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Global Empire

The curator of an ambitious new exhibition explains how Portugal brought the world together

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Jay Levenson is the Director of the International Program at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a guest curator of the exhibition "Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries," opening at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery in collaboration with the Museum of African Art on June 24.

What was the genesis of this exhibition?

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It was really the work I did in the 1492 exhibition for the National Gallery of Art ["Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration," 1992]. We had a section on Portugal, with some extremely difficult loans that took a long time to clear because they were works that hadn't traveled before. By the end of the project we had some very close relationships with Portugal. I always had in mind to go back, because the 1492 show was the world before it came together, but it was during the Portuguese period that first contacts were made. So this was an idea that had been there, and like so many things it took a while to actually reach fruition.

Why is Portugal generally overlooked as a major power in the Age of Discovery?

It's a complete misconception. They got left out, basically. The Spanish voyages were to the New World, and the Spanish voyages to the New World are thought of as part of American prehistory, so they’re closely part of the American school curriculum. There's some coverage of Portuguese voyages down the African coast because that leads to Vasco da Gama getting to India. But it becomes part of Asian history after that, and it drops out of American school curriculum, at least in any detail. It just isn't as well known in this part of the world.

What actually happened was, in a very short period of time, the early 16th century, the Portuguese landed in Brazil and established a network of trading posts around the Indian Ocean, all the way to Macau. Beyond Macau, they got to Japan by the 1540s. They put together this phenomenal network that was less territorial and more commercial—the only sizable land settlements they had were in Brazil. The Portuguese were active in India and the Persian Gulf area, the west and east coasts of India, Japan and China.

Were they the first Europeans to reach Japan?

Yes, in 1543. The first were three traders who were blown ashore, shipwrecked there. The local Japanese were very interested in their guns, because there were no firearms in Japan, but there was very intense warfare. So the Japanese adopted firearms from the Portuguese very quickly.

I was also surprised to learn that Portuguese is the most spoken language in South America. One normally thinks of Spanish first.

Portuguese is the sixth or seventh most spoken language in the world. That's mostly because of the large population of Brazil. It's also spoken in Angola, Mozambique, Portuguese India, East Timor—all of the areas that were part of the Portuguese Empire.

What’s the legacy of the Portuguese Empire?

I think it was bringing people together. It wasn't so much a land-based empire. They didn't have large territorial holdings like the Spanish. They mostly had a network of trading settlements and they had to cooperate with people. They had a certain amount of firepower too, but in Asia and Africa they were dealing with large, established political units so they had to work out accommodations.

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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