When Portugal Ruled the Seas

The country’s global adventurism in the 16th century linked continents and cultures as never before, as a new exhibition makes clear

Portugal's voyages of discovery turned the nation into a trading empire. Maps, such as the 1502 Cantino Planisphere, traced a new view of the world. Biblioteca Estense Universitaria, Modena
Cultural cross-pollination inspired works of art, like this c. 1600 ivory carving from China, likely inspired by the Virgin and Child. State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Explorer Vasco da Gama sailed his four ships into the Indian Ocean in late 1497. Before long, Portuguese merchants were trading in luxury goods (mother-of-pearl ewer made in Gujarat, India, in the early 16th century and mounted in Naples, c. 1640) and exotic animals. Private Collection
A zebra taken from Africa to India in 1621 was depicted by an artist in the court of Mogul emperor Jahangir. Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Known to the Japanese as "Southern Barbarians" because they arrived, in 1543, from the south, the Portuguese (with pantaloons, hats and caricatured noses in a detail from a 17th-century Japanese folding screen) traded in precious goods. Freer Gallery of Art, SI
Their chief export, however, was Christianity. By 1600, the number of converts reached some 300,000. But the religion would be banned, and suspected converts were made to walk on fumi-e, plaques to step on of religious images. Tokyo National Museum
Led by explorer Jorge Alvares, the Portuguese arrived on the southern coast of China in 1513. Since China had forbidden official commerce between its own citizens and Japan, the Portuguese served as middlemen, trading in pepper from Malacca, silks from China and silver from Japan. Chinese porcelain (a 16th-century bottle, mounted in England c. 1585) was in demand because the technique was unknown outside Asia. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Beginning in the 1430s, navigators sailing under the Portuguese flag explored from Africa's west coast all the way to the Cape of Good Hope, which they rounded in 1488. Most African works of art from this period were created for export (a 16th-century ivory saltcellar from the Benin Kingdom of today's Nigeria). British Museum, London
Because of Portugal's explorations, Europeans were also made aware of exotic animals ("The Rhinoceros," by Albrecht Dürer, 1515). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
In 1500, a Portuguese fleet commanded by Pedro Alvares Cabral landed by accident on the coast of Brazil. After initially setting up a trading center there, as they had done in Africa and Asia, the Portuguese established a colony. Its economy was based on brazilwood—the source of a valuable red dye—that was harvested with the help of local Indians (a c. 1641 painting of a Brazilian Tapuya woman by Dutch artist Albert Eckhout) and, later, sugar, which depended on the labor of slaves brought from Africa. National Museum of Denmark, Ethnographic Collection, Copenhagen
The colony's growing wealth was evident in its many churches and the art to adorn them (a 17th-century silver altar vessel). Mosteiro de Sao Bento, Rio de Janeiro

Globalization began, you might say, a bit before the turn of the 16th century, in Portugal. At least that's the conclusion one is likely to reach after visiting a vast exhibition, more than four years in the making, at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. The show, like the nation that is its subject, has brought together art and ideas from nearly all parts of the world.

It was Portugal that kicked off what has come to be known as the Age of Discovery, in the mid-1400s. The westernmost country in Europe, Portugal was the first to significantly probe the Atlantic Ocean, colonizing the Azores and other nearby islands, then braving the west coast of Africa. In 1488, Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias was the first to sail around the southern tip of Africa, and in 1498 his countryman Vasco da Gama repeated the experiment, making it as far as India. Portugal would establish ports as far west as Brazil, as far east as Japan, and along the coasts of Africa, India and China.

It was a "culturally exciting moment," says Jay Levenson of the Museum of Modern Art, guest curator of the exhibition. "All these cultures that had been separated by huge expanses of sea suddenly had a mechanism of learning about each other."

The exhibition, "Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th & 17th Centuries," is the Sackler's largest to date, with some 250 objects from more than 100 lenders occupying the entire museum and spilling over into the neighboring National Museum of African Art. In a room full of maps, the first world map presented (from the early 1490s) is way off the mark (with an imaginary land bridge from southern Africa to Asia), but as subsequent efforts reflect the discoveries of Portuguese navigators, the continents morph into the shapes we recognize today.

Another room is largely devoted to the kinds of objects that made their way into a Kunstkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, in which a wealthy European would display exotica fashioned out of materials from distant lands—ostrich shell drinking cups, tortoiseshell dishes, mother-of-pearl caskets. Each object, be it an African copper bracelet that made its way to a European collection or Flemish paintings of Portugal's fleet, points to Portugal's global influence.

It would be a serious error to think that Portugal's global ambitions were purely benevolent, or even economic, says UCLA historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam: "The Portuguese drive was not simply to explore and trade. It was also to deploy maritime violence, which they knew they were good at, in order to tax and subvert the trade of others, and to build a political structure, whether you want to call it an empire or not, overseas." Indeed, the exhibition catalog offers troubling reminders of misdeeds and even atrocities committed in Portugal's name: the boatful of Muslims set ablaze by the ruthless Vasco da Gama, the African slaves imported to fuel Brazil's economy.

When different cultures have encountered each other for the first time, there has often been misunderstanding, bigotry, even hostility, and the Portuguese were not alone in this regard. The Japanese called the Portuguese who landed on their shores "Southern Barbarians" (since they arrived mostly from the south). Some of the most intriguing objects in the exhibit are brass medallions depicting the Virgin Mary and Jesus. Not long after Portuguese missionaries converted many Japanese to Christianity, Japanese military rulers began persecuting the converts, forcing them to tread on these fumi-e ("pictures to step on") to show they had renounced the barbarians' religion.

With such cultural tensions on display in often exquisite works of art, "Encompassing the Globe" has been a critical favorite. The New York Times called it a "tour de force," and the Washington Post found the exhibition "fascinating" in its depiction of "the tense, difficult and sometimes brutal birth of the modern world." The exhibition closes September 16, and opens October 27 at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels, a seat of the European Union, now headed by Portugal.

The president of Portugal, Aníbal Cavaco Silva, declares in a forward to the exhibition catalog, "The routes that the Portuguese created to connect the continents and oceans are the foundation of the world we inhabit today." For better or worse, one is tempted to add.

Former intern David Zaz is a fellow at Moment Magazine.

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