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Secrecy, Ostentation, and the Illustration of Exotic Animals in Sixteenth-Century Portugal

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During the first decades of the sixteenth century, several animals described and viewed as exotic by the Europeans were regularly shipped from India to Lisbon. This paper addresses the relevance of these 'new' animals to knowledge and visual representations of the natural world. It discusses their cultural and scientific meaning in Portuguese travel literature of the period as well as printed illustrations, charts and tapestries. This paper suggests that Portugal did not make the most of its unique position in bringing news and animals from Asia. This was either because secrecy associated with trade and military interests hindered the diffusion of illustrations presented in Portuguese travel literature or because the illustrations commissioned by the nobility were represented on expensive media such as parchments and tapestries and remained treasured possessions. However, the essay also proposes that the Portuguese contributed to a new sense of the experience and meaning of nature and that they were crucial mediators in access to new knowledge and new ways of representing the natural world during this period.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Unit of History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, Faculty of Sciences and Technology, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Campus da Caparica, Portugal

Publication date: 2009-01-01

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