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A global give and take

Portugal opened doors to trade in culture and more. A new exhibition shows just how much.

August 12, 2007|Stanley Meisler Special to The Times

Washington, D.C.

IN the 1400s, decades before the voyages of Christopher Columbus, sailors from little Portugal braved the oceans to map the world, carry back spices and other treasures, spread Christianity and set down an empire that would extend in the next two centuries from Africa to India to China to Brazil. The impact was enormous. Europe was inundated with images and objects from the outside world. And, from then on, the rest of the world would never escape the influence of Europe.

Those encounters scattered cultural seeds that continued to bear fruit -- exotic pieces that astounded Europe and native art altered by contact with Portuguese sailors, warriors and priests. Samples of that work are now displayed in a Smithsonian Institution exhibition, "Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries," that continues through Sept. 16.

With more than 250 objects, the show is so large that it takes up most of the space of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Asian Art and spills over into the adjoining National Museum of African Art. After closing in Washington, the exhibition will move, a month later, to the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels for its only other showing.

The exhibition opens with a section on Portugal and goes on to modules about the Portuguese in Africa, Brazil, the Indian Ocean, China and Japan. No module resembles another. An astounding variety of art is displayed -- from a massive, gilded silver incense burner used by the Danish court for burning Portuguese-borne spices to a small Ming Dynasty ivory carving of a mother goddess and child that could be Buddhist, but might be the Madonna and Christ child with Chinese features.

It is remarkable that Portugal, with a population then of only a million, led the way in the Age of Exploration. But, as Jay A. Levenson of New York's Museum of Modern Art, the guest curator of the show, points out, the Portuguese lived on "the edge of Europe, facing the Atlantic, looking west." No country in Europe was better placed to explore the Atlantic.

In fact, according to Levenson, who's director of MOMA's International Program, Columbus may have approached Portugal's King John II before persuading King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to finance his historic voyage. Experienced Portuguese sailors reportedly vetoed the proposal because they rightly believed Columbus had underestimated the distance to Asia.

Antique maps in the exhibition underscore the Portuguese revolution in geography. For more than a thousand years, Europe had relied on maps derived from the 2nd century geographic textbook of the Greek scholar Claudius Ptolemy. These concentrated on the world around the Mediterranean and showed ill-defined land masses in Asia and Africa.

But the rare Cantino world map, hand drawn in Portugal in 1502 and displayed prominently in the Sackler, shows Africa completely, defines the triangular form of India, and includes the West Indies and the coast of Brazil in the still murky New World. Most original Portuguese maps were destroyed in the Lisbon earthquake and fire of 1755, but the Cantino map escaped destruction because, drawn for an Italian duke, it was in Italy.

Four-legged imports

The Portuguese delighted Europe with exotic animals. King Manuel I of Portugal gave Pope Leo X a gift of a white Sri Lankan elephant named Hanno in 1514. Hanno, who paraded in papal processions, is depicted in an ink drawing attributed to the school of Raphael. A second elephant was given by King Joäo III of Portugal to Archduke Maximilian II of Austria. When this pet died in 1554, some of its bones, engraved with the arms of Maximilian, were crafted into a grotesque stool.

A different animal, the rhinoceros, attracted the attention of Albrecht Dürer, who produced a famous woodcut of the creature in 1515. Since he was working from a written description rather than his own observation, Dürer's rendition, though it looked scientific, was marred by several errors including the addition of a fanciful horn to the animal's back.

The spectacular African section of the exhibition, which includes several of the well-known Benin bronzes, shows the interaction of cultures clearly. When the Portuguese reached the kingdom of Benin in what is now southern Nigeria in the late 15th century, the Edo people there were highly skilled at casting metallic statues and plaques. These works of art remained in Africa for centuries.

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