As part of the Portuguese season in France, the exhibition in the royal residence at the Château d’Angers, dedicated by the Center des Monuments Nationaux to Portuguese maritime expansion in the Far East, is showcasing a spectacular tapestry from Tournai from the beginning of the 16th century. Evoking the arrival of Vasco de Gama in India in 1498, it symbolizes the European vision of an idealized East.
From time immemorial for Europe, the Far East evoked a universe of fantasized opulence until the travelogue (1271-1295) of the Venetian Marco Polo gives a more direct testimony, although still marked by an unbridled imagination. In the form of manuscripts and then printed editions, this best-selling book called, in French, “Le livre des marvels”, had nevertheless made these mysterious distant lands, seen as a land of plenty, more accessible to the mind. In the 15th century, the idea of circumventing the caravan route, hampered by the Muslim progression, then imposed itself on Portugal and Spain, which sought direct maritime access to the imaginary or real riches of the East.
Two powerful to share the world
Christopher Columbus, one of Marco Polo’s readers, had annotated in the margin of a Latin edition of 1484 (printed in Gouda, Netherlands and kept in the Colombina Library in Seville): ” spices, pearls, precious stones, sheets of gold, ivory “… As we know, this intrepid navigator then in the service of Isabella of Castile chose the western sea route and discovered the American continent, leaving to expeditions supported by the Portuguese sovereigns the exploration and then the opening of the sea route by bypassing of Africa. Also signed in 1494 on the initiative of Pope Alexander VI between Portugal and Spain, the Treaty of Tordesillas formalized between these two powers an east/west division of the world along a meridian line defined in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. . Having arrived in India at Calicut (Malabar Coast) on May 21, 1498, Vasco da Gama made a triumphant return to Lisbon in 1499 and the success of his trip had enormous repercussions throughout Europe. Following the strengthening of this path operated by Vasco da Gama on the occasion of a second trip and then by Francisco de Almeida and Afonso de Albuquerque, King Manuel I of Portugal launched the construction in Lisbon of a new royal palace (Paço da Ribeira) worthy of his reign that changed the history of the world.
An allegorical Orient
On the visual narrative level, the tapestry, because of its monumental dimensions and its colorful universe, was to become the ideal vector for the exaltation of the Portuguese maritime adventure, generating intense commercial prosperity. To commemorate this founding action, a first tapestry in twenty-six panels ordered from the liciers of Tournai was delivered to the palace of Ribeira at the beginning of the 16th century. The exhibition catalog sheds light on its history and recalls the existence of derivatives known as “In the manner of Portugal and India” or the “Voyage de Calcuce (Calicut)”.
Evoking the arrival of Vasco da Gama in India, the tapestry exhibited at the Château d’Angers testifies to these derivations of European success. The original tapestry having disappeared in 1755 during the devastating earthquake in Lisbon, it is difficult, without preserved documentation, to appreciate the degree of fidelity of the recounted episode. The composition espouses the narration of medieval spirit mixing scenes separated in time and making profuse characters evolve in out of scale architectural frameworks.
On the left unfolds the moment when the navigator, freshly disembarked, presents to the authorities of Calicut a message of peace (one might think) from Manuel I. The faces, however, seem to come straight out of the repertoire of figures accumulated by the liciers of Tournai, as shown, among other examples, by the tapestry of the dispute between Hector and Achille from a dismembered tapestry (1472/1483). illustrating the Trojan War. Faithful to the moralizing medieval conception of the image willingly put in relation with biblical texts, the right part clarifies the deep meaning of the tapestry by inviting, in contemporary costume, the mythical sibyl of Cumae, prophetess of Antiquity heralding a golden age, later associated with the triumph of Christianity.
By uniting two worlds that had been separated until then, Manuel I, the secret actor of the whole tapestry, could thus take on the rank of hero of Christianity. As it was appropriate not to tarnish the idyllic writing of History by evoking the battles which accompanied, here and there, the Portuguese advance, a crowd of exotic animals being embarked reinforced the vision of an Orient marvelous with inexhaustible riches. The “advertising board” would have been incomplete without the presence of a unicorn, a mythical half-goat half-horse animal with a long frontal horn, whose strange powers over men, at a time when it was unknown that this ivory appendage was a cetacean tooth. Supposed to live of course in the East, the unicorn had been the subject in 1486 of an engraved figuration in a successful book by Bernhard von Breydenbach recounting his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the first printed and illustrated travel book in Europe. The 1500s would, moreover, mark the apogee of the myth of the unicorn in the decorative arts through the famous hangings (Brussels?) of The Lady with the Unicorn (Cluny Museum) and unicorn hunt (New York Metropolitan Museum of Art). Very slowly, from the end of the 16th century, however, the unicorn would leave mythology to reach the cabinets of curiosities and natural sciences. Oriental exotic inspiration would, on the other hand, continue to irrigate the European decorative arts for centuries to come.
“Counters of the world. The Portuguese feitorias, 15th-17th centuries »
National domain of the castle of Angers 2 promenade du Bout du monde, 49100 Angers
from June 9 to October 9
Comptoirs du monde, the 15th-17th century Portuguese feitorias, coll. heritage editions/CMN, 12€