The Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, in partnership with the National Museum of African Art, recently presented an exhibit of 300 objects produced by cultures touched by Portugal's early 16th century trade routes. Many of the items are on loan from some of the world's finest museums. VOA's Carolyn Turner reports.
The exhibit is titled, ''Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries."
When you come into the first gallery you see a spectacular sequence of rare early maps. It becomes clear that the worldview changed dramatically within a few decades after the Portuguese discoveries of distant lands.
This naval empire connected civilizations from all the known continents, transforming commerce and initiating unprecedented cultural exchange.
The guest curator for the exhibit is Jay Levenson, Director of the International Program at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. "This was the most up-to-date map in the early 15th century in Europe made in Florence, a manuscript" he explained about one item in the collection. "It was actually a second century A.D. map by the Greek cartographer and geographer Claudius Ptolemy. This is a map by the same cartographer but showing a modern view of the globe around 1490 and it shows the African coast. And look at the way he had to cut into the bottom margin of the map to show that you could actually sail into the Indian Ocean. Of course, it is 1490 and there is no America yet."
Jump ahead half a century and the planet is transformed. A huge wave of exploration has brought the world into focus. Africa takes on a distinctive shape. Throughout the 15th century, the Portuguese ventured down the Atlantic coast of Africa where they acquired gold and slaves.
Artisans in the kingdoms of Benin, Kongo [part of modern day Congo], and present day Sierra Leone traded exquisitely carved exotic ivory objects.
Ivory tableware, hunting horns and saltcellars -- a type of ceremonial container to protect the precious commodity of table salt -- were all commissioned by the Portuguese.
Some of the fascinating objects are seething with tension. A 16th century Nigerian saltcellar depicts a slave ship with Portuguese sailors supporting it. The sailor's faces are carved like African masks and the ship's captain holds an African spear. The effect is charming until you notice the small, wide-eyed face peering out from inside the ship. It takes on a disturbing edge.
A stool made from the bones of an elephant was presented as a gift in 1551 by King Joao III of Portugal to the Archduke Maximilian II of Austria. It is engraved with the Maximilian II coat of arms.
African ostrich eggs are fashioned into cups with ornate gold mounts.
Other products of the animal world include the shell of the nautilus incorporated with gold and precious stones.
The Portuguese discovered a sea route to the spices of India. Objects acquired along the way would be reworked at the next port.
A heart shaped tortoise shell flask from India brought to Spain and mounted with silver. A 16th century tortoise shell from India fashioned into a plate.
It is the same with other objects: An Indian craftsman turned one into a special shape. And when it got back to Europe they gave it to a goldsmith to turn it into a more luxurious object. You could see how fascinated people were with the materials -- new materials coming from the new world
A rhinoceros horn mounted in Lisbon with gold filigree, pearls and rubies.
Indian mother of pearl vessels that were given precious silver gilt mounts when they arrived in Europe in the 16th century.
An Ivory fan carved in Sri Lanka. Also from Sri Lanka, sculptures of the Child Christ made of rock crystal, gold sapphires and rubies.
For all that it changed in the world, Portugal's empire remains largely unknown in America where it was overshadowed by the Spanish.