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A global give and take

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.

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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.

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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.

In 1890, however, the British seized more than a thousand pieces from the royal palace of Benin and brought them to Europe. They were called Benin bronzes, even though they were mostly made of brass. Europeans were astounded by the magnificence of this African art and were also surprised to find evidence of long-ago Portuguese contact. The exhibition’s statue of a musketeer, cast in the 18th century, obviously depicts a Portuguese soldier. A statue of a messenger, cast in the 16th or 17th century, is clearly African, but the cross he wears reflects contact with the Portuguese.

Showing another side of cultural interaction, the African section displays intricately carved ivory salt cellars and spoons from Sierra Leone. African artists made these in the 15th and 16th centuries under Portuguese instruction for sale to the rich and royal of Europe. For years, in fact, many Europeans forgot the origin of these pieces, assuming they were Turkish or Oriental.

The Japanese section of the exhibition describes one of the strangest episodes in Portuguese expansion. The first Portuguese traders reached Japan in 1543. A few years later, the Jesuits, with the approval of the Portuguese king, arrived in Japan intent on converting souls to Christianity. Both streams of contact proved successful for the Portugese for almost a century. Their ships would carry silks and other goods from India and China and trade them for Japanese silver. By the end of the 16th century, the Jesuits could boast of 300,000 Japanese Christians.

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Because their ships came from Asian ports to the South, the Portuguese were known in Japanese as “nanban” or southern barbarians. In a pair of 10-foot-long, 17th century Japanese screens, titled “Southern Barbarians in Japan,” the Japanese look curious and amused as a procession of Portuguese disembarks from a ship and heads down a main street of a town. The barbarians have long noses, odd hats and outlandish ballooning pantaloons.

But the Portuguese contact did not last. Alarmed by the growth of Christianity, the military shogun rulers evicted the Jesuits and, in 1639, banned all Portuguese ships from entering Japan. Christians were persecuted and sometimes executed. To detect Christians, authorities ordered the creation of “fumi-e” -- brass plates with sacred scenes of Christianity such as the crucifixion of Christ. Suspects were ordered to step on the plates and thus dishonor the scenes. If they refused, they were deemed guilty of Christian belief. A half-dozen of the “fumi-e” are in the exhibition.

Levenson, the curator, believes that many Americans will be surprised by the exhibition because “Portuguese history is so little known here.” The story of Portuguese exploration, he says, ends in American school textbooks with Vasco da Gama, who rounded the southern cape of Africa and reached India in 1498. Levenson attributes the lack of awareness to the fact that Portuguese exploration did not lead to any colonies in what is now the United States.

Yet Portuguese exploration was so significant that the Portuguese empire did not end until the last few decades of the 20th century and, most tellingly, Portuguese is now the seventh most widely spoken language in the world.

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