Exoticism and Scientific Knowledge in the Age of the Discoveries

Council of Europe magazine, 17th European Art Exhibition: The Portuguese Discoveries and Europe in the Renaissance, Strasbourg

Never had humanity experienced so agonizing an ordeal, and never again will it experience one of such magnitude, unless some day, millions of miles from our globe, another globe is revealed, inhabited by thinking beings-although we know that such distances can in theory be traversed, whereas the early navigators dreaded finding themselves confronted with the great void.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (Mournful Tropics)

The voice of the ocean sounds deep within us, and as we stand by its edge we feel the powerful call of the high seas.
Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935),  Livro do Desassossego (Book of Disquiet)

In the year 1503 King Manuel of Portugal sent a magnificent mission to the Pope which astounded the nobles and people of Rome because of the extreme exoticism of some of its members and their apparel, and the presence of strange humans and curious beasts. For instance, there were some of the famous mountain panthers which the King of the Persian island of Ormuz had trained for hunting, as well as an elephant. There is also mention of a rhinoceros, which was probably the animal that fell into the Tagus when being brought to land: Dürer made his celebrated drawing on the basis of a description that was more or less “reliable”… a perfect instance of what is referred to as exoticism.

Almost a century before, the King of Bohemia had sent one of his barons on a secret mission to a number of European countries (including Portugal). He was suitably feasted by the royal family, and when he came to take his leave he asked the King to make him a gift of two negroes. This is the account given by the baron: “The King’s brother, who was present when I made my request, began to laugh and said ‘My friend, what you ask is worth nothing: ask for something more important, more fitting, than two negroes. But as you appear so interested in things of this kind, accept the gift I shall make you, which is a monkey – in that way you will be able to return to your country with a gift of value. lt appears that there are neither negroes nor monkeys in your regions, given the pressing manner in which you ask for such things’.”

Civets, monkeys, camels, mountain panthers, parrots, musk-deer, peacocks, elephants and rhinoceros all satisfied the curiosity the discoveries aroused in the “civilized” world. But that curiosity had probably already been awakened by discussions of far deeper topics among the enlightened: is there a soul of the world – an anima mundi-and if so what is the world in question? That of Ptolemy? Or a different, unknown world? In another world, could man be different too? Not only did animals and exotic and medicinal plants serve to satisfy that legitimate curiosity: they also provided tangible evidence of the reality of the world surrounding the oceans. This was why the Portuguese made generous gifts of them in all countries. The Venetian navigator Cadamosto tells in his "Navegação Primeira" that the caravel brought more than 150 parrots back from Guinea. During his second journey to Flanders, Dürer carefully recorded the gifts he received from Portuguese traders, including three parrots.

The shipowners’ secret
There are two points to be made about these trophies: first, they gave nothing away about the navigation routes and techniques which the ship owners wished to remain secret. Second, they did not require a Christian country and a Christian Europe to face up to the serious problem of alien beings and to that of slavery.

Yet these theoretical and practical difficulties quickly found expression in terms of the “savage”, as earlier there had been the problem of the barbarian: the great historian Jaime Cortesão (1884-1960), depicts the savage as a naked man-which is perhaps rather naïve – but in the main he is right. He shows us, for instance, that in plastic representations the savage is almost invariably transformed into a symbol, sometimes a heraldic symbol: a naked, hairy man. But not always: the crudely worded description of Pero Vaz Caminha, certain examples of decorated pottery (Palace of Ajuda), and the map of Mécia Villadetes provide us with a realistic interpretation of the savage, probably dating back to the earliest contacts with the inhabitants of the Canary Isles. 

The chroniclers and other writers were not particularly strict about nomenclature: Moors, Saracens, Canarians, negroes, Guinean negroes, Indians, Abyssinians and later natives of South America, Senegalese and savages… were all the “other” man, to varying degrees. But while the Moor, for instance, could be the enemy and thus command a certain respect, the savage was at odds with all the elements which over the centuries had come to make up a definition of man. The savage was the “other”, and this was one of the great problems of the Renaissance: an enemy might be worthy of respect, but the “other” could only inspire intense hatred or inordinate love.

The “other” man
The problem perhaps arose in different terms when it came to dealing with the “civilized men” of the Kingdom of Benin; as later on, and to a different degree of intensity, vis-a-vis the Japanese etc. But this is a different story – we might say today an intercultural story.
The brilliant work of Jaime Cortesão has been questioned by the modern historian V. Magalhães Godinho. In fact the iconography and iconology of the “man of the forests” belong to a vast semantic or semiological tradition which has traversed Western culture since classical times, and which is expressed sometimes through a realistic description of the exotic, sometimes by dialectical symbolics relating to the alien. The study is concerned with monsters, and it is a teratology; it discloses an imaginary society with its own history, confronting order and barbarism, the real and poetical.

In Dionysian legends, the savage is represented by Marsyas contrasted with Athena. He is a humanized Silenus, which gives him a dialectic sense: the savage is the man who is entirely alien. The whole of the Middle Ages were obsessed by this concept of alien beings, as by the angel-devil contrast. Bestiaries, books of wonders, images of the world, fantastic descriptions as interpretations of Christian mythology (the Apocalypse) reflect this metamorphosis through oriental influences; on the one hand representing man in beasts and beasts in mythical animals, on the other hand erecting an “Asiatic epoch of the devil” (Baltrusaitis).

A systematic study of this vast field of myths and legends would make it possible to identify a mythology of water, artistically portrayed on Portuguese gold and silver plate of the 15th and 16th centuries. “It is impossible to exaggerate the influence of this literature on the imagination of the age” wrote Baltrusaitis, who tells us that an Antwerp edition of the book of Marco Polo contains 366 manuscript annotations by Christopher Columbus! What is remarkable in the Portuguese representations of the man of the forests is that the creature has been so humanized. It is strange that the Spanish writer Eugenio d’Ors (1882-1954), who was not familiar with the Portuguese examples and had not carried out a comprehensive study, should have reached the same conclusion as Cortesão in his interpretation of the two “savages” of the doorway of the College of St. Gregory at Valladolid (Ferdinand and Isabella, Paris, 1932).

In fact, between the Brazilian Indian shown with virtual ethnographical accuracy occupying the devil’s throne in hell in a 16th century picture exhibited in the Lisbon National Museum of Ancient Art, and Adam and Eve in the earthly paradise painted by Leonardo da Vinci for the King of Portugal, two conflicting concepts, two theologies are opposed. This was in fact only the realization of a difference that was still ill-defined and ill-accepted. In some cases people have referred to a split “consciouness” (the 16th century author and adventurer Fernão Mendes Pinto, for example, in his Peregrination) and in this way Portugal was opened up to Europe, to the dialectic of the master and the slave… and to the “enlightenment” (Diderot).