New World of Wonders: European Images of the Americas, 1492-1700

New World of Wonders: European Images of the Americas, 1492-1700

New World of Wonders: European Images of the Americas, 1492-1700

New World of Wonders: European Images of the Americas, 1492-1700

Excerpt

In George Chapman The Memorable Maske, performed in London in 1613 during celebrations for the marriage of Princess Elizabeth to the Elector Palatine, the chief masquers appeared in Indian habits richly embroidered with golden suns. "On their heads [were] high sprig'd-feathers. . . . Their legges were adorn'd, with close long white silke-stockings. . . . And over these (being on horse backe) they drew greaves or buskins embrodered with gould, & enterlac't with rewes of fethers; Altogether estrangfull, and Indian like." Chapman's masquers were probably not intended to be accurate representations of Indians, but his description of them and their land of "Virginia" reminds us that more than 100 years after 1492, New World peoples and customs were little understood in the Old World: they were still "Altogether estrangfull." For the vast majority of Europeans it was not easy to imagine and visualize a new land and a way of life that was so completely different from their own and that was not accounted for in human history as they knew it.

How did most Europeans begin to form their images of this New World -- not only of the people but also of the flora, fauna, and rich resources of the land? Beginning with Columbus, people could read printed accounts by those who had traveled to the New World or by authors like Peter Martyr, Giovanni Battista Ramusio, and Richard Hakluyt who collected and published the accounts of others. Even those who could not read would have heard reports of the new discoveries. But also, again beginning with Columbus, New World peoples, artifacts, plant and animal specimens, gold, and silver were taken back to Europe. During the 16th and 17th centuries the average European citizen had numerous opportunities to experience aspects of the New World through this physical evidence.

Artifacts and specimens brought back, at first, as proof of an expedition's success were soon sought after by collectors. Beginning in the 16th century, there was an unprecedented interest in assembling curios and in amassing information about the customs, dress, and beliefs of other cultures. Although this fascination with other cultures may initially have sprung from a desire to be entertained and was often characterized by an emphasis on the bizarre, by the 17th century people demonstrated a serious desire to study and understand the objects and information collected. This was the age of the wonder cabinet or cabinet of curiosities, when "wonder" was celebrated. For early modern Europeans, as for us, wonder is often the first step toward study and learning.

This exhibition and accompanying catalogue draw on the Folger Library's incomparable collections of 16th- and 17th-century books and engravings to illustrate how some of Europe's ideas about the New World developed. Although many of the cabinets of curiosities put together by private collectors were available only to a limited number of learned individuals, some -- like Ulisse Aldrovandi's in Bologna -- were accessible to the public. New World plants were grown in botanic gardens, such as those associated with the universities at Padua and Leiden. Animals appeared in game parks and as skinned and sometimes stuffed specimens in private collections, as well as in books and paintings. Examples of New World dress, and even its wearers, were brought back by explorers I and . . .

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