Global Empire

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

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What happened in the course of setting up a commercial empire is they also set up a mechanism for the production of new types of art. In Africa, India, Japan and China, the Portuguese were commissioning works of art for the European market. So they really were in the vanguard of creating cross-cultural art as well.

Were they guilty of the same brutality that we associate with other colonial powers?

They don't have a completely clean record. In the Indian Ocean in particular, the Portuguese governors, the ones who established the empire, they were people of their time, and they were relatively ruthless. It was on a much smaller scale, but they certainly had no hesitation in battling, capturing people, executing people, setting ships afire.

The other complicated part of the story, which we’ve not shied away from in the exhibition, is the slave trade. It preceded the Portuguese, but they became involved in it. Once sugar caught on in Brazil they needed huge amounts of labor. It was really the sugar production in Brazil, and the Caribbean a little bit later, that encouraged large scale slave transport from Africa to the New World. That was the first wave.

This exhibition is very broad. How did you condense and organize it?

We tried to keep the focus really on Portuguese activity, and we tried very hard to tell the story with the minimum number of objects we could. We tried to get the right objects, and there was a huge number of lenders. There was a lot of relevant material, but we tried to restrict it to the minimum amount of works that would tell the story.

What are some highlights of the show?

There's a section on early collections of rarities from around the world. The German expression for these was Kunstkammer, "art chamber." It's a type of private museum that powerful rulers would assemble out of rarities from around the world, to show how rich they were, because these things were very hard to get. These collections have become reasonably well-known, but it's only recently that people started associating them with Portugal because a lot of things in them couldn't have gotten to Europe except through Portuguese channels.

There are Indian works in mother of pearl that were given silver gilt mounts by European craftsmen, and works in tortoise shell and African ivory—we have a hunting horn from the Medici collection. From Brazil we have some early colonial sculpture in terra cotta, which was quite rare. We have life-size paintings of the Brazilian Indians that ended up in the royal collection in Denmark. We have several scientific instruments made for the Jesuits in the palace workshops in Beijing in the 17th century.

The portrait of Afonso de Albuquerque, one of the early Portuguese governors of what they called the State of India, is powerful because you can really get a sense of what resolute and incredibly bold people these early governors were. Portugal is a tiny country. The population is around a million. They never had large numbers of troops to work with, and they were incredibly far away from Portugal. It took a long, long time to go around Africa, and the trip could only be made in certain seasons to catch the prevailing winds of the Indian Ocean. To keep something like that going so far from the mother country with a relatively small number of troops was an amazing achievement.

Were there any objects that were difficult for you to get?

One of the maps, which I hope has gotten there by now. You never know at the last minute! It's an amazing map that I tried to borrow for the 1492 show in 1991, but it wasn't possible then. It's the oldest Portuguese map of the world; it dates from 1502. It was apparently commissioned by the Duke of Ferrara through his agent in Portugal, and it's thought to be a copy of the official royal Portuguese map. This map was smuggled out of Portugal in 1502. It got to Ferrara, [in Italy,] and from Ferrara the family brought it to Modena, [Italy,] and it's been in Modena every since. In the 19th century, there was a riot in Modena, and someone stole the map. A librarian found it two years later in a butcher shop—supposedly it was used as a window screen. In recent years it was sent once to Lisbon for an exhibition and once to Genoa, but it's never traveled to the United States before.

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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