Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 29, 2018
Surekha Davies Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps and Monsters New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 380 pp.; 60 b/w ills. Cloth £ 21.99 (9781107036673)

During the Renaissance, illustrated maps became important epistemological tools for Europeans seeking information about the inhabitants of the Americas. Surekha Davies’s Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps and Monsters considers the relationship between a variety of written and illustrated sources (travel accounts, costume books, encyclopedias, and prints) and maps. The book demonstrates how the latter visually synthesized—in one place—“ethnographic knowledge” that ultimately functioned to justify European colonialism, expansion, and enslavement of indigenous peoples. Addressing the period from roughly 1492 to 1650, and having considered some two thousand maps and atlases, primarily made and consumed in Iberia, France, the German lands, the Low Countries, and England, Davies nuances how “geographical thinking underpinned by maps shaped ideas about indigenous bodies and temperaments” (2), ultimately affecting how early modern Europeans came to understand human variety.

The main argument of the book hinges on the importance and agency of the visual—the illustrated map—and its role within what Davies calls “artefactual epistemology” (11), or knowledge that derives authority from visual and written sources, including the artisanal workshop and how it is adapted and presented in a manner that brings to mind the reliability of the eye-witness account. Proposing period readings of maps produced by mapmakers in different European centers, Davies argues that early modern maps of the Americas facilitated a diagrammatic and exegetical mode of presentation that selectively amalgamated multiple sources into a visually convincing account of New World inhabitants. Davies’s book is ambitious, and it is therefore not surprising that her account of European encounters with “other peoples” is limited to the Americas, something that warrants an explanation early on in the text.

The first two chapters lay the groundwork. Chapter 1 highlights old knowledge that informed the understanding of human diversity, examining the multiple interpretative frameworks (and their contradictions) that were variously adapted during the Renaissance—namely the classical, the biblical, and late medieval traditions. Chapter 2 examines the multiple regions of map production (Portugal, Spain, the Low Countries, and the German lands) and the uses of these artifacts by scholars, burghers, and the nobility. Of great import to these introductory chapters is the fact that ethnographic knowledge of the Americas, as displayed on Renaissance maps, was a product of traditional interpretative frameworks (as reproduced by scholars and artisans) and imperial and commercial motivations. While the title of the book implies a global geographical focus, as stated above, Davies is exclusively focused on an examination of images on maps of the Americas. Early on in the book the author states that “[t]he peoples of Asia and Africa did not receive the same iconographic attention, innovation, or geographical specificity on Renaissance maps” (18). While Davies’s book already covers a lot of ground, this is an important and thought-provoking observation, one that would have benefited from a detailed explanation.

As Davies demonstrates, images illustrated on sixteenth-century maps were not simply there as decoration and ornament; they played an important role within the context of New World colonization, and the information they brought forth was multifaceted. Therefore, chapters 3 and 4 address how Brazil was advertised and emblematized by mapmakers in the German lands, Spain, Portugal, the Low Countries, and Normandy. While in most cases mapmakers relied on information from travelers’ accounts, in chapter 3, Davies demonstrates how the construction and maintenance of the Brazilian cannibal became emblematic of the entire region of the American basin, thus legitimizing war and enslavement on the part of Europeans. On the other hand, chapter 4 examines the Norman alternative—imagery that advertises the potentialities of trade. Davies demonstrates how in some cases maps that were given as gifts to royal patrons were intended to encourage the sponsorship of westward voyages. Emphasis on peaceful imagery and the benefits of trade were thus paramount. Overall, chapters 3 and 4 look closely at the sociohistorical context to ascertain the variety of factors that drove the emergence of certain types of imagery on maps on the part of European mapmakers. Readers would benefit from a more complete account as to the particular inclusion of these regions of mapmaking and the exclusion of others.

Motifs of physical monstrosity are taken up in chapters 5 and 6. Davies explores how encounters with unknown peoples altered the concept of the human, the genealogy of humanity, and the relationship between the human and the monstrous, as described by the classical and medieval traditions. Examining sixteenth-century travelers’ accounts of Patagonia’s peoples (by Antonio Pigafetta, Maximilianus Transylvanus, André Thevet, Guillaume Le Testu, and Bartolomé de las Casas), Davies draws attention to the multiplicity of interpretations that were in circulation thanks to printed material both illustrated and written. Ultimately, chapter 5 highlights how imagery of giants on maps of Patagonia shaped ontological understanding of the monstrous nature of the region’s peoples—on the part of Europeans—and points to the ever-evolving concept of the human. Chapter 6, on the other hand, takes up the relationship between written travel accounts, particularly Sir Walter Raleigh’s 1596 account of headless men during his expedition to Guiana, and how Dutch and German mapmakers engaged with this information visually. Davies convincingly claims that through a form of visual exegesis—an iconographic rhetoric that made epistemological claims—maps generated an artifactual authority, one that synthesized the experience of the eyewitness in combination with an array of knowledge derived from ancient authorities.

The last two chapters address two different types of maps respectively: maps of New World cities (Tenochtitlan, or Mexico City and Cuzco) and Dutch wall maps. As Davies explains, the city maps suggesting intellect and sophistication rather than practices of idolatry more commonly associated with the New World would have been read as icons of civilization by European audiences. They could thus better claim for themselves the authority of the eyewitness account (chapter 7). Tracing the development of Dutch wall maps and the process by which they incorporated and adapted motifs inspired by illustrated travel books and costume books, Davies explores the cross-fertilization of various media. While insisting on the superiority of Europe, the wall maps showcased human diversity through a hierarchy of civility illustrated on the edges facilitating contemplation of human difference and its connection to geography, climate, and latitude.

Davies does an excellent job of analyzing and incorporating visual material as primary evidence. The main shortcoming is the poor quality of images. Since in most cases, the author’s argument hinges on visual evidence, color and higher quality reproductions of at least the most important details would have been helpful. Owing to the material nature of the early modern printed map (e.g., its size), it is perhaps understandable that reproducing the entirety of each map—in color—would be expensive and in some cases impractical for a twenty-first-century hardcover or paperback book. While in most cases the author provides a thorough visual analysis of key maps, in order to better appreciate the necessary detail it is fortunate that many of the maps that are addressed by Davies are available for closer inspection on the internet.

Thoroughly researched, engagingly written, and well argued, Renaissance Ethnography is an essential source for scholars (including undergraduate and graduate students) of the early modern period focused on the study of the transatlantic and the history of the map in particular. Art historians and historians of science with an interest in how images contributed to the making of knowledge during the sixteenth to the seventeenth centuries will find it particularly relevant. One problematic aspect is that while Davies provides a definition in the preface of the book of what she means by “ethnography”—“descriptive writing or picturing of peoples and cultures” (xix)—a more nuanced discussion of ethnography as a discipline, including its history in relation to the visual—and maps in particular—is missing from her otherwise rigorous analysis. Such a consideration (possibly included in the introductory chapters or even in the epilogue) would have ultimately strengthened her argument about the multifaceted function and long-ranging impact of images picturing “Amerindians” on Renaissance maps of the Americas. For example, how did these early printed images of native peoples on Renaissance maps contribute to the development and construction of what today we call the “ethnographic gaze”?

Despite the lack of critical reflection on the concept of what is meant by the term “ethnography,” Davies’s book does make a critical contribution to the history of the discipline and ultimately addresses, as stated by the author, how “a culture’s discussions about monsters reveal—and indeed help to create—the stress fractures in its assumptions about the nature of living beings” (297). Renaissance Ethnography is an essential book for the study of the function of the early modern map and for the study of the transatlantic and provides an informed analysis of how Europeans living in the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries dealt with cultural and physical differences during encounters with peoples belonging to cultures not their own—an issue that continues to be of great relevance.

Ivana Horacek
Faculty, Art History and Religious Studies, Langara College

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