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  • Spencer Low

The Codex Casanatense: first example of intellectual fusion between Asia and Europe?

Updated: Mar 5, 2023

The Codex Casanatense, or Códice Casanatense in Portuguese, is a set of 16th century Portuguese illustrations. Likely the work of an Indian artist living in Goa, it contains 76 watercolour paintings that depict the peoples and cultures around the Indian and Pacific oceans that the Portuguese had frequent contact with. It is so named as it is now kept at the Biblioteca Casanatense in Rome.

A war elephant

The Codex features people in local attire from Abyssinia, Nubia, Cafreria, Arabia, Mesopotamia, Hormuz, Persia, Afghanistan, Sindh, Gujarat, Goa and the Kanara Coast, the Malabar Coast, Maldives, the Coromandel Coast, Ceylon, Burma, Malacca, Indonesia and finally China. It doesn't contain any reference to the Japanese, whom the Portuguese reached only in 1541, so the Codex was probably made in 1540.

By this time, the Portuguese had already established themselves in India for four decades, with Goa becoming in 1530 the capital of the Estado da Índia, Portugal’s possessions from East Africa all the way to East Asia. The city was referred to as Goa Dourada, or Golden Goa, which explains the Portuguese proverb: “Quem viu Goa excusa de ver Lisboa” (He who has seen Goa need not see Lisbon).

Some researchers believe the artist of the illustrations in the Codex was trained in a Sultanate studio possibly in Mandu or Gujarat, and he had to interpret information and suggestions from his Portuguese patron or patrons about places and people the artist hadn't seen himself. Unfortunately, some information was wildly impressionistic and subjective... The Lisbon apothecary Tomé Pires had spent time in China after reaching reached Canton (Guangzhou) in 1516. He described the Chinese as:

white, as white as we are... They are rather like Germans... They wear well-made French shoes with square toes... The women look like Spanish women. They wear pleated skirts with waistbands and little loose coats longer than in our country...

In the words of a Hindustan Times writer, this might explain why this Chinese couple in the Codex ended up looking "more like European bourgeois expats"!

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