At one point in history, several nations of Europe became the most powerful and dominant in the world.Five major nations rose to power, and each had one and one thing only on their mind: superiority. Surpassingall others, Portugal, Spain, France, England, and the Netherlands emerged as the dominant nations of Europe.Although they attempted many things in order to enhance their power and dominance, they all relied on onecommon aspect: colonization. Colonization would lead to territorial expansion, as well as economic and political prosperity. By establishing colonies all over the world, the trade and profit would be enormous. Thesefive European nations traveled around the world, colonizing any land they could find, in hope to broaden their empire and achieve complete supremacy. This colonization brought them wealth and power, but somethingelse emerged from this colonization: the birth of several new cultures, people, and identities.Portugal was the one responsible for sparking the initial interest in exploration and expansion in Europe.Portugal became the first to engage in colonization, and led to the rest of Europe following and competing for power. Initially, Europeans longed to find a route to Asia, since there were rumors of extraordinary empiresand cities, as well as the many economic opportunities, resulting in increased wealth and trade. As Europe triedto find an all-water route to Asia, many attempts were made, most ending in failure. Finally, in 1498,Portuguese captain Vasco de Gama arrived in Asia after sailing along the western coast of Africa and aroundthe southern tip to reach the Indian Ocean. This discovery opened the gates for future European explorationand colonization, and encouraged Europeans to set sail for new lands. The world would soon be revolutionizedwith the expansion of European colonization, and its traces can still be recognized even to this day.Portugal’s primary reason for colonization was for the wealth and profit. Using armed force, thePortuguese arrived in Asia and were determined to establish new trading empires, even if they had to eliminatesome other ones in order to accomplish this. In the early 1500s, a Portuguese governor, Afonso de Albuquerqueconquered Goa and made it the administrative center for Portugal’s Asian empire. He then conquered Malacca,a wealthy city on the Malay coast, and Hormuz, which was on the Persian Gulf. However, Albuquerque wasnot satisfied and moved on to claim the Spice Islands and Ceylon. By the 1550s, they also reached China andJapan, and established a trading center at Macao, China. Although Portugal seemed to benefit initially fromthis trade, it failed to maintain this empire since it lacked the financial resources and power, since it was afairly small nation. The arrival of the Spanish and Dutch, as well as other Europeans, also threatenedPortugal’s empire.After losing most of its Asian territory to a powerful opponent, the Dutch, Portugal went to colonize inthe Americas, which was founded by Spain in 1492. This vast land was occupied originally by the Natives, butthe Europeans flocked by the thousands to conquer territory and gain profit from the land and people. While onhis way to Asia, Pedro Cabral, a Portuguese sailor, was blown off course and ended up in Brazil. Heimmediately claimed the land for Portugal and colonization began in South America. Although the Portuguesewere incapable of maintaining their colonies in Asia, they were able to maintain Brazil. Captaincies, huge plotsof lands, were granted to donataries, individuals who agreed to finance the colony in exchange for power of the
Artistic Encounters between Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas
The great period of discovery from the latter half of the fifteenth through the sixteenth century is generally referred to as the Age of Exploration. It is exemplified by the Genoese navigator, Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), who undertook a voyage to the New World under the auspices of the Spanish monarchs, Isabella I of Castile (r. 1474–1504) and Ferdinand II of Aragon (r. 1479–1516). The Museum’s jerkin (26.196) and helmet (32.132) beautifully represent the type of clothing worn by the people of Spain during this period. The age is also recognized for the first English voyage around the world by Sir Francis Drake (ca. 1540–1596), who claimed the San Francisco Bay for Queen Elizabeth; Vasco da Gama’s (ca. 1460–1524) voyage to India, making the Portuguese the first Europeans to sail to that country and leading to the exploration of the west coast of Africa; Bartolomeu Dias’ (ca. 1450–1500) discovery of the Cape of Good Hope; and Ferdinand Magellan’s (1480–1521) determined voyage to find a route through the Americas to the east, which ultimately led to discovery of the passage known today as the Strait of Magellan.
To learn more about the impact on the arts of contact between Europeans, Africans, and Indians, see The Portuguese in Africa, 1415–1600, Afro-Portuguese Ivories, African Christianity in Kongo, African Christianity in Ethiopia, and The Art of the Mughals before 1600.
Scientific Advancements and the Arts in Europe
In addition to the discovery and colonization of far off lands, these years were filled with major advances in cartography and navigational instruments, as well as in the study of anatomy and optics. The visual arts responded to scientific and technological developments with new ideas about the representation of man and his place in the world. For example, the formulation of the laws governing linear perspective by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446) in the early fifteenth century, along with theories about idealized proportions of the human form, influenced artists such as Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519). Masters of illusionistic technique, Leonardo and Dürer created powerfully realistic images of corporeal forms by delicately rendering tendons, skin tissues, muscles, and bones, all of which demonstrate expertly refined anatomical understanding. Dürer’s unfinished Salvator Mundi (32.100.64), begun about 1505, provides a unique opportunity to see the artist’s underdrawing and, in the beautifully rendered sphere of the earth in Christ’s left hand, metaphorically suggests the connection of sacred art and the realms of science and geography.
Although the Museum does not have objects from this period specifically made for navigational purposes, its collection of superb instruments and clocks reflects the advancements in technology and interest in astronomy of the time, for instance Petrus Apianus’ Astronomicum Caesareum (25.17). This extraordinary Renaissance book contains equatoria supplied with paper volvelles, or rotating dials, that can be used for calculating positions of the planets on any given date as seen from a given terrestrial location. The celestial globe with clockwork (17.190.636) is another magnificent example of an aid for predicting astronomical events, in this case the location of stars as seen from a given place on earth at a given time and date. The globe also illustrates the sun’s apparent movement through the constellations of the zodiac.
Portable devices were also made for determining the time in a specific latitude. During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the combination of compass and sundial became an aid for travelers. The ivory diptych sundial was a specialty of manufacturers in Nuremberg. The Museum’s example (03.21.38) features a multiplicity of functions that include giving the time in several systems of counting daylight hours, converting hours read by moonlight into sundial hours, predicting the nights that would be illuminated by the moon, and determining the dates of the movable feasts. It also has a small opening for inserting a weather vane in order to determine the direction of the wind, a feature useful for navigators. However, its primary use would have been meteorological.
Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art