[REVIEW] “Quite Connected Centuries Ago: Reviewing Peter Gordon and Juan José Morales’s Painter and Patron” by Susan Blumberg-Kason

{Written by Susan Blumberg-Kason, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Peter Gordon and Juan José Morales, Painter and Patron: The Maritime Silk Road in the Códice Casanatense, Abbreviated Press, 2020. 102 pgs.

It started as a discussion and resulted in a number of discoveries. Peter Gordon and Juan José Morales, authors of The Silver Way: China, Spanish America and the Birth of Globalisation, discussed the Códice Casanatense or Codex Casanatense 1889 with the Italian Cultural Institute in Hong Kong and went on to conclude that this collection of 76 annotated watercolours is perhaps the earliest extant portrayal of people in Asia and their daily activities. In their new book, Painter and Patron: The Maritime Silk Road in the Códice Casanatense, they introduce the Codex.

Authors: Juan José Morales and Peter Gordon.

The subject of the book is fascinating: a collection of watercolours that show daily life along the Maritime Silk Route in the mid-16th century and the people inhabiting those lands. But it’s the sleuthing aspect of the book that makes Painter and Patron stand out even more. The authors believe the Codex made its way from Goa to Lisbon in the early 17th century before it was acquired by the Italian cardinal Girolamo Casanata, a collector of books and manuscripts, hence the title of the Codex. Upon Casanata’s death in 1700, his collection became the Biblioteca Casanatense, housed near the Pantheon in Rome. Two hundred and fifty years later, Jesuit scholar Georg Schurhammer resurrected the Codex in his biography of St. Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuit order. Since then many of the Codex’s watercolours have been reprinted in other publications, but Gordon and Morales are the first to discuss the origin and contents of the Codex Casanatense.

The authors show that the painter of the watercolours was an Indian man from 16th century Goa, most likely commissioned by a casado, a Portuguese man who settled in India and married a local woman, presumably from a wealthy family. Unlike the fidalgos, or upper-crust men who travelled to Portugal’s trading outposts for short periods of time, the casados were in Asia to stay. Because few Portuguese women or settled in Asia, there are very few images  of them in the Codex.

As Gordon and Morales write:

There were no small number of these casados: in the 1540s, Goa alone had around 1800; there were others in Cochin, which was founded first, as well as in smaller places. Casados were the backbone of the regional economy, trading (often through the contacts of their local wives) and providing capital.

—Peter Gordon and Juan José Morales, Painter and Patron: The Maritime Silk Road in the Códice Casanatense

It wasn’t unfathomable, then, for some casados to have had the financial resources to commission a project like the Codex.

The Portuguese originally travelled to Asia in search of spices, but soon found a wealth of other goods. We now have words in English like khaki, pyjamas, sash, shawl, calico, and gingham because of Portuguese trade. The Codex mainly highlights the people a casado might have met along the maritime trade routes.

The scenes in the Codex, according to the authors, “show a world seen through Indian eyes”, thus their conclusion that the painter was Indian. This is demonstrated in the fashions represented in the watercolours. The painter drew South Asian women wearing not sarongs, but rather a type of sari. The Arab and Persian women wear a style of clothing not native to those areas. And the men, whatever their provenance, all wear small turbans, as per the custom in India. Another clue is found in a scene of a wedding procession.

The rendering of a Portuguese woman in a palanquin is almost, and strikingly, compositionally identical to a Jain temple mural in Tamil Nadu. The similarity does not mean that one was taken directly from the other; indeed, this particular composition appears in several places in the murals, as well as in at least one other temple, an indication that it was a standard scene.

There is another scene that seems taken directly from another publication. In the early 16th century the Austrian Balthasar Sprenger travelled on a Portuguese ship to India and wrote of his trip in Die Merfart. This publication was illustrated with woodcuts, one of which depicted a warrior, a woman and a child on the Malabar Coast. The painter of the Codex drew a similar scene, minus the child. Gordon and Morales write that it’s very possible Sprenger’s book made its way back to Goa and into the hands of the Codex painter.

Published by The Abbreviated Press, Painter and Patron is a short book, but it also includes an online guide for mobile devices, providing the reader with further opportunity to take part in this investigation. But whether or not one reads it electronically or on paper, the book is packed with fascinating information about the Codex, that very pivotal time in history, and the people it portrays. One could say that technological innovations of the last few decades has brought the world closer. But as Gordon and Morales show, it was already quite connected through trade routes and the Codex Casanatense centuries ago.

How to cite: Blumberg-Kason, Susan. “Quite Connected Centuries Ago: Reviewing Peter Gordon and Juan José Morales’s Painter and Patron.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 25 Oct. 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/10/25/silk-road.

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Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong. Her writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China Blog, Asian Jewish Life, and several Hong Kong anthologies. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Blumberg-Kason now lives in Chicago and spends her free time volunteering with senior citizens in Chinatown. (Photo credit: Annette Patko)

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