A presentation by Professor Henrique Leitao in association with the publication of The Global City: On the Streets of Renaissance Lisbon at the London gallery of Michael Backman
This is a transcript of the introduction an presentation given on the 18th November 2015.
Annemarie Jordan Gschwend was shown a truly awkward painting, a very peculiar painting, which she recognised immediately that the image was from somewhere in Iberia. Within a couple of days Annemarie was certain that the image was of Lisbon and even more precisely of the Rua Nova, “The street of the merchants”. The main commercial avenue in the 16th century Lisbon. The paintings were restored and in 2010 were shown in Zurich.
To a wider audience this book provides the first opportunity for the painting to be seen all around the world, this will have an impact in many areas.
The paintings are very surprising, very few depictions exist of the 15th and 16th century Lisbon. The few that exist have a completely different visual philosophy. You have a panoramic scenarios, and overviews, but only one other painting exists which has resemblance to the paintings studied in this book. The examples are discussed in the book.
The painter of these pictures is different in that he engages the viewer in an everyday street scenario in Lisbon, he forces the observers to really participate in the scene, if I had to classify the piece of work it would be as a very participatory painting. It was impossible just to contemplate you will instantly be drawn into them, you will question who are these people, what are they doing, why are they dressed this way. What is this animal. Many questions will arise, and this is exactly what happened to Annemarie and Kate with the book. They did not just write a book about 16th century Lisbon, they wrote a book which truly engages the readers, and takes the reader into the daily life of a city. They did the same as the painter did in the 16th century to the observer of the painting. This is the major feet of this book and you start reading the book many questions arise, the images are so attractive that you really jump into the images and try to understand, the details and the amount of information that you get about what is really happening in Lisbon, as if you can walk into the apartment buildings to see what people were holding in their hands and how they were behaving, what type of objects were surrounding them. The book accomplished this in a spectacular way.
Lisbon in the 16th century was a truly remarkable place, it was the focal point of a huge maritime empire. This empire in respect of Portugal needs to be truly understood. It was mostly a sea empire, these were commercial routes which were protected and maintained. There were tiny spots along the coast all over the world, no cities, no colonies in 16th century, things will change afterwards but in this period it was the nature, so it was a huge network of commercial lines, all moving around with a lot of intra commerce for example in the Indian Ocean, or in South East Asia but, also this was one of the main aspects of this network with central focal node in Lisbon. So products from all around the world were being drawn into Lisbon. They would arrive in Lisbon with the profusion and immensity that is hard for us to imagine today, and in this sense, this book gives us new hints and new ideas. This fact completely changed Lisbon in many, many ways and this is documented in the book and I can tell you, for example that Lisbon was filled with non Portuguese people, foreigners were all over, Italians, Germans all over the place, people were making money, they were even more so engaging and participating in sea voyages everywhere. So there were connections with commercial lines in Europe of course, for it was much more international than we can think of nowadays and it was also filled with people that were coming from all these places, especially (as you can read in one of the brilliant pieces by Kate Lowe especially black people which provoked, and always provoked immense admiration from Portuguese foreigners that visited Lisbon.
Of all the records of non Portuguese people visiting Lisbon, I think all of them mention the black population, well 90% of them, sometimes with great extent, they elaborate on this so many persons. There is an author that says- perhaps with some exaggeration that in Lisbon, that there are as many white people as black people- that the numbers were comparable. Even if this is slightly exaggerated, it gives us a very vivid idea of what was the visual impression of what was going on. So this is Lisbon in the 16th century, a very complex place, a very international place, a very multiracial place, a very multicultural place, so lots going on and of course products from everywhere going on. All of this was being compressed into a city and within this city into a specific street, this was the heart of it all, the home goal of this book is to look very carefully into this phenomenon – what is going on in this street. A brief description of what is in the book. There are 15 essays, plus a number of documents in the appendixes. It is beautifully illustrated, it is magnificently produced, so it is a very, very beautiful book. The structure of the book is very interesting, because it moves from the general to the particular, if you notice, so the first essays of the books are about the city of Lisbon, descriptions of Lisbon and the population of Lisbon , the next bunch of essays focus on the street on the Rua Nova that specific street now it is more narrow and it tells you tiny details. And then in the third part of the book- another collection of essays focuses on even more detail into objects, the use of objects, the nature of objects in the material culture.
What is noteworthy or exceptional about this book? There are a few things I would rate as truly remarkable. First of all for me it is a beautiful book and worth having, beautiful printing, stunning images. It is a very very important thing, but more importantly, some of the objects that are shown in this book are being shown for the first time. You will see objects that are only now being shown to the public, some of them are truly amazing. There is this rock-crystal casket that is from Ceylon which is absolutely stunning and there is an amazing shrine with with a Christ child as a good shepherd, objects that are remarkable. So there is some novelty with the level of new objects that are being shown. There is a continuous clarification having an increasing understanding of the social life in Lisbon based in the careful analysis of these objects and the use of these objects and this is very new. The book has got new documentation and some of it is very, very important, so not only the level of essays but there is truly a publication of new documents that are important for historians and those who have an interest in these points. So there was a lot of work to produce this book. Some of the essays are truly pieces of very new and challenging scholarship and would like to pin point 2 or 3 that are remarkable. Annamarie and Kate’s piece on the images of Lisbon and its first time that I was given full description of all the attempts to depict Lisbon in this 16th century- with stories, comments, and analysis- you will find it here in the beautiful piece, Kate’s essays on the foreign descriptions that went to Lisbon and the population of Lisbon are truly remarkable, essays which I think will be important for years to come. Annemarie’s piece on the reconstruction of the Rua Nova which is in a sense the central piece of the whole book. The whole book revolves around this idea of reconstructing the life of a specific street that reveals more about a the whole city; I think it’s a remarkable piece – brilliant work. So I have no doubts that we are seeing a publication of the very important milestones the history of Lisbon and the understanding of the history of Lisbon. Historians of the history of Lisbon are now forced to name new suggestions, new ideas, new clarifications but also new many new objects are brought to life in this book, they have a whole new set of questions. There is, for the first time a vivid image of what Lisbon was like in the 16th century. Despite the fact that there has been a number of studies, up to now this changes the way that we used to look at this story. Surprisingly, this is one of the major conclusions of the book. Something which stuck me deeply was the realisation that Lisbon was a city where the exotic was banal because it was everywhere. We historians have been mislead in the way analyse and we judge the appearance of exotic objects in Lisbon as it is clearly shown in this book that they were completely common and that they were everywhere. This changes our whole perception of what as going on, not only from the consummation of these objects but the way historians have been evaluating them, so this is a major contribution the book brings.
This is not just of 16th century Lisbon, it is of early modern Europe that is being described, art, general daily life- which is a good topic for anthropologists who can find much to ponder in this book what we have here is a brilliant example of what happens when collectors meet historians and start talking to each other, then suddenly objects immediately begin to speak with a language and depth which is unthinkable from the view of collectors and historians learn the true nature and importance of objects as they are being taught by collectors, so this is a very important lesson on what we need to do in the future so we need to put together these two groups of people, who sometimes overlap, but sometimes do not and integrate to get results like we do now.
So this biography of the street to finalise, biographies and objects are very fashionable, so this a very fashionable book “a la mode”. They way this biography is built it is not by relying on documents although some documents are used. The way it is built is very novel as it is based on objects and visual information which forms the street.
It is a product of passion- and a labour of love by the editors, so I am glad to participate in a small way to this story.