch of the finger.

The interactive component continues with "Buccaneers of America," a 1678 written eyewitness account of the raids on Spanish ships and colonies in the Caribbean by French, Dutch and English pirates. Enhanced by a virtual version featuring translations, audio, page turns, plus close-ups of maps and illustrations, it might be the original boys' dangerous book.

Eight mural-size paintings, called "The Conquest of Mexico," depict Hern¿n Cort¿s's 1519-1522 mission of subjugation. Created by an unknown artist in the last quarter of the 17th century, the paintings glorify the Spanish empire. They include detailed sub-scenes set into the large drama, like sidebars telling the back story -- just as the accompanying interactive displays illuminate the events and characters portrayed in the work.

Before he gave them to the library, Kislak, 86, kept the paintings in storage.

"I donated them to the people of the world and to me so I can come to the Library of Congress and see them," he says.

Of course, if it's a library, there must be a book involved. The lavishly illustrated catalogue of the full Kislak Collection is available for $50 at the library's gift shop.

If you missed (or were overwhelmed by) recent local blockbuster shows on related themes -- the tour de force "Encompassing the Globe: Portugal in the 16th and 17th Centuries" at the Sackler Gallery and the glorious "Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya" at the National Gallery of Art a few years ago -- this is your chance to catch up.

Exploring the Early Americas, at the Library of Congress, Northwest Gallery, Second Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First St. SE. The exhibition, with labels in both English and Spanish, is free and open to the public. Visit http://www.loc.gov.

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