The World in a Book
This exhibition shows only a sampling of the travel books in Swem Library’s Special Collections at William & Mary. The works that we selected cover a broad geographic range as well as a wide spectrum of interests and approaches but from within a fairly limited time period. The exhibit covers four continents: Europe, America, Africa, and Asia; that is—the world as set forth by Sebastian Münster in 1544. Within this geographic framework and limiting ourselves to writers from Europe and, with one exception, within the early modern period (in this case broadly taken as 1527-1780) we uncovered a range of materials written and edited by some extraordinary characters. The authors are Netherlandish, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English and the books were published in Strassburg, Amsterdam, Basel, London, The Hague, Paris, and Utrecht. But the perspectives represented are much more varied and unexpected than these somewhat predictable origins might suggest.
The “World in a Book” of our title is just that—works that describe the world in words but also with maps and topographical views as well as pictures of plants, animals, and people; that convey in words and images the languages, history, and mores of the places visited. The subtitle—“Travel for Curiosity, Adventure, and Profit”—is more slippery. The “Curiosity” in these works includes wonder, empirical observation, mathematical exactitude, and empathetic description. Here a botanist carefully describes the subtleties of a woman’s dress, a soldier/explorer explains the nuances of honor as understood by the native peoples of New France, a Jesuit comments on the worldly wisdom and moral refinement of the Chinese he meets, and the Oxford professor of Astronomy complains about the weather in Alexandria during December and January (even worse than London). The taste for adventure is on every page, in the words of Jesuit missionaries (one of whom was a descendent of Ferdinand Magellan), a botanist, a medical man, and an East India bureaucrat, as well as explorers, soldiers, and ambassadors. Finally, profit, but here profit that is not merely money, power, and persuasion (even when these are evident concerns). Unfulfilled expeditions and embassies that failed are nonetheless celebrated for the experiences gained and the information gathered. Pleasure and teaching go together throughout these volumes and, for the most part, the authors reveal considerable openness and lack of condescension. So we invite you to enjoy this introduction to the world of remarkable people and places to be found in the early modern travel books at Swem Library—and hope that you will continue your exploration of the collection in person or online.
Curators: Catherine Levesque, Associate Professor of Art History, William & Mary; and Luis Gordo Pelaez, Assistant Professor of Art History, California State University, Fresno.
Graphic Design: Jessica Molz, SCRC Graphics Student Assistant.
Fabrication and Installation: Jennie Davy, Exhibits Manager, with assistance from Meghan Bryant, Research & Instruction Associate, and Daniil Eliseev, Undergraduate Student Assistant.
Photos of this exhibit are available at W&M Libraries on Flickr.