New College of the Humanities

Treasures from the London Library: A taste for the exotic

Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros discusses three 16th-century voyage narratives from the collections of the London Library.

Three books at the London Library are proof that voyage narratives were a very popular genre as early as the 16th century. At a time when there was still so much left to discover and ‘tame’, it is hardly surprising that many Europeans jumped at the chance to travel far and wide in search of territories to survey, shrines to visit and ‘heathens’ to save. Many more literate Europeans could then share in their adventures by reading their accounts and gazing in wonder at depictions of exotic lands and peoples.

Vier Bucher von der Raisz und Shiffart in die Turckey (Four books on the travel and navigation in Turkey) by Nicolas de Nicolay was printed in Antwerp in 1577. Nicolay was a French mercenary, diplomat, royal cartographer, artist and, by some accounts, spy, who travelled to Turkey to the court of Süleyman the Magnificent, in 1551, as part of the French embassy. He was tasked with surveying the lands he visited, but his book is remarkable for containing over 60 woodcuts of men and women he encountered. These include striking images of a Turkish noblewoman perched on platform footwear, perhaps to keep her beautiful gown away from the dirty ground or as a symbol of her elevated social status, and a member of a religious sect wearing a chastity ring (often mutilated in surviving copies of this work). The French original, first published in Lyon in 1568, was translated into five languages and Shakespeare scholars believe that the English edition, which was based on this Antwerp version, was a source for the Merchant of Venice.

In Il devotissimo viaggio di Gerusalemme we read about Errol Flynn lookalike, Jean Zuallart's, pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1586. Zuallart (1541-1634) was a traveller from the Low Countries (he was the mayor of Ath in the Hainaut region), historian, judge, knight of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre and self-taught artist. His book was printed the very next year in Rome and its romantic landscapes with towers, domes, minarets and palm trees nestling in sun-scorched sand dunes became the template that many other artists imitated. Zuallart’s drawings were not only beautiful; architectural historians, today, still refer to them for their detail and accuracy. The work was very well-received and during Zuallart's lifetime Il devotissimo viaggio di Gerusalemme was translated into French and German.

But travel was not restricted to the Old World. Our final book, Histoire d'un voyage fait en la terre du Brésil, autrement dite Amérique, tells the story of the French Calvinist pastor, Jean de Léry's, ill-fated mission to the New World. In 1557, Léry (1536-1613) was sent by Calvin to 'France antarctique', a French colony in the Guanabara bay off the coast from Rio de Janeiro. However, after a theological dispute, a few of the more orthodox protestants with Léry among them left the mission and lived with the cannibal Tupí tribe whilst waiting to return to Europe. The experience became a journey of self-discovery for Léry whose European ideas of civilization and religious beliefs were put to the test. While he did not understand or condone all of the tribe's customs, he grew to admire and respect their beauty, self-reliance and honesty. Léry returned to France after a gruelling voyage during which all supplies where exhausted and the men were reduced to eating the parrots and monkeys they had intended to bring back as living mementoes (the parrots were to serve as recordings of the Tupí language), as well as every scrap of leather on the ship.

In Histoire d'un voyage fait en la terre du Brésil, autrement dite Amérique Léry describes and portrays the flora and fauna of Brazil, as well the physical beauty of the Tupí people. While he continues to refer to his hosts as ‘savages’, which is only to be expected from a 16th-century European traveller, he does remark upon the humanity and compassion he witnessed during a Tupí funeral. Needless to say, Léry and his companions failed to convert the Tupí and the manuscripts recounting his fascinating story of failure were lost twice. Léry had to write his adventures again and the narrative was finally printed in La Rochelle, in 1578, over 20 years after the journey took place. The London Library copy, printed in Geneva in 1594, is a 3rd edition, ‘revised, corrected, and enlarged greatly’, complete with a printer’s note praising the work as well as several testimonials, proof of how well it was received.


Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros is Head of Retrospective Cataloguing at the London Library. The London Library's Retrospective Cataloguing Project was launched in 2000 with the aim to transfer the Library's entire catalogue to computerized form. 

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