WASHINGTON — "Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and the 17th Centuries," at the Smithsonian Institution's Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery through Sept. 16, is arranged in six "modules." The first of the rooms nominally devoted to the mother country shows several maps. One from Florence in the early 1490s posits a land bridge connecting southern Africa to China but shows no sign of the Americas or the Pacific. Another, dated circa 1502, is a contraband copy of a top-secret Portuguese document, rendering Africa and the eastern seaboard of the Americas substantially as we know them today. The spies who smuggled the facsimile out of Lisbon to the Italian duchy of Ferrara risked their lives. Before the opening of the exhibition, Aníbal Cavaco Silva, Portugal's president, had a private tour. If the museum were on fire and he could save just one object, he knows which he would pick: "Those two maps," he told me afterward, pressing a sound historical claim. "Both. You see how Portugal changed the view of the world in just 10 years. . . . Before and after. At the time, Portugal had only a million people, yet we created a global world network of international trade links. It wasn't just adventure. It was about expanding knowledge, mobilizing talent from other countries. R & D! Behind the voyages, there was a lot of preparation."
If ever a show supported a political agenda, this is it. On July 1, Portugal assumed the three-year presidency of the European Union. High on the docket are summit meetings with China, India, Russia, Ukraine, Brazil and Africa. All but Russia and Ukraine are among the non-Portuguese modules of "Encompassing the Globe"; the fifth is Japan. To President Cavaco Silva's great satisfaction, the show will travel from Washington directly to Brussels, underscoring Portugal's founding role in the history of globalization.
The first wave of discovery -- though not by much -- was Portuguese, it's true. The 250 objects assembled here, including exotica of staggering beauty, speak to many themes: advances in navigation, the spread of Roman Catholicism, the exchange of images and styles, the perennial human craving for novelty. The Portuguese of the 16th and 17th centuries went forth and brought back the first elephants seen in Europe, cloves and mace, ivories from the Benin Kingdom, ostrich eggs, precious timber, precious stones (including the bezoar, which forms in the innards of ruminant animals and was believed to possess medicinal powers). Just how the Portuguese traffic in ideas and luxuries may be said to have prefigured globalization as we understand the term today is another matter.
The guest curator for "Encompassing the Globe" is Jay A. Levenson, director of the International Program at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Anyone who remembers his "Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration," at Washington's National Gallery of Art in 1992, will note a family resemblance. That show, however, viewed cultures essentially in isolation. This one mixes them up, raising perplexing questions. What welcome did the Portuguese receive in different parts of the world? Where did their culture take hold? Where was it repelled? Some labels shed light on these issues; many do not.
Though the modules may be viewed in any order, the Portuguese is surely the one to visit first. Beyond the maps one soon encounters an airy silver crown meant for the feast of the Holy Ghost, which apart from its loveliness illustrates how unpredictable cultural influences can be. The holiday tradition it represents originated in the Portuguese archipelago of the Azores. The Portuguese explorers introduced it around the world. To this day it flourishes as far afield as Hawaii, yet back home it is largely forgotten.
Between tapestries from Brussels in celebration of a dynastic marriage, Moving on, many viewers will find their jaws dropping at the sight of an early-17th-century silver-gilt incense burner in the shape of a mountain topped by a somewhat Gothic shrine, the whole nearly two feet tall. Crafted in Hamburg for the Danish court, it is on loan from the State Museums of the Moscow Kremlin. And what is it doing here? It was thanks to Portugal that Europe had incense, you see. Rhinoceros horns tipped in gold filigree or carved into goblets; a bejeweled French pomander, to be filled with fragrant spices and worn as an article of personal adornment -- these treasures and many more owe their existence to Portuguese enterprise but not to Portuguese artistry. On the evidence, the explorers would import finished gems or supply master craftsmen elsewhere in Europe with the rarest raw materials. A perfectly round Japanese shield stunningly covered in polished ray-skin makes it into the show for no better reason than that it must have passed through the hands of Portuguese traders.
illustrations of Vasco da Gama's second fleet, model forts from Oman, shadow puppets from Java and vessels made from a giant nut from the Seychelles or gigantic shells -- all still within the Portuguese module -- one does lose direction now and then. Navigating the five remaining sections of the show is easier, because they are smaller and more focused. Missionaries, not always Portuguese, tagged along on the voyages, the better to propagate the faith. Their triumphs and calamities are always part of the story. The China module concentrates on the merging of Mary with the Buddhist Guanyin, bodhisattva of compassion. The Japanese module dramatizes the clash of religious fanaticism and xenophobia, most memorably in a harrowing painting of mass martyrdom in Nagasaki.
The module on the Indian Ocean proceeds, as it were, by anecdote and short story. A 16th-century drawing shows a Portuguese party dining in Hormuz, fully dressed but keeping cool in a pool of water. In the churchly line, there are three rare Sri Lankan figures of the Christ child in glory, four to six inches high, two carved in clear crystal, one in the red gemstone jacinth. The mysterious African module suggests spells or power chants in striking plaques of warrior-chieftains, and the ivories -- carved hunting horns, zoomorphic spoons -- overshadow the inevitable crucifixes.
Richest of all the non-Portuguese modules, though, is the Brazilian, encyclopedic in sweep if not in scale. Featured are massive carved-wooden panels from the French Renaissance, describing in high heroic style the gathering of coveted Brazil Wood; a polychrome terra-cotta Christ enfolding St. Francis of Assisi not only in his arms but also in one of two pairs of wings; paintings of landscapes and sugar factories and buck-naked natives, often larger than life, among them a nonchalant she-cannibal who carries a severed hand in one hand and a spare foot in her backpack. And a crown dating to before 1689, never to be forgotten: a two-foot cylinder of feathers that stick straight up, in hues from rust to flame to neon blue. It borders on a miracle that this beauty survived the voyage to Europe. Beyond a genius for going places, the early Portuguese explorers certainly had an eye. And they knew how to pack.
Corrections & Amplifications:
This article incorrectly says that the Portuguese of the 16th and 17th centuries brought back the first elephants seen in Europe. In fact, they were the first elephants seen in Europe since the 37 Hannibal brought along in the Second Punic War in 218 B.C.