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Aventuriers des mers

Marseille, France

Organisation: MuCEM - Institut du monde arabe

De l'Empire perse aux conquêtes d’Alexandre le Grand, de l’expansion de l'islam aux explorations chinoises et des aventures portugaises aux navigations hollandaises, c'est entre Méditerranée et océan Indien que se sont déroulées les grandes aventures maritimes fondatrices du monde d’aujourd’hui.
L'exposition débute par la mise en place, au VIIe siècle, d’un empire des deux mers, celui des Omeyyades, lequel ouvrira les voies d’un monde dont le destin se joue principalement à la bascule du XVe et du XVIe siècle. Cette exposition, riche de plus de deux cents œuvres provenant de cinquante musées et institutions, de Lisbonne à Singapour, conduit le visiteur au croisement de l’or d’Afrique et de l’argent d’Occident, des verreries de Venise, des cotonnades indiennes, des porcelaines et des épices venues des mers de Chine.
L’exposition « Aventuriers des mers » a été présentée de novembre 2016 à février 2017 à l'Institut du Monde Arabe (Paris), dans une version centrée sur les voyageurs arabes du Moyen Âge. L’exposition au Mucem fait la part belle aux Grandes découvertes, et présente cinquante œuvres nouvelles provenant notamment de la Biblioteca Estense de Modène (Italie), de la Caixa Geral de Depósitos (Lisbonne), du Musée des Arts Décoratifs de l’océan Indien (La Réunion) et du Kunsthistorisches Museum (Vienne).

Here are the comments of our Member Jacques Mille

Two successive exhibitions have been organised jointly by the IMA and MUCEM, to permit the discovery of relations established between the Mediterranean World and the Indian Ocean, from the Antiquity up to the sixteenth century. The various and numerous documents shown testify to the trade between the western and eastern worlds, from the Roman epoch, then through Constantinople and, above all, the Muslim expansion, after the eighth century, making the Middle East the hub of trade between Europe and Asia; trade took place overland (the well known Silk Road), as well as by maritime ways — whose antiquity and importance one discovers nowadays —, sailing in the Red Sea, the Persian gulf, Indian Ocean, and farther, to Indonesia and China, but also all along the eastern African coasts.
We may see here a first kind of world trading (globalisation), centered on the Indian Ocean, with a large volume of maritime trade using the regular winds of the Monsoon, and bringing prosperity to cities such as Aden, Ormuz, Mascate, Cochin, Calicut and, far away, Canton in south China.
This maritime trade brought from the East (Near or Far) products and goods sought after by western European buyers as well as by mighty Arab princes: spices, incense, luxury goods and, sometimes, slaves.
We know that it was to bypass that Arab trade monopoly that the Portuguese searched and found the way to the Cape of Good Hope, and Vasco de Gama reached India in 1498. The Portuguese thus conquered trade centres such as Goa, and as far as Indonesia, before being replaced by the Dutch of the VOC.
The two exhibitions testify to this trade with models of local ships, various products such as gold, lapis, jewels, spices of course, handicrafts, clothes, furniture, ceramics, glass, etc. and with books and maps bringing the testimony of the discovery of these unrecognised Eastern countries by map makers. If maps were not the first target of these two exhibitions, a number of them were on display; they were indeed an important contribution to the knowledge of the relationship between Western and Eastern Worlds, showing how Arab and European map makers have drawn these distant countries. Arab map makers were the first, as early as the tenth century, following the legacy of Ptolemy and Constantinople, but also their own knowledge and reports by sailors, merchants, traders, all kinds of dealers or travelers. The limited accuracy of this information led to imprecise representations of these new and remote countries.
The main maps exhibited are the following, listed here chronologically (not the case in the exhibitions!).
First, a manuscript map of Ptolemy (mid fifteenth century) with Ceylon and Malaysia.
Then, Arab maps, especially the planisphere of Al Idrisi made in 1154 for the Northman king of Sicily, Roger II, and maps in books (Livre des curiosités, eleventh - twelfth centuries, Livre des routes et des royaumes, 1306-07) showing the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean in very surprising and schematic drawings, as for maps of the Livre des curiosités listing all the ports in circles included in an oval form schematizing the Indian Ocean up to Indonesia and China.
From the end of the thirteenth century, Mediterranean map makers produced portolan charts in Genoa, Venice and Mallorca, based on their own knowledges but also on the legacy of Arabs for Eastern countries and through oral reports of merchants or travellers.
Then the maps of the Atlas catalan (1375) and the Catalan map of the World (1450) held in Modena (Biblioteca Estense).
And, overall, the fantastic map of Fra Mauro (ca 1450), held in Venice (Biblioteca Marciana), here exhibited in a digitalised copy on canvas, at its original size; it is as well a map of the known world of the time, and the equivalent of a book, owing to the numerous texts written on it.
In all cases the drawing of Mediterranean Sea was very accurate, but the maps became more and more imprecise towards the East, for the Indian Ocean and Indonesia, and further more for China (e.g. Cambaluq appears but the outlines of China are unidentifiable in terms of a modern map!).
For China the exhibitions present a book with maps of the sailing of Zeng He, in the short period when Chinese were interested in discovering the World (beginning fifteenth century).
Also shown is a plan of Venice by Piri Reis and Tunisian maps of Al Sharfi (1551, 1600) with the Mediterranean Sea drawn very accurately, copied from European portolan charts, and Eastern countries well described but, as on Fra Mauro's map, with a schematic drawing and many explanatory texts.
Finally there are maps relating the coming of Portuguese in the Indian Ocean: Pedro Reinel (1519), Lopo Homen (Atlas Miller, 1519) and Andreas Homen (1559 planisphere).
And to conclude, the well known, so called, Christopher Colombus map (1492) giving birth to the idea of the discovery of a new World , when he was searching for a new course, by the West, to reach the Indian Ocean, already an old World and known for a long time! These two exhibitions have shown, among a large number of various documents, some very important old maps, all telling the story of these Aventuriers des mers sailing and trading in the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean with the Monsoon winds, the eastern African coasts and, far away, up to Indonesia and China, calling at Aden, Ormuz, Sofala, Calicut, Canton , and so on, all ports arousing dreams and hopes of enrichment in the mind of the men of these times.
Further reading:
  • Aventuriers des mers (VIIe - XVIIe siècle). Catalogue des expositions. Hazan, IMA et MUCEM 2016
  • La fabrique de l’Océan Indien. Cartes d’Orient et d’Occident (Antiquité - XVIe  siècle). Sous la direction d'Emmanuelle Vagnon et d'Eric Vallet, Publications de la Sorbonne, 2017 (a wonderful publication, a must buy if you are a lover of old maps!)
Venue: Mucem J4 - Niveau 2 - 7 Promenade Robert Laffont - 13002 Marseille
Catalogue availability: Yes.