The wonderful adventures of travelers of the past, between the 15th and 19th centuries: the exhibition at the Estense Gallery


At the Galleria Estense in Modena, from September 21, 2018 to January 6, 2019, the exhibition 'Wonderful Adventures. Tales of Travelers from the Past'

It is scheduled from September 21, 2018 to January 6, 2019, at the Galleria Estense in Modena, the exhibition Wonderful Adventures. Tales of Travelers of the Past, an itinerary (it really has to be said!) that traces the travel experiences between the 15th and 19th centuries with paintings and sculptures but also illustrated texts that belong to the rich heritage of the Biblioteca Estense Universitaria, and also decorative arts and ethnographic material, on loan from important institutions such as the University Anthropological Museum of Florence and the Civic Museums of Modena.

Curated by Martina Bagnoli and Annalisa Battini, the exhibition offers the public various testimonies of past travels, such as the annual reports of missionaries and books published by merchants, clergymen, ambassadors and scholars returning from their journeys, which represented testimonies of unparalleled value for the knowledge of peoples and worlds still little known in the West. Travelers of the past were not only impressed by the customs and traditions of the peoples they visited, or by the monuments and courts they went to, but also by the natural features of the places and their cultural traits: in fact, many descriptions dwelt on descriptions of religious rites and languages. There will also be space to delve into the figures of great travelers such as Jean de Mandeville, Giovan Battista Ramusio, Matteo Ricci, Athanasius Kircher and Carsten Niebhur, Francesco Gemelli Careri, Sybilla Merian and many others, whose stories and studies helped European governments to have a more confidential relationship with the rest of the world. The exhibition is also complemented by audiovisual material.

There are six sections into which the exhibition is divided. The first is devoted to pilgrimages to the Holy Land, documented as early as the 4th century, but whose relations remained for a long time clothed in an aura of approximation, at least until the rise of the maritime power of Venice, which established a reliable naval connection system between the city and Palestine, leading to an increase in the number of pilgrims and consequently in the number of testimonies. These include, for example, Francesco Petrarch’s Guide to the Voyage to the Holy Land or Jean de Mandeville’s Tractato de le piu maraveglio cosse or even the report of the pilgrimage of Niccolò III d’Este.

The remaining sections are then divided on the basis of continents or regions. They begin with the Near East, with which cultural exchanges thickened from the second half of the 15th century onward: while Italian painters and engravers were called to the court by Sultan Mohammed II to produce portraits and works of art of various kinds, merchants and ambassadors frequented Constantinople for the purpose of establishing new economic and diplomatic relations or to consolidate already existing relations with the Turkish conquerors. The information that these travelers provided through often illustrated travel books circulated rapidly in Europe, becoming important documentary sources for learning about the culture and daily life there and also leading to the discovery of archaeological masterpieces such as Palmyra or Aleppo Castle. We continue with the third section, devoted toAfrica, a continent about which accounts were less frequent. Unlike the northern regions, which had been an integral part of the Roman Empire and the western regions explored by the Portuguese, the interior areas of Africa, even in the 16th century, remained largely unknown. Ethiopia continued to be thought the most likely home of the fabled Priest John, the Christian ruler to whom as many as seventy-two kings are tributary, until travel literature downplayed its significance. With increasingly frequent ambassadorships to the Ethiopian court, the region began to acquire more accurate and realistic features. Again, much of the information was disseminated by the Jesuits through the annual letters sent to Rome and the various works on Ethiopian history and culture that were published especially during the seventeenth century. Among the most interesting accounts of evangelization, the Historia Aethiopica by the German Orientalist Hiob Ludolf, who lived in the seventeenth century and also authored an Aethiopic Grammar, stands out for its comprehensiveness. Beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, the evangelization activities carried out by Capuchins in Africa intensified: the work of missionary Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi da Montecuccolo, who spent almost twenty years in the Congo in the mid-seventeenth century, fits into the Missio antiqua. In his Istorica descrittione de’ regni Congo, Matamba et Angola, the author put to good use the experiences he gained during his long stay in those regions, supplementing them with information gleaned from Capuchin archives.

The fourth section focuses on theFar East: the first to push into those distant lands were not merchants but Franciscan missionaries who, encouraged by the pax mongolica, attempted to spread Christianity there. It is in this context that the figure of Matteo Ricci stands out, whose portrait is given in the Description of China (“Description geographique historique, chronologique, politique, et physique de l’empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise”), alongside Adam Schaal and Ferdinand Verbiest, two other Franciscan missionaries. The success of the Venetian monk’s mission inaugurated a long season of scientific exchange, richly documented by texts with images of mathematical measuring instruments. The exhibition also discusses India, from which spices and precious stones were mainly imported. Goa and Calicut were the most frequented ports, not only by the Portuguese and the Dutch, and their names recur frequently in travel books, from Ludovico de Varthema’sItinerario, to Odoardo Barbessa’s Libro, published in Ramusio’s Navigationi et viaggi, which listed the value of precious stones in southern India and Ceylon and the price of spices in the Calicut market. The spice trade also paved the way for a taste for Asian decorative arts that stimulated a ’Chinese-style’ fashion that was inspired by European furniture and pottery. Also of deep interest to travelers and scholars was the ancient civilization of India, as documented in the work of Athanasius Kircher, who published a description of the Sanskrit alphabet and the first transcription to appear in the West of the texts of the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary, which were provided to him by missionary Heinrich Roth. Oriental medicine also aroused much interest. The pharmacopoeic potentials of many Indian plants were described in theHortus Indicum Malabaricus, enriched with beautiful engravings.

We then move on to the section on the Americas, which opens with a very rare first edition of the letter Columbus wrote to the Spanish royal family announcing the discovery of the new continent. This is a fundamentally important document for understanding the attitudes of Europeans toward the New World. Columbus is at once fascinated by the beauty of the places and the mild populations he encounters, but at the same time his words hint at the depredations that the European West will bring to these lands. Extraordinary news about this unknown world did not take long to multiply through the reports of various explorers, and during the sixteenth century, even the lands of the cannibals, identified with Brazil, found their way onto maps. It was especially Hans Staden, taken prisoner by the Brazilian Tupinambà people, with whom he lived for nine months, and Jean de Lery who provided detailed descriptions of the life and customs of this ethnic group. The ornaments of these peoples attracted Western collectors starting with the Milanese Manfredo Settala in whose Wunderkammer displayed the feather cloak of the Tupinamba king, or the Murrucu bracelets and bonnets. The exhibition also highlights the exciting adventure of Maria Sybilla Merian. At a time when scientific travel was still unknown, unlike commercial travel, a scientific expedition led by a woman seemed almost unbelievable. Deprived of funding, due in part to the skepticism with which potential supporters looked upon this venture, Merian set off for Surinam for the purpose of studying the origin and reproduction of insects. In 1701 Sibylla Merian returned home with a substantial series of drawings and sketches made on parchment on which she continued to work in preparation for publication, which came four years later under the title The Metamorphoses of the Insects of Surinam (“Dissertatio de generatione et metamorphosibus insectorum Surinamensium”).

The exhibition ends with a display on artworks that reflect the exchange between cultures, techniques, and materials that travel and exploration nurtured. This is the case of still lifes with exotic objects as a symbol of the owners’ luxury and culture, as in the case of Cristoforo Munari’s Still Life with Violin, Fruit and Glasses, with Chinese pottery and a bucchero from Mexico. Some of the works on display also feature hybrid elements such as devotional ivories transported from the East to the West, depicting St. John the Baptist or the Madonna. A valuable selection of geographical maps and atlases will also be on display in the Campori Room of the Biblioteca Estense Universitaria, on the second floor of the Palazzo dei Musei. The exhibition, Cartography between Old and New Worlds, is the result of a collaboration between Gallerie Estensi, Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Modena and the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, where curator Sara Belotti, is currently a researcher at the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Studies. The exhibition will highlight cartographic documents among the most prestigious and important possessions of the Biblioteca Estense, including Ptolemy’s famous Cosmografia. This is a codex, made for Borso d’Este, which in addition to its artistic value has a profound historical and scientific significance, since it can be considered among the first known “atlases” that, recovering the astrological and geographical knowledge of antiquity after centuries of oblivion during the Middle Ages, served as a model for the maps produced from the 15th and 16th centuries onward. Nadia de Lutio and Erica Vecchio, librarians at the Biblioteca Estense collaborate on the exhibition.

Visiting hours: daily except Mondays from 8:30 am to 7:30 pm. Sundays from 2 to 7:30 pm. Tickets: 10 euros full, 5 euros reduced (includes visit to the Estense Gallery and Estense Library). The exhibition Wonderful Adventures will be accompanied by a catalog published by Franco Cosimo Panini Editore. For information visit the Estense Gallery website.

Pictured: Ethiopian Elephants, Modena, Biblioteca Estense Universitaria

The wonderful adventures of travelers of the past, between the 15th and 19th centuries: the exhibition at the Estense Gallery
The wonderful adventures of travelers of the past, between the 15th and 19th centuries: the exhibition at the Estense Gallery


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