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Portraits from the Age of Exploration: Selections from Andre Thevet's Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres.

Roger Schlesinger, ed. Trans. Edward Benson. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 1993. 14 pls. + ix + 159 pp. $24.95.

This volume furthers Schlesinger's welcome efforts, begun by his masterful edition, with Arthur Stabler, of Andre Thevet's North America (Kingston, 1986), to make the works of this key French cosmographer accessible to readers of English. The last of Thevet's works published during his lifetime, Les vrais pourtraits (Paris, 1584) could well be said to be his crowning achievement. Printed on folio and beautifully illustrated with over 200 copperplate engravings accompanied by biographical sketches of variable length, this ambitious and costly book was obviously meant to rival that most popular of contemporary publications, Jacques Amyot's translation of Plutarch's Lives. Such expectations were, of course, unrealized and this lavish work has been reprinted only twice since 1584, although many of the portraits have been individually reproduced elsewhere. This dismal publishing history should not, however, preclude an understanding of the work's importance and influence for its extensive portrayal of contemporary as well as historical figures and for its placement of those personages within an unprecedented global context that juxtaposes Amerindian kings with Islamic sultans and European princes.

Unfortunately, what is necessarily lost in any such selection is the cosmopolitanism evinced by this grandiose portrait gallery. Schlesinger's interest in attitudes towards the New World makes his choice understandable, of course, and Thevet's portraits of Pizarro, Cortes, Albuquerque, Columbus, Vespucci and Magellan provide an invaluable glimpse into contemporary perceptions of those figures. The first three are taken from Book V of Les vrais pourtraits, devoted to those made famous through feats of arms. Thevet's defense of Pizarro's actions, while acknowledging his atrocities, thus appears within the context of defining military prowess. The other portraits are from Book VI, which features great cartographers, inventors and mathematicians. Thus, while Pizarro, Cortes and Albuquerque emblematize heroic ideals of valor and chivalry, Columbus, Vespucci and Magellan take their place within what is, in true humanist fashion, by far the largest group of "illustrious men," namely those reputed for their learning and vision.

All six Native American figures Schlesinger has included -- namely Atabalipa, Montezuma, Nacol-absou, Paracoussi, Quoniambec and Satouriona -- are taken from the final volume of Vrais pourtraits, which presents such important "pagan" leaders as Julius Caesar, Saladin, Tamerlane and Barbarossa, along with the above. What this grouping confirms is the primacy of religious difference in the sixteenth-century European understanding of other cultures. Schlesinger's notes are especially useful here, as he details the Catholic Thevet's interpretive war with Huguenot scholars and especially Jean de Lory, whose own depiction of the Tupinamba Quonianbec is not only at odds with Thevet's but prompts mutual declarations of falsity and deception.

The entire question of representation lies, of course, at the heart of this collection, as the aged cosmographer strives to defend himself from accusations of plagiarism and mendacity. For those unacquainted with Thevet's work and career, Schlesinger provides an introduction detailing the cosmographer's life and writings, as well as an excellent short summary of Thevet's stormy "fortune" among scholars, from the traditional castigation of his work to the recent reappraisals found in Lestringant, Whatley and others. The illustrations are clearly reproduced, with a helpful view of the surrounding text. A bibliography and an index round out this volume, well translated by Edward Benson who carefully maintains clarity and readability while giving a good sense of Thevet's colorful vocabulary and meandering prose style. This volume thus makes an invaluable contribution to the study of the European explorations, one that leads to a more nuanced and complex view of the encounter between Old and New Worlds.
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Author:Van Den Abbeele, Georges
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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