Visions of India in Early Modern Europe

By National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

Curated by Annama Spudich, Ph.D., supported by National Centre for Biological Sciences

Encounter with exotic landscapes and cultures of India expanded
European vision of the natural world and inspired poets and artists. The
results of such inspirations are reflected in works by Shakespeare, Milton,
Durer, Raphael and many prominent artists of Early Modern Europe. Voyages to
the ‘Indies’ also promoted maritime technology and geography. Maps, which are sophisticated
combinations of science and art, became valued tools of trade sought after by
collectors, and subjects for artists. Section 6 of India Spice Trade provides
glimpses of several such works inspired by the voyages and contacts of the
spice trade. 

The Rhinoceros (1515) by Albrecht DürerKupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

This image of an Indian Rhino by the great Renaissance master Albrecht Durer was a milestone in illustrations of natural history in Europe. In 1514, the Sultan of Gujarat gifted the Portuguese viceroy in Goa an Indian Rhino, which he sent to king Manuel in Portugal. Arrival of a Rhino in Lisbon was a monumental event in European experience of the diversity of natural history. Durer created this woodcut in Nuremburg from a drawing that was sent to him from Lisbon. The image, though somewhat erroneous, went “viral” and Durer’s image was widely copied and incorporated by other artists into European images of exotic landscapes into the next century.

The Elephant Hanno (1516) by Raffaello Sanzio (school of)Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

An enduring example of the use of exotic fauna and flora in the service of political power is this image of a South Indian elephant, attributed to the Italian Master Raphael. King Manuel of Portugal had several elephants from Kochi sent to his menagerie collection in Lisbon. One of them was an unusually light elephant, trained to perform, and Manuel sent the elephant and his Indian mahout to pope Leo X, as an inducement for political favors. The elephant, Hanno (a corruption of the Malayalam word ‘Aana’ for elephant) became a particular favorite of Leo X. Raphael’s portrait of the elephant and his mahout remains a testament to European fascination with the natural history of Asia in the 16th century.

The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, (1597)Original Source: The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. Private collection.

In his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667) John Milton makes several references to India. He describes the forbidden fruit-bearing Fig Tree in the garden of Eden as “The fig tree, not the kind for fruit renowned, But such as, at this day to Indians known, In Malabar or Deccan spreads her arms…..” The unusual structure of The Indian Fig tree with its aerial roots in John Gerard’s Greate Herbal from 1569, may have inspired Milton to decide to place it in the Garden of Eden.

Padshahnama plate 10 : Shah-Jahan receives his three eldest sons and Asaf Khan during his accession ceremonies (8 March 1628) (1630 - 1657) by BichitrRoyal Collection Trust, UK

In the ‘Vision of Adam’ in Paradise Lost, John Milton refers to the cities of “Agra and Lahore of the great Mogul” as examples of the wonders of creation. Masterpieces of Indian Art, especially Mughal miniatures like this image of Emperor Shah-Jahan’s court (done prior to the publication of Paradise Lost), were collected by British and Dutch patrons and were available in European artistic circles in the early 17th century.

The Merchant of Venice by William ShakespeareLIFE Photo Collection

William Shakespeare has many references to the Indies, spices and voyages scattered throughout his works. The ‘Merchant of Venice,’ believed to be written at the end of the 16th century, refers to Antonio, a rich Venetian merchant whose “means are in supposition: he hath an argosy bound to Tripolis, another to the Indies ...” And Antonio fears the loss of his cargoes of spices and silks on “… dangerous rocks, which touching but my gentle vessel side would scatter all her spices on the stream, enrobe the roaring waters with my silks.”

Olivia's House - Olivia, Maria and Malvolio (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene 4) (June 4, 1794) by Thomas Ryder I|Johann Heinrich Ramberg|John & Josiah Boydell|William ShakespeareThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

“He does smile his face into more lines than is in the new map with the augmentation of the Indies. You have not seen such a thing as ’tis.”
- said by Maria in Act 3 Scene 2 of Shakespeare's 'The Twelfth Night'.

Shah Jahan and his Son (ca. 1656 - ca. 1658) by Rijn, Rembrandt vanRijksmuseum

There are 24 existing drawings made by the Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn, inspired by Mughal miniature paintings. Cross cultural artistic influences opened up new perspectives for European and Indian artists during the period: this drawing of Shah Jahan and his son is just one example. While the works closely follows the Mughal original, Rembrandt’s copy has looser strokes, and lack of ornamentation giving it a fresh perspective.

The Geographer (1669) by Johanes VermeerStädel Museum

Study of geography and map making were essential tools of trade for voyages to far flung places, and scholars and artists related to these fields were highly respected individuals. This painting of a Geographer/mapmaker by the Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer shows the mapmaker in a contemplative pose, reflecting on the task at hand, with paper and tools of his trade. The geographer, the map in the making and the globe are the highlights of this painting.

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (ca. 1662) by Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, Delft 1632–1675 Delft)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Increasingly maps became decorative tools that indicated the erudition and wealth of the owner. In this painting, Young Woman With a Water Pitcher, also by Vermeer, the map on the wall (and the oriental carpet on the table), suggests the wealth, sophistication and global connections of the household.

The Indian Spice Trade (Exhibit Chapterisation)National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

Contact with India continues to influence artistic, cultural and philosophical aspects of global society. These influences are manifest in aspects of everyday life around the world in the 21st century.

This exhibition is part of a series on the India Spice Trade. Do explore the other sections here:

1. India: The Nexus of International Trade in the First Millennium

2. In Search of Knowledge and Riches: Communities in Indian Spice Trade

3. Europeans Enter Indian Spice Trade

4. Portuguese and Dutch Records of Indian Medicine

British and the Botanical Wealth of India
Credits: Story

Curated by Annamma Spudich, PhD., supported by National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, India.

Curation text © 2019 Annamma Spudich, PhD.

Images outside of NCBS collection courtesy to the respective institutions and collections who have given the permission. Some images are hosted via NCBS - the original sources are cited, and more information about the respective images can be reached by clicking on the image or image captions.

Explore all chapters of The India Spice Trade:

1. India: The Nexus of International Trade in the First Millennium

2. In Search of Knowledge and Riches: Communities in Indian Spice Trade

3. Europeans Enter Indian Spice Trade

4. Portuguese and Dutch Records of Indian Medicine

5. British and the Botanical Wealth of India

6. Visions of India in Early Modern Europe

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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