Stephanie Leitch, Mapping Ethnography in Early Modern Europe (2010)

Winner of the Sixteenth-Century Society’s “Roland H. Bainton Prize” for 2011 for best book in Art History

Mapping Ethnography in Early Modern Europe is the first book-length examination of the role of prints in mediating Europe’s knowledge of the natives of the “new worlds” of America, Africa and Asia. Nascent expressions of cultural relativism have been attributed to Albrecht Dürer’s keen eye when he stood rapt before the Aztec treasures brought back by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1520 and pronounced the marvels he saw there “better than the Prodigies,” using a trope that connected them to wonders and prodigious occurrences. For at least a decade prior to Dürer’s spellbound gaze, two printmakers from the south German town of Augsburg, Hans Burgkmair and Jörg Breu, had used the natives of Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Americas as subjects for printed illustration. The prints of these Augsburg artists were the first to release these peoples from the shackles of an exotic visual tradition that had grouped them together with monstrous races, wild men, and barbaric Others, and considered them instead as fully human.

Burgkmair and Jörg Breu made unparalleled efforts to produce accurate renderings of natives of Africa, India and the New World. Their woodcuts accompany locally printed travel accounts, a genre for which conventional representations of monstrous races and fictitious exotics had historically sufficed. Burgkmair and Breu created a novel language of representation that expressed the distinctive and unique qualities of non-European peoples. Mapping Ethnogrphy collects and analyzes a range of materials—maps, broadsheets, prints, physiognomies—which shaped a new visual technology and a new proto-scientific ethnography, in a climate shaped by German humanism, the art of the Italian Renaissance, and mercantile interests in new worlds.