Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 11, 2009
Michiel van Groesen The Representations of the Overseas World in the De Bry Collection of Voyages (1590–1634) Leiden: Brill, 2008. 570 pp.; many b/w ills. Cloth $129.00 (9789004164499)

Theodor de Bry (1528–1598) remains a towering figure in the history of print and the graphic arts as well as in the development of early modern geography. He emerged from a relatively unexceptional background as a goldsmith and engraver of copper plates—the two professions went hand in hand in the Low Countries guild system in which he trained—to found one of the most important printing houses in northern Europe and to become the publisher of arguably the most influential series of books of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. De Bry’s “Les Grands Voyages,” which was supplemented by his sons (who carried on the family business) with “Les Petits Voyages,” offered a superbly printed, lavishly illustrated summa of travel literature from the age of “discovery.” The first series covered the epochal voyages to the Americas, and the second cast its attention mostly on Asia: India Occidentalis and India Orientalis, respectively, as they were sometimes referred to by de Bry and his colleagues in the world of the early modern book. A textual and graphic enterprise of grand scope and ambition, these folio volumes collected together in a single series, reprinted for a broad audience, edited into a coherent whole, and, above all, illustrated in elaborate engravings the major voyages of Renaissance Europe. They established, furthermore, a pattern of publication in the field of geography and circulated an iconography of the exotic world that would have an afterlife among and an impact on Europeans for years to come.

For a work of such truly monumental significance in the development of print, the advancement of the graphic arts, the narration of overseas history, and much more, the de Bry collection has gone, if not unnoticed, at least relatively understudied. The volumes were first printed in Latin and soon after in a German edition; while this may not have been an impediment in the early modern period, it has been an obstacle perhaps for modern scholars. Moreover, the superficial and utterly incorrect assumption that the texts handled and edited by de Bry correlate more or less directly to the originals—which were often in other languages, invariably in other formats, and commonly with other paratexts—has led scholars astray. De Bry’s complex enterprise of textual emendation and reformulation has gone almost wholly unremarked by critics, who have been satisfied simply to note the circulation of this or that important text from the age of discovery, without examining more closely the form in which the de Brys delivered that text. The images, furthermore, have taken on a life of their own, both among scholars without the patience to sort out their original contextual and iconographic significance and, worse still, among textbook publishers on the lookout for good pictures on (especially) the European-Indian encounter (the Americana has been much more popular than the Asiana). A sophisticated, if idiosyncratic, study by the structuralist anthropologist Bernadette Bucher long stood as the only full-length analysis of the volumes, yet this work paid only meager attention to the texts themselves, concentrating almost exclusively on the sensational images of (chiefly American) anthropophagy (Bernadette Bucher, Icon and Conquest: A Structural Analysis of the Illustrations of de Bry’s Great Voyages, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981). A more recent study by Anna Greve takes a less narrowly interpretive approach, yet confines itself, once again, to visual materials and to Americana (Anna Greve, Die Konstruktion Amerikas: Bilderpolitik in den Grands Voyages aus der Werkstatt de Bry, Europäische Kulturstudien, Bd. 14, Köln: Böhlau, 2004). Greve does make the important observation that de Bry’s book project appealed across confessional lines, and this corrects a long-standing misinterpretation that imagined the travel collection as expressly Protestant, or even Calvinist, publications of a polemical nature. (For a recent and fairly typical version of this misreading, see Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra’s study of “Puritan conquistadors,” which cites de Bry as a “rabid” Protestant, hell-bent on demonizing the Spanish.)1

Michiel van Groesen thus does a great service to the field with his new study, The Representations of the Overseas World in the De Bry Collection of Voyages (1590–1634), which tries to adopt a more holistic approach to these materials. Indeed, the author’s broad approach and his promise to reread the “Voyages” in their entirety, with fresh eyes, is his chief selling point. Van Groesen takes as his subject the totality of the de Bry collection, in both its plentiful words and copious images, in its coverage of America as well as Asia (Africa, however, does get slighted), and, perhaps most essentially, in its Latin as well as German editions. It is crucial that this last point be highlighted: distinctions between the two editions do suggest some sort of ideological bent, yet not the sort of politically incendiary agenda that some scholars have glibly assigned to the volumes. More broadly speaking, the juxtaposition of the two sets of voyages (America and Asia), the two editions of the collection (Latin and German), and the textual and visual program of the publication offers an opportunity to observe the inner workings and strategies of a premier printing house and print (engraving) manufacturer in early modern Europe; and van Groesen provides the most complete study to date of the operations of the de Bry family in the field of geography.

This amounts to quite a bit, if not quite as much as might be expected. Van Groesen’s bulky volume includes an excellent history-cum-biography of the de Bry family and their publishing house (chapters 2–4), followed by single-chapter reviews of the contents of the “Voyages,” organized thematically: flora and fauna, indigenous peoples, and religious practices (chapters 5–8). There are also chapters on the effect of censorship on the collection, the circulation of the volumes—a somewhat tepid consideration of “readership,” yet not much on reception—and the afterlife of the texts and images in printed materials (chapters 9–11). No unifying thesis runs through these chapters, yet van Groesen does invoke on several occasions the idea of "alterity"—a central thesis, ironically, of Boucher’s book, which van Groesen briskly dismisses. This is identified as an important facet of the de Bry oeuvre, yet it is never really developed in any substantive or theoretical framework. In this sense, the whole of van Groesen’s study is less than the sum of its mostly descriptive, rather than analytical, parts.

Another important theme, as noted, pertains to the distinctions between the German and Latin editions, and here van Groesen makes his most valuable contribution. By comparing the two editions and identifying the subtle, yet telling, divergences between them, he is able to identify certain more “sensational” interests in the German volumes—which come under the rubric of "wonders"—and a greater engagement by the vernacular text with the confessional conflicts of the day. These insights, however, are left largely undeveloped, resulting in an account that is more of a description than an investigation of the volumes’ contents.

And this underscores the central shortcoming of the book. In a sense, the problem with van Groesen’s approach is that he lacks a problem: the book does not explore a question, a theme, or an event, but rather a series of books and the fact of their publication. Rather than offering a histoire total of the de Bry series (as was recently undertaken, for example, in Ann Blair’s excellent study of Jean Bodin’s 1596 Universae naturae theatrum [Ann Blair, Theater of Nature: Jean Bodin and Renaissance Science, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997]), or a thorough-going exploration of the early modern world of print (cf., Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), or an analysis of the splendid graphic work of the series and its phenomenally influential iconography (to my mind, the most obvious way to treat de Bry’s material, its most sensible organizing principle, and the aspect of the collection most in need of focused research), van Groesen takes a more basic bibliographic approach. He enumerates publications, compares editions, describes contents (of the text; he shows markedly less concern with visual matters). Yet only reluctantly does he approach the larger themes suggested by the sources at hand or engage with the analytical issues related to the use of de Bry’s collection—its reception, consumption, and broader effect on seventeenth-century conceptions of the world. This is a study focused on production and therefore tells only half of the story. This is a study that, again and again, asks “what” rather than “why.”

The distinction here may be one between the old book history and the new. Van Groesen is clearly interested in books and their production, and he opens his study with a lengthy anecdote on Thomas Jefferson and the latter’s acquisition of de Bry’s collection for his personal library. It is an anecdote carefully told—we learn everything one needs to know about Jefferson’s “bibliomania,” as van Groesen terms it—yet perhaps it misses the bigger point. We learn little about how these volumes informed the future president’s most important engagement with narrative geography, namely the commission of the Lewis and Clark voyages and their famous journals; and we learn little about the way the form of earlier publications may have shaped the meaning of Jefferson’s later projects of American “discovery.” We learn little about what Roger Chartier terms “poaching,” about books as material objects (a line of inquiry pioneered by Donald McKenzie), about paratexts (Gérard Genette’s contribution to the field), and so on. Van Groesen avoids discussions of form (of the volumes themselves, their impressive dimensions and lavish production) and how this informed meaning—an odd oversight, given the singularly impressive form of de Bry’s geography collections. Regrettably, too, there is minimal discussion of the form of the engravings—as pictures and visual representations per se.

There is, nonetheless, much to recommend this book. As a bibliographic contribution, van Groesen’s study succeeds admirably in laying out the process of de Bry’s book production. The appendices on de Bry’s publications and source material are excellent. Also, Brill is to be commended for reproducing close to a hundred images and handling line art relatively well. The book brings together much valuable material on de Bry’s collection, and it will be an invaluable point of departure for future studies. The publisher might have done due diligence in terms of editing, however. The book reads, to those familiar with the genre, like a Dutch dissertation—which, after all, it is. Yet this means that it brings together much important archival material, it amasses considerable bibliographic material, and it sets the scholarly agenda for studies still to come.

Benjamin Schmidt
Giovanni and Amne Costigan Endowed Professor, Department of History, University of Washington

1 Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, Puritan Conquistadors: Iberianizing the Atlantic, 1550–1700 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), which refers to de Bry “as one of the most rabid critics of the Spanish colonization of the New World” (54) and (somewhat anachronistically) as a “Protestant intellectual” (160).

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