The Other Side of the World

Os Descobrimentos Portugueses e a Europa do Renascimento/Portuguese Discoveries and Renaissance Europe and Culture, Lisbon, 1983

Commissariat for the Seventeenth European Exhibition of Art, Science

The Pacific since Magellan Vol. 1: The Spanish Lake; Vol. 2: Monopolists and Freebooters

by O. H. K. Spate
University of Minnesota Press, Vol. 2, 426 pp., $59.50

Lisbon this summer provided the setting for a great international exhibition—the Council of Europe’s seventeenth exhibition of art, science, and culture—devoted to the Portuguese discoveries and Renaissance Europe. The exhibition was skillfully planned to take advantage of the splendid Lisbon waterfront, where houses, churches, and convents jostle for a view of the Tagus as it opens out to join the sea. No other setting could have been more appropriate for an attempt to depict in visual terms how a small medieval state on the remote western fringes of Christendom became a pioneer in overseas navigation and discovery, and how its bold initiative led to the transformation of Europe and the world.

The exhibition, which closed on October 2, was housed in five historic buildings which themselves added immeasurably to its impact by recalling, through their origins and architecture, or simply through the sudden glimpses they offered of the water, the pervasive theme of discovery and Renaissance. Appropriately the exhibition moved westward by stages toward the Atlantic from its starting point at the Renaissance convent of Madre de Deus on the eastern side of the city. Here the display was devoted to medieval Portugal and its contacts—commercial, religious, cultural—with the other lands of Europe and also with Islam.

Through maps and manuscripts and models of ships we were introduced to a society that lived on and by the sea, looking out with a lively curiosity on the world beyond its shores. Although this part of the exhibition was concerned solely with the Middle Ages, the convent itself hinted richly at the splendors to come as we emerged into the cloister with its blue-and-white tiled panorama of sixteenth-century Lisbon, and then gazed down from an upper window onto the nave of the ornate church, resplendent with the gold of Brazil.

From the Madre de Deus we threaded our way through Lisbon’s impossibly crowded streets to the Casa dos Bicos, a sixteenth-century mansion—its façade ornamented with pyramid-pointed stones—which was built for the Albuquerques, the family of the man who founded Portugal’s Indian empire. The newly reconstructed interior was used to display, in a sequence of darkened galleries, the complicated history of the matrimonial alliances that bound the Portuguese ruling house of Aviz to the principal dynasties of Europe. There is a fascination about many of the royal portraits, down to the degenerate King Sebastian, whose crazed vision of crusading glory brought about the extinction of the dynasty and of Portuguese independence in the wastes of North Africa. But this was the least satisfying part of the exhibition, being too fragmented and incoherent to make its point effectively.

More rewarding was the fine display at the next port of call, the National Museum of Ancient Art. This section of the exhibition was designed to illustrate the artistic achievement of late medieval and Renaissance Portugal, and the interplay between Portuguese art and that of Renaissance Europe. In this setting, with its constant reminders of the interaction …

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