THE clever covers of the "Circa 1492: Art in the Age of
Exploration" catalog tell the show's story at a glance.
The front cover superimposes an Italian painting from about
1494, a portrait of mathematician Fra Luca Pacioli, done in somber
grays, greens, black, and maroon, on a colorful red, blue, and gold
Aztec or Miztec ritual manuscript known as the Codex Cospi.
The Codex cover picture is of the "Venus calendar" in which
Venus spears the maize god who stands on a smoking field; next the
water goddess is speared, resulting in a drought. The cool
mathematician and the war of the spears represent two works of art
from such diverse cultures, a paradoxical pairing in the age of
exploration. One, the violent relic of a civilization that was
destroyed by its conquerors, the other the precise geometric quiet
of Jacopa de' Barbara's portrait of the Italian geometrician
surrounded by symbols of the science so important in the age of
These two cover choices represent two-thirds of this three-part
exhibition, divided into "Europe and the Mediterranean World,"
"The Americas," and "Toward Cathay." If you have that basic
three-part map of the exhibit in your head, you will not go off
course. "Toward Cathay" sails through art in Japan, Korea, China,
and India circa 1492. It is symbolized by the back covers of the
catalog, famous Chinese painter Shen Zhou's snow-shrouded Lofty
Mount Lu done as a hanging scroll. Shen Zhou was celebrated as one
of the four great masters of the Ming Dynasty.
You may feel as though you've walked around the world by the
time you're through seeing this vast, complex, demanding, and yes,
exhausting exhibition. It's the biggest show the National Gallery,
the cathedral of art blockbusters, has put on since the regal "The
Treasure Houses of Britain."
There are over 600 objects in the 30 galleries of the show in
the East Building. It is a show which covers 30,000 square feet,
filled with paintings, drawings, sculpture, tapestries, decorative
art, maps, and scientific instruments. It required 50 scholars and
dozens of other experts, and it involved lenders from 32 countries
and the United States.
But get one thing straight, as J. Carter Brown, the National
Gallery's director puts it, this shouldn't be confused with history.
"This is not a history show. If you look closely at the show,
you see it is not a history show. This is not a history museum. We
are putting together great works of art that have binding them
together the fact that this species of ours made these things in a
narrow band of time - at a moment of history that changed the
"The glory is to find them all assembled here, illustrating a
theme of globalism and hinting that perhaps there is more to
understand and appreciate and to know about other people's
cultures, and the moment when this relationship can be said to have
truly begun is 1492 or thereabouts. And so we call this exhibition
'Circa (or around) 1492, The Age of Exploration.
This global show required three curators: managing curator Jay
Levenson, who also curated the "Europe and the Mediterranean World"
section as well as editing the show's catalog; Sherman Lee,
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who curated the "Toward
Cathay" section, and Michael D. Coe, of Yale University, who
curated "The Americas" section.