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A New World: Europe’s First View of America

How did the mysterious land of the New World appeared before the first Europeans? What were their first depictions of Native Americans? Were they the truthful chronicles or a colonist propaganda? We discuss these and other questions while looking through ten earliest pictures of the Americas.

1. The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, early 1500.

Jonathan Jones, the art critic writing for The Guardian, invites us to re-examine Bosch’s masterpiece The Garden of Earthly Delights claiming that its ecstatic nudes may be inspired by the indigenous people of North America, just discovered by Columbus in 1492.

If we accept as true the latest scientific dating of its wooden panels and believe art historians who traced their visual connections to the art works made in between 1490 and 1505, we certainly would be able to make a fresh approach to it.

Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450−1516) was married to a woman from a rich and influential family. Thanks to this good match, Hieronymus Bosch became a prosperous landowner, and was even commissioned to paint this triptych by the princely House of Nassau. Well, there is no clear evidences that Hieronymus Bosch knew about the discovery of the New World in his lifetime, but there is still a great chance that he might have heard of it.

His accuracy in depicting birds, animals, plants, and nude human beings suggests that they might be inspired by the first images brought back by the early travelers from America. And who knows, Bosch’s fantastic surreal imagery might be rooted in his fantasy of the New World, newly opened by the Spanish at that time.

2. Fresco at Musei Vaticani made by Pinturicchio, ca. 1494.

  • Christ's Resurrection by Pinturicchio, 1494. Photo: Musei Vaticani
  • Christ's Resurrection by Pinturicchio, 1494, detail. Photo: Musei Vaticani
In May, 2013, Vatican claimed that as a result of restoration of a fresco made by the Renaissance master Pinturicchio (ca.1454−1513), first European depiction of Native Americans was found on it. It is a small detail of the Christ’s Resurrection, placed on a wall of the Borgia Apartments inside the Vatican. The detail is just above the marble tomb of Jesus, from which he has risen, and it contains images of naked men with feathered headdresses dancing in some strange ritual around a pole with two horses near them.

The painting was commissioned by Pope Alexander VI, a controversial character who conceived several kids and was engaged in the corrupt church schemes. It was only a few months before Columbus discovered Americas in 1492 that the notorious Spaniard Rodrigo Borgia, aka Alexander VI, became a pope. He is granted a prominent position in the fresco — he’s the figure of the same size as Jesus, in ornate robes kneeling on the left, his hands clasped in prayer.

Art historian and the former director of the Vatican Museums Antonio Paolucci assures us that the naked figures were inspired by the descriptions of Native Americans that Columbus brought back from his travels; they were painted by Pinturicchio in a year or so, by the end of 1494.

An assertion seems quite plausible. As Professor Paolucci mentioned, "The Borgia Pope was interested in the New World, as were the great chancelleries of Europe. It is hard to believe that the papal court, especially under a Spanish pope, would have remained in the dark about what Columbus encountered."

The mysterious figures remained unnoticed for more than 500 years because the Borgia Apartments were abandoned after the death of Alexander VI in 1503. Being reopened only in 1889 by Leo XIII, they kept their secret up until 2013, when Maria Pustka, a restorer, has finally removed centuries of grime from it.

3. The oval woodcut map of the world Typus Cosmographicus Universalis, first printed in 1532.

Typus Cosmographicus Universalis, 1532−55. Print made from the woodcut plates by S. Nrynaeus after Hans Hoblein [S. Münster?].
The Typus Cosmographicus Universalis was first published in 1532 as a supplement to the anthology of travel reports entitled Novis Orbis Regionum ac Insularum veteribus incognitarum (Basel). The anthology includes the letters of Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, the travels of Varthema and Marco Polo, and other documents.

Cartographically speaking, the map does not reflect the most recent knowledge of the day. There is no south polar continent, although it is considered that its discovery was confirmed by Magellan in 1522. Nonetheless, you can see the influence of the Spanish and Portuguese voyages and discoveries of Columbus and Vespucci on it.

The configurations of the Old World and the New One are still strongly marked by the early globes. North America is shown narrow and elongated, deeply indented north of the Tropic of Cancer, and is labeled Terra de Cuba. It is positioned very close to Zipangri (Japan). South America is depicted as wide in the north and narrow and finger-shaped in the south. This continent bears the names Parias, Cannibali, America Terra Nova and Prisilia.
Typus Cosmographicus Universalis, detail, 1532−55. Authors: S. Grynaeus/H. Hoblein [S. Münster?]. Photo:
The figures composing the decorative border of the map are attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger, who created vignettes for Sebastian Münster and others between 1528 and 1532 in Basel. They represent people and fauna from various parts of the world. Some of them realistic, some, absolutely fantastic. In the lower left corner, you can see a group of naked aboriginals preparing a cannibal feast. A severed human haunch is being cooked over the fire, another one is being spitted on a table close to the brazier and cauldrons. Two heads and other parts of a human body are being dried on a wigwam with a flag labeled "Canibali". Well, this group shows us what Europeans thought of Native Americans based on what they have heard from the Spanish sailors in the early 16th century.

Of particular interest is a naked figure that approaches the cannibals with a saddled horse, loaded with corpses or wounded human trophies. From the history of Western civilization we know that horses were brought back to the Americas, from where they actually originated millions years ago, by the Spanish sailors on Columbus' second voyage in 1493. But why did European artists depict them so close to Indians as if they were their domestic animals? We see it like this in this map and in the Vatican’s fresco as well.

The 'horse situation' is still being fiercely debated today. Many researches think that Indians had their own horses but presumably kept their livestock out of sight of the alien visitors. Others stand that single surviving Indian horses were wild and absolutely untamed.

Anyway, Hans Holbein showed us an Indian who used his horse in a hunting, which was restricted in the mid-16th century by Spanish administrators who ere under the threat of a successful rebellion of the Natives.

4. Allegorical image of America, Pieter Nagel`s engraving after Gerard van Groeningen, ca.1570.

America, Your Gold and Silver Fill My People, print from Pieter Nagel`s engraving after Gerard van Groeningen, ca. 1570−1590.
Inscribed in the plate, upper left: "America, ignorant rustics in the west".
Pieter Nagel, a Dutch artist active in 1569−1604, made this engraving after Gerard van Groeningen, a Flemish artist who worked in Antwerp in 1563−73. The latter was widely known for his dramatic biblical scenes.

An allegory of the American continents is rendered here as a naked beautiful fair lady armed with a bow and an arrow, triumphantly riding in her royal chariot. Its wheels are inscribed with BRESILIA, HISPANIOLA, CVBA, PERV which stand correspondingly for the South America colonized by Europeans: Brazil, Hispaniola, where Christopher Columbus first landed on December 5, 1492, Cuba, and Peru.

Mysterious creatures looking like dogs with strong paws and long snouts, drag the chariot loaded with bags of silver and gold. An image of a wealthy, beautiful, and martial America is completed with the scenes representing the New World in the background: Indians, ritually dancing in their village, a fight between Indians and coming Europeans, and a cannibal meal.

The land of innumerable treasures, countless riches, and unimaginable wealth attracted and frightened Europeans simultaneously.

5. Discovery of America: Vespucci landing in America by Jan van der Straet, called Stradanus, ca. 1587–89.

Discovery of America: Vespucci Landing in America by Jan van der Straet, called Stradanus, ca. 1587−89. Drawing in pen and brown ink, brown wash, heightened with white, over black chalk, 19×26.9cm. Photo: courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
A Netherlandish artist born in Bruges and working in Florence, Van der Straet (1523−1605) drew this image of America as part of a print series on new discoveries and inventions. It depicts a very civilized Americus Vespucci, dressed in the height of the Renaissancе fashion, awakening and bestowing his name on a very naked primitive Sleeping Beauty in a hammock who represents Native Americans.

Its mottos read "Americus rediscovers America" and "He called her but once and thenceforth she was always awake." Van der Straet clearly indicated that the nude was destined for Vespucci or in another words, America was waiting for Europe.

This drawing has become an iconic image for the colonists and "the instrument of empire." The first contact of European civilization with Native Americans is visualized here as an erotic image of "a passive vulnerable female waiting for her lover/conqueror." In the background, there are several scenes emphasizing the complete ignorance of Native Americans: cannibals roasting human flesh, having no dwellings to sleep in, and exotic untamed animals roaming the landcsape.

Discovery of America opened a series of twenty realistic prints called Nova Reperta (New Discoveries) published in the 1580s. It celebrated Renaissance progress in art, science, and technology. Later on, the series was appended with four allegorical works on explorations of the Americas by Columbus, Magellan, and Vespucci under the title of Americae Retectio (America Rediscovered) that follow bellow.

6. Americae Retectio, Adriaen Collaert`s series of engravings after drawings by Jan van der Straet, early 1580s.

  • Americae Retectio, print made as a frontispiece by Adriaen Collaert after a drawing by Jan van der Straet, early 1580s. Published by Joannes Galle, 1589. Photo: courtesy of The British Museum, London.
  • Americae Retectio, print from the plate 2 made by Adriaen Collaert after a drawing by Jan van der Straet, early 1580s. Published by Joannes Galle, 1589. Photo: courtesy of The British Museum, London.
  • Inscribed: "Rediscovery of America -- Who is able with mighty heart to fashion a song worthy of the Majesty of these events and discoveries?"
  • Inscribed: "Christopher Columbus of Liguoria, overcoming the terrors of the ocean, added to the Spanish Crown with regions of almost another world that he discovered. An. Sal. MVIID."
  • Americae Retectio, print from the plate 3 made by Adriaen Collaert after a drawing by Jan van der Straet, early 1580s. Published by Joannes Galle, 1589. Photo: courtesy of The British Museum, London.
  • Americae Retectio, print from the plate 4 made by Adriaen Collaert after a drawing by Jan van der Straet, early 1580s. Published by Joannes Galle, 1589. Photo: courtesy of The British Museum, London.
  • Inscribed: "Americus Vespucci of Florence in a marvelous expedition to the West and to the South opened up two parts of the Earth, greater than the shores which we inhabit and known to us in no previous age, one of which by common consent of all human beings is called by his name. America, An. Sal. MIIID."
  • Inscribed: "Ferdinandes Magalanes of Portugal passing through the winding straits gave his name to the land of the South and his ship, the first of all and the last, emulating the passage of the sun over the earth, circumnavigated the entire globe. An. Sal. MDXXII."

7. Watercolor series by John White, 1585-1593.

  • Watercolor by John White, 1585-1593. Photo: courtesy of the British Museum, London.
  • Watercolor by John White, 1585-1593. Photo: courtesy of the British Museum, London.
  • Inscribed: "The manner of their attire and painting themselves when they go to their general huntings, or at their solemn feasts."
  • Inscribed: "A chief Herowans wife of Pomeoc and her daughter of the age of 8 or so years."
The author of these marvelous watercolor series was a famous 16th century English artist and a cartographer. In 1585, John White accompanied the voyage from England to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to settle "Virginia". Together with a well-known author, mathematician, and astronomer Thomas Harriot, he gathered information for what we call now travel brochures. While Harriot wrote detailed notes, White sketched their observations as "a skillful artist." They spent at Roanoke Island more than one year before returning to England for more supplies.

On that trip, John White made plenty of drawings, seventy-five of them fortunately have survived. Their purpose was to give the expedition’s organizers an accurate report of how the New World’s environment and inhabitants looked like. Ironically, they became known to mass media only in the 20th century.

Indigenous people, plants, and animals recorded on ten inches by five inches sheets of papers were first drawn with black lead or graphite, and then filled with more detail and watercolor. John White, probably, first made these sketches in his expedition and then colored them on his long voyage back to England.

This watercolor series is our only visual record of the American Indians before European contact. We don’t know for sure whether it was the first major study
A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
of the New World’s inhabitants and environment in art history, but today it is considered as such.
  • The town of Section, watercolor by John White, 1585-1593. Photo: courtesy of the British Museum, London
  • Indians fishing, watercolor by John White, 1585-1593. Photo: courtesy of the British Museum, London
  • Inscribed: "Their ripe corn", "Their green corn", "Corn newly sprang", "Their sitting at meat’, "Place of solemn prayer’, ‘The house wherein the Tomb of their Herounds stands’, ‘A ceremony in their prayers with strange gestures and songs dancing about posts carved on the tops like men's faces."
  • Inscribed: "The manner of their fishing" and "A Canoe"
Let’s be fair, White’s images were not merely made to record his observations of the New World. He illustrated ways that American Indians might be useful to colonization, namely to his patrons, English colonists. His sketches show that Native Americans were productive and welcoming with ample food and land. The Indian village of Section above indicates that their villages were orderly structured, with trees and homes at one side and cleared land for planting on the other side. The artist demonstrates Indians' intelligence by using nature to survive and flourish. We see their three plantings of corn in different stages of growth: "corne newly sprong," "greene corne," and "rype corne." He also introduces their native pagan beliefs and sacred rituals, hinting in a certain way that there is a broad way for Christian missionaries.

Indians Fishing above illustrates abundance of sea food at Americas' shores as well as high fishing skills of the Native Americans. John White fills his drawing with different kinds of fish and methods of fishing: fish traps, a fire in a canoe to attract fish, used mostly at night, fishing with spears or scoop-nets. He even includes different sea ducks flying in the sky to show the opulent bird variety. Surely, Europeans have got the idea that natives could feed themselves and probably could feed the colonists as well.

8. Series of engravings by Theodor de Bry after John White, 1590.

  • A Chief Lady of the Pomeioc, engraving by Theodor de Bry after John White, 1590. Photo:
  • Indians Fishing, engraving by Theodor de Bry after John White, 1590. Photo:
In 1590, Theodor De Bry (1528−1598) made engravings from White’s drawings as illustrations to his 1590 publication of Thomas Harriot’s account of the 1585 voyage: A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia.

De Bry was a superb copper-plate engraver from Flanders. In 1570, he fled from the Spanish Inquisition persecuting protestants, into Germany. Together with his two sons, he began a huge book project twenty years later. They collected every available picture and description from the voyages to the New World. By 1634, the family published 30 books illustrated with hundreds of stunning and exotic copper-plate prints.

The De Brys not only redrew pictures and made engravings for mass printing but also expanded the stories that accompanied them. Theodor De Bry has never been further than London and had actually no idea how to draw the American Indians, so he made them look Graeco-Roman. The De Brys altered the reality, recasting and mixing up cultural details, like putting Indians from North and South America in the same picture or changing their features. Still, his images are the most detailed reports of the 16th-century Americas we have today.

9. Series of engravings by Theodor de Bry after Hans Staden, 1593.

  • Illustration from Americae Tertia Memorabile, engraving made by Theodor de Bry, 1597. Photo:
  • Illustration from Americae Tertia Pars Memorabile, engraving made by Theodor de Bry, 1597. Photo:
Theodor De Bry also produced dozens of grotesque and stunning images of the battle scenes, cannibalism, and indigenous religious practices within the New World.

His most astonishing pictures illustrated Hans Staden’s stories for the book Grand Voyages to America (1593). Hans Staden (c.1525-c.1576) was a young German soldier, signed on with a Portuguese expedition to Brazil in the middle of the 16th century. There, he found himself shipwrecked in the land of the infamous Tupinambas, a tribe of cannibals who allegedly breed, fatten, and butcher human children as civilized people do with pigs. Thanks to his stealth and cunning, Hans managed to survive, made woodcuts of the tribesmen, and returned safe to Europe.

Theodor De Bry used fantastic iconography produced by Staden’s adventure and evolved Hans' images into more detailed, elaborate forms. In fact, they became the cogs in a wheel within a large ideological machine that was set in place to create horror and provoke widespread outrage among European society at the behaviour of these ‘brutes without reason'.

At the same time, De Brys were Protestant and had no reverence for their Catholic invaders. That’s why Theodor created tens of appalling pictures showing slaughter in America as well: Indians killing and eating Catholic Spaniards, Spaniards killing Indians.

As enterprising publishers, the de Brys used their Grand Voyages to popularize accounts of Protestant explorers from France, England, and Germany to generate publicity throughout Europe for a Protestant colonizing project that could rival that of Catholic Spain and Portugal. The Protestant world was just beginning its own exploitation of the Native Americans, and Theodor De Bry fit Indian races into a framework that would make exploitation seem morally acceptable.

10. Allegory of the Discovery of America by Jacopo Zucchi, after 1572.

Allegory of the Discovery of America, Jacopo Zucchi, 2nd half of 16th c. Oil on canvas. Borghese Gallery and Museum, Rome.
Allegory of the Discovery of America has several versions and names, also known as The Treasures of the Sea and Coral Fishing. The most famous one (above) is displayed in the Borgese Gallery in Rome. Its author, Jacopo Zucchi (c.1541-c.1596) was a Florentine Mannerist painter. After graduating from the Accademia del Disegno (Academy of Design) in 1564 in Florence, he helped Michelangelo with making funeral decorations and later became the first assistant to Vasari for the Vatican decorations in 1567 and 1572.

Jacopo moved to Rome after 1572, where he worked as an appointed artist in residence to the Medici court. Ferdinando I de' Medici commissioned Zucchi to paint this allegory, and the artist completed his task successfully. He placed the portraits of the most beautiful Roman ladies of those times in it, which was a right thing to do. The canvas had a great success, and art historians claim he made a real fortune after it.

One cannot but see Raphael’s influence on it: accents of the colors, fullness of the forms, the space depth, and great ornamental opulence.

The New World is rendered here as a vast seashore territory inhabited by the graceful and gorgeous nude women and hard-working naked men, either looking like Europeans. The main group in the foreground includes the seductive beauties waiting for a conqueror to come and master them. They certainly are willing to share with him their wealth granted by the sea and gathered by the men: huge pearls, corals, and sea shells. Erotic subtext of the scene is even more obvious in here than in the drawing by Jan van der Straet.

Two black figures behind the beauties inevitably attract our attention. These two male warriors look like taken from the black racial groups of Africa, which actually happened first in 1526, when people from West Africa were forcibly shipped as slaves to Spanish America. However, here they are hunting with bows and arrows like Native Indians.

One of them, shown in profile, holds a parrot. He reminds us of Columbus' words describing him meeting tall, well-built natives whose bodies were daubed with red and black pigmentation and who gave him parrots as presents. Well, that’s a real puzzle… Either Jacopo Zucchi blackened the Indians with soot, or he deliberately distorted historical facts by making Afro-Americans a part of the born natives. Or maybe the date of the canvas refers to the late 16th century or early 17th century, when the descendants of the first Afro-American slaves where already born but not enslaved by the laws of 1640−1699, which in turn questions the authorship of the painting.
Mysterious land of a New World in the eyes of the European strangers still provokes questions and creates puzzles for generations to come. In another words, re-discovery of Americas is still ongoing!

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