Accepted Paper:

Object Knowledge: India and the Indies in the Renaissance Collection  


Erin Benay (Case Western Reserve University)

Paper short abstract:

Although illustrated travelogues worked to create an impression of India and the Indies during the early modern period in Europe, this paper asserts that imported objects were just as important, if not more effective, for the manufacture of ethnographic knowledge about India and the New World.

Paper long abstract:

Published in 1510, Ludovico de Varthema's colorful account of his travels in India were brought to life when the 1515 edition was illustrated with a series of woodcuts by Jörg Breu. Long regarded as a precursor to the modern ethnographic genre, Ludovico's text was arguably given greater authority with the addition of Breu's images, which served to render in visual terms what was otherwise left to the imagination. The fact that Breu had never traveled to India and was therefore himself not an expert witness, was apparently of no particular consequence for reader/viewers in early modern Europe, who likely assumed that his depictions of rice sowing or widow burning in southern India were ethnographically accurate. Prints by Albrecht Altdorfer and Hans Burgkmair similarly illustrate 'natives' of Calicut or Cochin, India with a combination of attributes—elephants, turbans, loincloths, bows, and feathered garments—but these images regularly included the costumes and customs of the New World. These texts and images worked in concert to create the Indian in the European cultural imagination. The collection of actual artifacts such as feather capes, ivory statuettes, or dyed textiles by European noblemen, however, arguably offered even more potent evidence of Indian culture than did two-dimensional texts or prints precisely because they could be handled and shared. This paper proposes that such imported objects became essential components in the production of proto-ethnographic knowledge about India and the Indies, and in turn worked on beholders as both art and ethnography.

Panel P002
Art as Ethnography/Ethnography as Art