“It Seems Their Voices Are Still in My Ears”
Picturing a Tupinambá Dance in 1592
FOR TWO MONTHS DURING LATE 1557 and early 1558, the Frenchman Jean de Léry lived among the Tupinambá Indians along the Brazilian coast, near modern-day Rio, and carefully observed and recorded the details of their physical appearance, language, culture, and natural surroundings. Léry, however, had not come to Brazil with the intention of studying the native population. His initial purpose was to found a Protestant mission on a small island in Guanabara Bay, where the French had established a colony to protect their interests in the brazilwood trade. Léry and his fellow Calvinist missionaries had been sent from Geneva at the request of the colony’s leader, Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon, but shortly after their arrival, the fickle Villegagnon reverted to Catholicism, banished Léry’s party from the island, and eventually put three of them to death. These events meant the failure of the first Reformed mission in the Americas, but thanks to Léry’s two-month exile on the mainland, they fortunately led to a remarkable work of early modern travel literature, Histoire d’un voyage faict en la terre du Brésil (1578). Claude Lévi-Strauss, recalling his own arrival in Rio in 1935 with Léry’s book in his pocket, dubbed this vivid sixteenth-century account of Tupí culture the “anthropologist’s breviary.”
Perhaps the most memorable moment in Léry’s narrative comes in the chapter entitled “What One Might Call Religion Among the Savage Americans.” Here the author describes a Tupinambá ritual performed by “five or six hundred men dancing and singing incessantly,” men who produce such harmony in their chants that Léry is finally overwhelmed: “I stood there transported with delight. Whenever I remember it, my heart trembles, and it seems their voices are still in my ears.” In a foundational essay on Léry’s text, Michel de Certeau treats this moment as “the equivalent of a primal scene in the construction of ethnological discourse.” Léry, writing at a distance of twenty years and six thousand miles from his initial experience of the dance, invokes an original but irretrievable orality, a sound unavailable to his pen but nevertheless generative of the very text he creates. Hereafter, de Certeau argues, ethnological writing will be the effort to recover this lost, embodied speech. It is a compelling reading of Histoire d’un voyage and justifies its Lévi-Straussian nickname, but in the present chapter, I wish to ask whether de Certeau’s take on Léry’s text can be transposed into a visual key. To what extent might this reaching toward the voice help us to understand the efforts of Europeans to picture the alterity of the so-called “New World”? We are fortunate to have an image that raises the question for us, an engraving of the very dance whose sounds so powerfully moved Léry (Plate 1).
Engraved in the workshop of the Flemish printmaker and publisher Theodor de Bry for his 1592 and 1593 Latin and German editions of Léry’s narrative, the illustration appears in the third part of America, an enormously successful series of illustrated Protestant travel accounts published by the de Bry firm between 1590 and 1634. Although the engraving is based on a woodcut from the original 1578 edition of Léry’s book (Figure 1.1), de Bry’s 1592 version significantly expands on his model, transforming the single figure standing in back into three, the single dancer in front into a circle of sixteen, and enclosing all of them within the interior of a grass hut. De Bry’s Tupinambá dancers wear little clothing, although nearly everyone is adorned with minced feathers glued directly to their skin, a feather ornament called an arayoye that is worn over the lower back, and tinklers on their lower legs made by filling the dried fruit of the calabash tree with small stones. All the figures in the outer ring show the same uniform stance, and the right foot of each of those on the near side is raised slightly above ground level, casting a shadow where it is about to fall. We can imagine the sound that is about to come, the thud and the rattling as they all drop their feet on the dirt in unison. “They stood close to each other,” Léry writes, “without holding hands or stirring from their place, but arranged in a circle, bending forward, keeping their bodies slightly stiff, moving only the right leg and foot, with the right hand placed on the buttocks, and the left hand and arm hanging: in that posture they sang and danced.”
The rhythmic but stationary movement of the men is regulated by the trio at the center of de Bry’s engraving, who are costumed differently than the rest. In contrast to the bald pates of the dancers, these shamans, called caraïbes, wear feathered headdresses. Whereas the dancers are bare but for the feathers attached to their bodies, these men wear feathered belts and heavy feathered capes. Clearly men of authority, they wield tokens of their power. Two of them hold large tobacco cigars through which they blow puffs of smoke composed of freely swirling lines that counter the rational contours defining bodies and architecture (Figure 1.2). Léry describes how these shamans, while anointing the dancers with this intoxicating vapor, “would say to them, ‘So that you may overcome your enemies, receive all of you the spirit of strength.’” In addition, each of these central figures holds in his hand a large ovoid object, a dried gourd that has been attached to a stick and decked with its own feathered headdress. This they call the maraca, Léry tells us, and in order to make the spirit speak through it, they shake it incessantly. The anthropomorphic forms of the maracas echo the heads of the three central figures, particularly that of the middle shaman, who forms the pivot of the composition. It is a formal arrangement that asks the viewer to contemplate the authority of this strange object and this strange figure, an authority that would appear to govern all that happens within the hut.
The viewer of de Bry’s engraving takes all of this in from an elevated vantage point that echoes Léry’s own privileged point of view. Léry explains that, when first approaching the hut, attracted to it by the sounds of the chanting men, he made an opening in its grass covering “in order to see as well as I might wish.” De Bry in fact includes this makeshift peephole in the upper left corner, as a reminder of how his viewer is meant to see: this is our peep show. But seeing is not enough for Léry; he wants to get closer. He is so compelled by the sound of the dance that he and his two companions, a fellow missionary named Jacques Rousseau and a Norman interpreter who had lived among the Tupinambá for six or seven years, enter the hut physically and retire into a corner, where they can observe the dance at their leisure (see Figure 1.2). Unnoticed by the Tupí men, and thus still enjoying their peep show, the three Frenchmen engage in conversation as the man on the right points to the dancers while the other two hold out their hands in gestures that signify an animated dialogue about the significance of the ritual they witness. There are no clear markers that identify the men individually, but it would be reasonable to assume that Léry is the central figure, who wears a robe that sets him apart from the two men in doublets, and who is the only one to face the viewer. Here, in the corner of the hut, stands our own authority, an eyewitness trained to look and to listen in John Calvin’s Geneva, and through whose eyes and ears we experience this New World spectacle.
As Léry describes it, the dance revolves around the power of the caraïbes to hold the common people under their spell, making them believe that a spirit speaks to them through the maracas. In this respect, Léry is a disenchanter of the dance, an iconoclast out to expose false idols. His account of the ceremony, however, is of interest not only for its critique of religious superstition but also as a particularly evocative passage in which Léry, with trembling heart, is transported by the sounds of the chanting, bewitched by the dancers as the dancers themselves are bewitched by the sound of their speaking gourd. Directly below the illustration in de Bry’s Latin edition, we encounter Léry’s transcription of the chant: “Heu, heura, heura, heura, heura, heura, heura, heura, ouech,” and in order to make the “measured harmonies” of these words resound in his reader’s ears as powerfully as they do in his own, Léry records the chant in musical staff notation (see Plate 1). Sixteen notes are arranged in a regular, descending pattern on a single staff across the bottom of the page, in counterpoint with the sixteen bodies pictured above, arranged in their regular, circular pattern.
De Bry’s image leaves us in an ambivalent position. On the one hand, it presents itself as an unveiling of religious superstition in which we experience the dance as a liberation of our own senses from the smoke and false speech of the caraïbes. This liberation occurs both optically, insofar as we occupy the commanding perspective figured by the hole in the wall, and discursively, in the sense that we become, through our reading of Léry’s text, virtual participants in the demystifying discussion that takes place in the upper right corner of the hut. The rational speech among the French observers of the dance, as Léry explains in his text, is directed toward the author’s own comprehension of the chants, as he asks his Norman interpreter for clarification on their meaning. Occupying this privileged position of rationality, we come to understand our own status precisely as freedom from the dancers’ condition of bewitchment. On the other hand, this eminently rational visualization of the dance enacts its own magic. Through its formal characteristics and through its correspondence to Léry’s verbal effusions on the beauty of the chants, the engraving conjures the lost sound of the dance, a sound the author represents as opaque speech: the “heura, heura, heura” of the dancers. It is not going too far to say that de Bry puts his image before his viewer and shakes it, as if it were itself a maraca, so that he might leave the sounds of a Tupinambá dance ringing in our ears. If the hole in the wall is one figuration of the viewer’s standpoint before the image, then the maraca at the center is a second, competing figuration: it stands for the image that speaks to us in order to enchant us with its magic.
Art historians tend to be skeptical of such sounds. Faced with an image’s call for participation, we are more likely to retire into the corner in search of historical explanation. In the following pages, my aim is to unsettle this comfortable scholarly distance by focusing on the de Bry engraving’s undecidability about its own status as an image of enchantment or disenchantment. My path begins with a detour through the circular dance and a recently restored painting of Native Americans completed only two years after Columbus made his first landing in the West Indies. It then comes back around to de Bry’s Tupinambá dance, to the question of its sounds, and to the challenge of keeping our balance before it.
Dancing in Circles
The circular dance runs through the art of early modern Europe as a distinctly ambivalent motif. Often focused around a central object or figural group, it makes for dynamic compositions by linking moving figures through multiple spatial planes, even as it condemns as pagan superstition this very impulse to enliven a visual image. Its paradigmatic instance is the Israelites’ worship of the golden calf, witnessed by Moses after he has descended from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the law. During his descent, Moses, like Léry, first becomes aware of voices raised in song: “I do heare the noise of singing.” When he finally stands at the base of the mountain and sees with his own eyes that his people have broken the first two commandments—“Thou shalt have none other gods before me” and “Thou shalt make thee no graven image”—he casts the tablets to the ground in his fury, breaking them to pieces. A version of the story done by the Flemish engraver Jan Sadeler (after Crispijn van den Broeck), published in 1585 in Gerard de Jode’s Thesaurus sacrarum historiarum veteris testamenti, focuses our attention on the debauchery of the men, women, and even children who lose themselves in drink, music, and dance while worshiping the idol they have fashioned in their leader’s absence (Figure 1.3). Renaissance writers interpreted the Israelites’ idolatry as a reversion to the worship of the Egyptian bull deity Apis, who oversees this scene of sensual abandon from his perch atop a column. The placement of the Apis bull on a column and the circular format of the dance are common elements of the subject’s iconography, even though they are not mentioned in Exodus. Their origin instead lies in a pictorial formula established during the Christian Middle Ages that equates the statue on a column with the pagan idol. The sculpture in the round raised above the people is not merely an image to be seen with their eyes, but one that invites them to move their bodies around it. It promotes circular dances of the type we see in Sadeler’s print, dances that lack priestly mediation and stand in contrast to the frontality associated with Christian worship.
The dance around the golden calf was depicted by numerous artists during the sixteenth century, its popularity fueled by the heightened awareness of images and their dangers that accompanied the Protestant Reformation. Most spectacular among these treatments is surely Lucas van Leyden’s 1530 altarpiece in the Rijksmuseum (Plate 2). The foreground of the central and side panels immediately draws us in with its sensuality and lush colors, as a variety of ostentatiously dressed figures seek gratification of their carnal appetites. It is only after we have lingered over their feast that we come to discern the actual subject of the painting in the middle distance: the golden calf surrounded by a group of wildly gesticulating dancers and a second group dancing in a ring to their right. Eventually, we perceive in the background the tiny figure of Moses, standing at the foot of the smoking mountain with the tablets raised in his hands. Although Sadeler’s composition does not push Moses quite so far into the distance, it similarly lures us in with drink and dance before we have the opportunity to absorb the story’s moral. Both pictures complicate our understanding of how the pagan idol might inform the Christian viewer’s response to the visual image, because, despite the nominal focus on the Mosaic prohibition on making and worshiping idols, it is precisely a pagan idol that activates these pictures. It is in relation to the golden calf, raised on its column, that dancers and revelers become animated and in turn animate the beholder. It is not enough, therefore, to say that these pictures reference or represent pagan worship. It would be more accurate to say that they come to life around the idol and demand a response from us, if not a response of idolatry, then at least one that is emotional, embodied, and participatory. They call out our inner pagan, as it were, if only to teach it a lesson.
Should we dance in circles with the revelers, or observe at a critical distance with Moses? If the pictures by Sadeler and Lucas van Leyden do not, and perhaps cannot, offer a definitive answer to this question, sixteenth-century reformers were quite clear about their views. John Calvin saw the devil at work in those who “hoppe and daunce like stray beasts.” Huguenot and Puritan critics found the circular dance to be particularly deserving of censure. Lambert Daneau, author of the Traité des danses (1579), compares the ridiculous motions of such dances to “a circle, the center of which is the devil, and the whole circumference his angels.” Morris dances were singled out in this criticism. Commonly performed in circular formats with exaggerated movements that included leaping and mock fighting as dancers beat time with instruments and wore dancing bells around their ankles or wrists, morris dances were seen by Elizabethan Puritans as relics of paganism. In the visual arts, they sometimes appear as Renaissance equivalents to the dance around the golden calf. A print entitled “Dance of the World,” published in Antwerp around 1600 by de Bry’s contemporary Joan Baptista Vrints finds in the morris dance a metaphor for human vanity (Figure 1.4). A direct reference to the Mosaic story can be found in the lower left corner, where the tablets of the law lay neglected on the floor along with a bridle and pitchers for water and wine, symbols of temperance. At the center of the dance stands Lady World, wearing a globe on her head and holding a bubble to signify the brevity of human life, while six dancers symbolizing foolish human traits make wild gestures as they circle around their empty idol. Jean de Léry encountered such dancers in Brazil, where young men in the villages would dress up in their araroye, tie on their tinklers, take their maracas in hand, and go “leaping and dancing” through the village: “I was reminded of those over here whom we call ‘morris dancers,’ who, during the festivals of the patron saints in each parish, go about in fools’ garb, scepter in hand and bells on their legs.”
Because of its associations with pagan idolatry and human folly, the circular dance was a favorite subject in the European pictorial response to the American encounter. The engraving of Léry’s “morris dancers” surrounding the caraïbes is one of numerous circular compositions in de Bry’s America. The first volume, which reprints Thomas Harriot’s Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, features a large engraving entitled Their danses which they vse att their hyghe feastes (Figure 1.5). Harriot’s Report was the only one of de Bry’s volumes to be published in an English edition, and this plate would likely have put its English audiences in mind of the circular dances performed at Whitsun ales and May games. It also establishes a clear link to pagan precedents through the classical motif of the three graces, who appear at the center of the dance as “three of the fayrest Virgins” in the village. The young women embrace, turn about, and set the figures around them into motion. Among the carved posts in the outer ring, which the caption compares to “the faces of Nonnes couered with theyr vayles,” the men and women of Virginia “dance, singe, and vse the strangest gestures that they can possiblye devise.” The format of the circular dance remained popular in illustrated works on the Americas. It appears, for example, in many of Bernard Picart’s illustrations for Jean Frédéric Bernard’s landmark work of comparative religion, Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde (1723–1743). In one of Picart’s plates, a burning pyre serves as the focus of Bacchic revelers in New France who sacrifice their possessions to the great spirit “Quitchi-Manitou” (Figure 1.6). Picart’s image stands as evidence of Bernard’s thesis that the world is full of “vulgar and abject Souls” unable to “raise their Minds to what is most sublime and mysterious in Religion.” There can be no doubt that such depictions are intended to disenchant New World religion by exposing it as pagan superstition, but with no less certainty, we can say that these lively pictures by de Bry and Picart want from us something more than our contempt.
Recent evidence suggests that Europeans associated the pagan dance with America from the moment of the earliest encounters. In 2013, a fresco in the Borgia apartments in the Vatican made the news for a previously overlooked detail. In a scene of the Resurrection in the Hall of the Mysteries of the Faith, completed in 1494 by Pinturicchio (Bernardino di Betto), the figure of the risen Christ, holding in his left hand his banner of victory over death, stands on a cloud above his empty tomb and in front of an opulent mandorla comprised of gilt stucco studs. (Figure 1.7) To the left kneels Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia), and to the right are the Roman soldiers who had been guarding the tomb. One of the four soldiers kneels behind the tomb while looking directly up at the risen Christ, and next to his head we can make out a group of much smaller, naked figures (Plate 3). Painted in fresco secco, they have faded over time and now appear somewhat translucent against the lush green landscape. At the front of the group are the two most clearly defined figures. The foremost of them faces the viewer, his arms and legs in motion, his headdress forming a crown of undulating rays around his face. The other stands in profile with his head downturned and his right arm raised so that it blocks our view of his face. In his right hand he grasps a tall spear or pike around which five or six figures seem to be moving, perhaps dancing, in a clockwise motion.
Pinturicchio’s frescoes in the Borgia apartments have recently undergone extensive restoration, and even though these ghostly figures in the background of the Resurrection had been visible previously, the cleaning of the painting has brought them into the spotlight and prompted a new interpretation of their identity. In April 2013, the head of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci, announced their “discovery” in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore romano: “Against the background of the Resurrection, just behind the soldier struck by the prodigious event, you see figures of naked men, adorned with feathers, seeming to dance.” Paolucci suggests that these figures are consistent with Columbus’s description of the people he encountered in the Caribbean on his first voyage, and are thus perhaps Europe’s “first pictorial representations of Native Americans.” In his letter on his first voyage, which was available in Latin, Spanish, and Italian editions by 1494, Columbus does describe the natives as all going “naked, as their mothers bore them, men and women alike.” We also know that Alexander VI took an interest in Columbus’s voyage. There are good reasons, therefore, to agree with Paolucci’s assessment.
These revelations about Pinturicchio’s fresco were widely reported in the press with a certain breathlessness and a tendency toward free association. A reporter for National Public Radio, for example, who was not especially interested in the fact that it was the Taíno people Columbus encountered in 1492, noted that one of the figures “seems to sport a Mohican [hair]cut.” Even Paolucci’s identification of “men adorned with feathers” is a questionable leap, since Columbus’s letter, which was the only published account of his voyage at the time Pinturicchio was painting, does not mention feathers. The ottava rima edition of the letter by the poet Giuliano Dati does describe the natives as carrying spears and having well-adorned hair and beards, and despite the absence of beards among Pinturicchio’s figures, the painter may well have been influenced by Dati’s translation. But it is likely that Pinturicchio’s figures owe at least as much to another European discovery of the early 1490s as they do to Columbus: the Domus aurea of Nero with its grotteschi, the Roman ornaments composed of hybrid human, animal, and vegetal motifs that sparked a Renaissance revival of antique decoration. Pinturicchio was one of the first painters to take inspiration from these ornaments, as is evident, for example, in a detail from the ceiling of the Piccolomini Library in Siena Cathedral (Figure 1.8). The headdress of palmettes atop a hybrid creature’s mask-like face, a common element in grotteschi and one that became a Renaissance signifier of the exotic, closely resembles the crown of “feathers” surrounding the mask-like face of the central nude figure in the Vatican fresco. The point here is not to reject the influence of Columbus on Pinturicchio, but to suggest that Pinturicchio would have imagined the New World through his knowledge of pagan antiquity.
Such a pagan lens on the New World would be very much in keeping with the theological and humanist program of the Borgia apartments, which is based on typological relationships between Egyptian myth and Christianity. Next door in the Hall of the Saints, for instance, the ceiling shows the myth of Osiris and his living reincarnation, Apis. It is impossible to miss the connection between this sacred pagan bull and the golden Borgia bull, the family’s heraldic symbol that appears throughout the apartments, including in Pinturicchio’s ornamental band around the Resurrection (see Figure 1.7). These typological relationships establish the legitimacy of the Borgia papacy while enfolding pagan antiquity within the triumph of the Christian faith. Similarly, the inclusion of a “pagan” dance below Christ’s risen body amounts to an assertion that the New World must be known through its enclosure within Christian revelation, the central truth of which is Christ’s resurrection. The Christian status of the lands discovered by Columbus was a matter of concern to Alexander VI, and he made his position on it clear in his papal bull issued in May 1493, Inter caetera, in which the Pope calls for conversion of the natives. Desirous that “the name of our Savior be carried into those regions,” he writes to Ferdinand and Isabella, “we exhort you very earnestly . . . that . . . you purpose also, as is your duty, to lead the peoples dwelling in those islands to embrace the Christian profession; nor at any time let dangers or hardships deter you therefrom.” Understood in these terms, Pinturicchio’s painting is theologically consistent with other early images of New World peoples, like the Adoration of the Magi by the Portuguese painter Vasco Fernandes (Figure 1.9). Dating from 1501–2, this panel is one of eighteen that together make up an elaborate altarpiece for the cathedral in Viseu, Portugal. Here, the central king, a dark-skinned figure in European clothing but in Tupinambá headdress and carrying a large arrow or spear, advances with fluttering sleeves and tassels in a pose strikingly similar to Pinturicchio’s foremost dancer as he carries his gift of a silver-lined coconut shell toward the Christ child. A figure of New World difference, he moves toward sameness as he seeks incorporation within the body of Christ. Both Fernandes and Pinturicchio put the inhabitants of the New World into motion as details within larger theological programs that court paganism only to subordinate it to sacred history.
Yet the very depiction of these figures in a state of arrested movement has the potential to disrupt their tidy incorporation within a settled, Christian order. Aby Warburg showed in his 1893 dissertation on Sandro Botticelli that the Winckelmannian ideal of “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” fails to explain the visual and emotional volatility of pagan antiquity’s afterlife in fifteenth-century Italian art. In response to Leon Battista Alberti’s call for artists to convey movement through draperies that “fly gracefully through the air” or hair that “waves in the air like flames, twines around itself like a serpent, while part rises here, part there,” artists like Botticelli and Pinturicchio drew on antique pictorial formulas to depict outward “accessory” motion, putting the limits of their static medium to the test. One suspects Alberti would have approved of the flame-like tendrils rising from the head of Pinturicchio’s pagan dancer. In a fresco that is possibly the earliest European painting of the inhabitants of the Americas, and that is perhaps inspired by the recently unearthed ornaments from the Domus aurea, an ancient paganism is resurrected in a manner not unlike the resurrection of Christ himself. To include the dancing figures immediately above the empty tomb and below Christ, with the foremost figure’s pagan headdress echoed in the agitated, golden rays of light emerging from the resurrected Christ, is to make an assertion about what painting can do through the depiction of movement and gesture. Who can look at such figures and not see in them an art that aspires to reanimation? If a primary theological message of the Borgia apartments is the triumph of the Christian faith, Pinturicchio’s dancing figures call us back to a moment before painting becomes theology, to a moment of pagan revelry before Moses arrives on the scene and brings the dance to an end.
Experience versus Knowledge
In his influential book The Power of Images (1989), David Freedberg maintains that we should attend more closely, both theoretically and historically, to the psychological and behavioral responses that visual images elicit from viewers. In Freedberg’s view, this is a topic inadequately addressed in Western writing on art, which has typically treated such responses as embodied conditions that need to be overcome in favor of a proper critical stance: they are thought to be “unrefined, basic, preintellectual, raw,” in short, “primitive.” The pagan dance, as Freedberg himself shows, holds an especially fraught place within this long history of discomfort over visual response, for despite its manifest visual interest, much was at stake for Christian viewers in achieving a distance from its allurements. As I have suggested in the preceding discussion of Pinturicchio’s Resurrection fresco, the experience of the dance does not easily give way to knowledge about it. The same may be said about de Bry’s engraving of the Tupinambá dance. It is the product of an author and publisher who, though committed to achieving a critical perspective on their subject, place an equally high value on the immediacy of our sensory experience.
Histoire d’un voyage is very much a text about the challenge of extracting stable knowledge from individual experience. In his preface, Léry alerts us that what follows will be a definitively first-person account:
If someone finds it ill that hereafter, when I speak of savage customs, I often use this kind of expression—“I saw,” “I found,” “this happened to me,” and so on (as if I wanted to show myself off)—I reply that not only are these things within my own subject but also I am speaking out of my own knowledge, that is, from my own seeing and experience; indeed, I will speak of things that very likely no one before me has ever seen, much less written about.
Léry then immediately plunges us into a turbulent world of new experience as he and his companions sail out of Honfleur and into a stormy Atlantic: “Putting into practice what is said in Psalm 107, all of us, our senses reeling, staggered about like drunkards; the vessel was so shaken that no sailor, however skillful, could keep himself on his feet.” Psalm 107, which figures importantly in Léry’s text, as it does in Calvinist thought more generally, teaches that the many vicissitudes of this world are not to be attributed to the fickleness of fortune, but to God’s providence. “They that go downe to the sea in shippes,” writes the Psalmist, “are tossed to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and all their cunning is gone. Then they crye vnto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distress.” The waters that batter Léry at sea will indeed be pacified, but he will soon lose his footing again when he encounters the Tupinambá, who are at one moment a joyous people who laugh with Léry and welcome him into their society, but at the next, are cannibals cursed and abandoned by God. The sense of vertigo evoked in the Psalm’s imagery of shipwreck and deliverance is the leitmotif of Histoire d’un voyage, which never permits the reader a point of view outside the “I” of the author’s own tumultuous experience. Léry’s poise, writes Janet Whatley, “is the dynamic poise of one who can keep his balance on a rolling, pitching platform, who is supple enough to stagger and not fall, who is willing to be momentarily out of control.” To read the narrative is always to be in search of this balance, whether on the ocean or in a Brazilian hut where, repulsed and delighted, we reel with Léry between the rattling of maracas and the chanting of the Tupí dancers.
Léry’s narrative is a microcosm of the larger compilation in which de Bry published it, a heterogenous collection of texts that can induce a similar sense of vertigo in its reader. There is no single narrative or author standing behind de Bry’s America, nor do its thirteen volumes represent a single language or nationality: the first four volumes alone, published between 1590 and 1594, include narratives by English, French, German, and Italian voyagers. America is itself a sea of differing perspectives on the New World, and its pictures, the most distinctive feature and primary selling point of the publication, ask us to see through the eyes of its varied authors. Amidst all this visual evidence, we often find ourselves without secure footing. The texts in de Bry’s America, moreover, bear a complex relationship to the pictures, which do not merely reflect, but often jostle against the narratives. For example, the plates of the first volume, Harriot’s Briefe and True Report, which are based on original watercolors by the English painter John White, are notable for their careful articulation of a sovereign New World society, complete with its own “Cheiff Lordes” and “Chieff Ladyes.” Harriot’s text, however, is an advertisement inviting European readers to invest in an English colonial venture to a country ripe for settlement. How are we to reconcile these competing claims of pictures and text? The question must remain open because the many fragments of text and image that constitute de Bry’s America offer no omniscient voice that would resolve it. De Bry’s approach stands in contrast to histories of the Americas written under the patronage of the absolutist Spanish monarchy, such as Antonio de Herrera’s Historia general (1601–1615). Distilled from primary sources into a single master narrative and minimally illustrated, the Historia general suppresses all potentially competing claims to the sovereign authority of the Spanish crown. Even in Pinturicchio’s Vatican fresco, despite the experiential tug of its pagan dance, Christian doctrine and the transcendent authority of the Borgia papacy offer us a royal route to certain knowledge. For de Bry and Léry, however, the grand program of Christian salvation remains veiled and mysterious behind the fragmentary sights and sounds of the individual confronting the sensory evidence of the New World.
It is this emphasis on experiential encounter that makes de Bry’s America, at its core, a Protestant publishing venture. It has recently been argued that the anti-Catholicism of de Bry’s publications has been overstated, that de Bry did his best to tone down the antipathies toward Spain and Rome he surely felt as a Protestant exile from the Spanish Netherlands working in Frankfurt. And it is true that America, for the most part, is not a polemical text. The Léry volume, for example, plays down the author’s more stridently anti-Catholic passages and forgoes easy equations between Catholics and American idolaters in favor of a more generalized opposition between Christianity and an idolatrous New World paganism. This is surely a strategic decision on de Bry’s part that is intended to give his volumes wide, cross-confessional appeal. De Bry was also clearly attuned to doctrinal differences between the readerships of his two editions: a largely Protestant audience for the German translation, and for the Latin translation, a wide and scholarly European readership that included many Catholics. The full text of Psalm 107, for example, appears at the beginning of de Bry’s German edition of Histoire d’un voyage but is not included in the Latin. De Bry was an astute businessman, to be sure. Yet, despite this selective catering to confessions, the basic insight Calvinists found in Psalm 107 underwrites the whole of de Bry’s America, German and Latin editions alike. In this collection of texts that privilege an experiential confrontation with the verbal testimony and visual evidence of a hitherto unknown continent, the finding of a stable vantage point is a struggle left to the reader and to God’s providence.
In the Léry volume, this experiential groping toward knowledge involves both our eyes and our ears. Psalm 107 is introduced in de Bry’s German edition with the Latin motto “Plus videre quam habere.” “Better to see than to have” would be a literal translation of the phrase, but below the Latin, de Bry provides a German translation that does some interpretive work: “Erfahrung ist besser dann Gelt und Gut,” or “experience is better than money and goods.” The conflation of vision and experience in de Bry’s translation is significant. As a prelude to Psalm 107, the motto suggests that the evidence of our senses, and especially our eyes, can lead us, if we are wise, to a deeper knowledge of God’s judgments in the world. This is more than a principle reflecting Léry’s own commitment to direct observation; it stands as a justification for de Bry’s engravings, which serve as valuable experiential aids to our understanding.
Appearances, however, can be deceiving, and vision is therefore no substitute for the more noble sense that triggers Léry’s recollection of the Tupinambá dance. Protestant reformers took to heart the Pauline lesson that “faith is by hearing, & hearing by the worde of God.” For Martin Luther, Christ’s kingdom is a “hearing-kingdom” and not a “seeing-kingdom.” “The beginning of true doctrine,” writes Calvin, is “a prompt eagerness to hearken to God’s voice.” Hearing thus has the potential to transcend the uncertainties of visual experience. But hearing, because it too is a form of sensory experience, cannot always be trusted: there is the voice of God that is heard in the heart, and then there is “the outward voice of men.” For Léry, the maracas belong to the latter category. The chants of the dancers, on the other hand, open onto something more, onto an experience of alterity that resonates deeply within Léry, even though he cannot fully articulate it.
Although the chants remain elusive, Léry does attempt to decipher them with the help of the Norman interpreter. When he asks about their meaning, he is told that “at the beginning of the songs they had uttered long laments for their dead ancestors, who were so valiant, but in the end, they had taken comfort in the assurance that after their death they would go join them behind the high mountains, where they would dance and rejoice with them.” Léry is here referring to—and he remains an important source of anthropological knowledge about—the Tupinambá belief in a so-called “Land-without-Evil,” which was a central component of Tupí-Guaraní religion. Going from village to village, the caraïbes would lead massive rituals in which they called on people to give up their sedentary, agricultural existence and undertake arduous migrations in search of a mythic paradise, the Land-without-Evil. The caraïbes did this, moreover, not through proselytizing or doomsaying, but through a poetic speech they called ñe’ë porä, or “beautiful words.” These were a combination of unspoken melodies, chanted speech, and spoken words; they are the words that appear below de Bry’s engraving, translated into musical notation; they are the sounds that transport Léry “with delight.” And to reiterate a point made earlier, this musical speech should be understood in contrast to Léry’s own speech within the hut, when he talks with his interpreter so that he might master the dance through discourse, and thus transform it into an object of knowledge. Such an instrumental use of language is quite different from the language that bewitches Léry as opaque, felt sound, a sound whose power inheres not in its signification, but in its resonance. And, indeed, this is precisely the effect beautiful words were supposed to have. These were words fundamentally about their own sound. They constituted an entirely metaphorical speech, the purpose of which was to restore bonds between human beings and their mythical ancestors, and they did this wholly through their enunciation, not by designating or communicating in any ordinary way. As the anthropologist Hélène Clastres writes, they are words “intended for chant, not for knowledge.”
The sounds of the ceremony we witness in de Bry’s engraving, however, involve more than just beautiful words. The cult of the maraca is also central to the religion of the Land-without-Evil, and thus the maraca’s incessant sound, while far from beautiful to Léry’s ears, demands our attention as well. The significance of maracas within Tupinambá society had been noted since the earliest European accounts. Hans Staden, a German soldier taken captive by the Tupinambá for nine months in 1554, was the first to mention them. His Warhaftige Historia, or True History, was first published in 1557 and subsequently went through many editions, including those of the de Bry firm, which placed Staden’s narrative alongside Léry’s in the third part of America. The original edition of Warhaftige Historia was illustrated with simple woodcuts and includes the first European depiction of a maraca (Figure 1.10). Although Staden is sufficiently aware of the importance of this object within Tupinambá religion to give it its own illustration, he mistakes its actual function, stating that “they believe in a thing, which grows like a pumpkin,” a claim that reflects Staden’s belief that the maraca is itself a god for the Tupinambá, rather than a mediator that effects communication between a human and spirit world. The maraca was used by shamans during ceremonies such as the one we see in de Bry’s engraving, and for other purposes as well, whenever it was necessary to call on the spirit world. It resembled a human head with feathers for hair, as well as other features. As Staden notes, and as his illustration shows, they “cut a hole in it like a mouth; then they put in small pebbles so that it rattles” (the maracas carried by the caraïbes in de By’s engraving have feathers but no visible mouth). It could even have ears and eyes, and it sat atop an arrow that took the place of a neck. The caraïbes would breathe tobacco smoke through it so that it came out the orifices, and they would also speak through it; when they did this, it was understood that a spirit was speaking through the maraca.
In his account of the Tupinambá, the Calvinist Léry claims that the caraïbes use maracas to dupe the people, making them believe these objects are living beings that require food and drink. In a passage that de Bry expurgated from both of his editions, presumably so he would not offend any potential purchasers who favored Rome, Léry likens the caraïbes with their sacred rattles to itinerant indulgence sellers in Europe: “You could find no better comparison than to the bell-ringers that accompany those impostors who, exploiting the credulity of our simple folk over here, carry from place to place the reliquaries of Saint Anthony or Saint Bernard, and other such instruments of idolatry.” The maraca also makes a notable appearance on de Bry’s title page for Léry’s narrative, where it sits atop the architectural façade that provides our entry into the text (Figure 1.11). Here it becomes the centerpiece of a savage, and therefore inverted, social order, with Tupinambá dancers on either side falling prostrate before it in idolatrous devotion, a man and woman to either side devouring human limbs, and a cannibal feast over the boucan visible through the arched opening. Léry may fall under the spell of the “beautiful words” of the Tupinambá, and this is understandable in a Protestant who locates truth in the ineffable Word that reverberates beyond the outward evidence of the senses. Neither Léry nor de Bry, however, have any tolerance for the base speech of the maraca.
Like the iconoclast who demands of an image that it speak and then mocks it when it fails to respond, Léry and de Bry seek to silence the speaking images of Brazil, to show that they are gourds and nothing more. The ambivalence of this Protestant ethnography lies in its harnessing of the visual image to accomplish its work. De Bry’s engraving of the Tupinambá dance, invested as it is in disenchanting New World idols, seeks to debunk claims about the lifelikeness of one image by exploiting the power of another. The impulse behind the illustrations for de Bry’s America, after all, is to enliven the New World. The main title page to the Latin edition describes the engravings of Brazil as being ad vivum expressis, literally “expressed to the life.” The phrase ad vivum had become a common one by the second half of the sixteenth century. It described a picture (often a portrait, natural history illustration, or chorographic subject) that could claim a special epistemological authority based on an observer’s direct encounter with the object. It provided a standard of trustworthiness in an era when print was making visual information more accessible to broad audiences who wanted assurances of reliability. But in that stock phrase ad vivum is a suggestion of something more than a cool judgment on a picture’s veracity. Through the preposition ad, it signals a motion toward the thing itself. The naturalistically rendered image has the capacity to move us closer to a condition of lifelikeness. De Bry’s title page prepares us for a book in which images will take us as close as we can hope to get to the inhabitants of Brazil, so palpably that we can almost hear the chants of the dancers and the rattle of the maracas. But, once there and confronted with the folly of putting too much faith in mere images, we are distanced from the very life that the image made ad vivum would conjure. The experience of looking at de Bry’s engraving is a vertiginous, circular dance unto itself.
A Question of Perspective
To see the dance from a distance is to see it from the Mosaic viewpoint, that of the lawgiver in Sadeler’s print as he looks down upon the dance from his superior position on the mountain. We are asked to occupy this same position in de Bry’s engraving. Located above the dance, we are able to perceive its circular form, and thus bring to bear on it all the meanings that form carries with it. This is a commanding perspective into which we might read a good deal about vision and modernity. Its inaugural and epoch-defining moment occurs at the summit of Mount Ventoux in 1336, as the great humanist Francesco Petrarch takes in the sweeping view across the Alps from his Olympian perch. Its pictorial foundation is the costruzione legittima codified by Alberti in 1435 and later, at the moment of art history’s disciplinary founding, theorized by Erwin Panofsky as the symbolic form of the post-Renaissance world. Its significance within modernity is at once optical and ontological. It grants the individual visual control over the world while predicating that control on a self who exists at a distance from reality, who experiences the world as if seen from the outside, as a picture.
This point of view may also be described, when it enters the service of European colonialism, as an imperial gaze. Walter Mignolo has recently characterized de Bry’s America in these terms:
At the center of an expanding imperial Europe, as if standing upon a hill like future British travelers surveying the interior of Africa and South America, De Bry’s visual narrative complements contemporary world maps. . . . This world is a triumphal spectacle laid out before the viewer’s eyes; it is a confirmation of the superiority of Western Europe in the process of building its own imperial identity. De Bry’s gaze is the gaze of humanitas that looks across the world to observe the otherness of anthropos.
For Mignolo, de Bry is the bellwether of a colonial modernity grounded in Renaissance humanism and perspectivalism, and the consequence of this “logic of coloniality at work, hidden behind the triumphal rhetoric that De Bry’s engravings transmit,” is “a silence imposed upon the Other.” One might counter, however, that America offers only silence and unequivocal triumph if we insist on remaining atop the hill where de Bry initially places us, at a distance and out of earshot. Approached more closely, his engravings can be loquacious, cacophanous even, particularly when read in light of narratives and captions that invite multiple voices. There can be no question that de Bry’s America is entangled in what Mignolo calls a “colonial matrix,” one that was very much in-the-making in the 1590s, but the meaning of de Bry’s illustrations is far from settled within this matrix, and the generalizing concept of an “imperial gaze” driven by a power-hungry humanism cannot account for their ambivalent wavering between distance and proximity. The challenge, then, is not to expose a presumed imperial tyranny hidden behind de Bry’s America, but to seek our balance on this rocking ship while attending to the voices conjured by its words and pictures.
In Léry’s case, the desire to approach the dance more closely is manifest in the palpable sense we have that the hole in the wall, and therefore our optical distance as viewers, is not enough. As Léry explains in his narrative, he and his companions are not satisfied with it and go through the wall to enter bodily into the hut and stand amidst the performers. De Bry invites us to join them through his modifications to the original woodcut from the 1578 edition of Histoire d’un voyage. By multiplying the single dancer in the foreground of the earlier woodcut sixteen times and gradually rotating his body so we can see it from every angle of vision, de Bry counteracts our distanced gaze and asks us to experience the dance in the round. There is a well-established art-historical language for addressing such efforts to shift between two- and three-dimensional media, or between different modes of sensory experience. One could, for example, invoke the Renaissance comparison between painting and sculpture to explain de Bry’s efforts to render up a figure in three dimensions: by showing identical figures from multiple sides in a single composition, the artist produces an effect of relievo that outdoes the sculptor by revealing the full dimensionality of the dance all at once. The addition of color to de Bry’s engraving, which is not uncommon in surviving copies of America, including the example from the John Carter Brown Library illustrated in Plate 1, enhances this effect of lifelikeness by transcending the black-and-white of print or the coldness of stone. One might also invoke the comparison between painting and poetry to understand the way in which de Bry’s picture competes with language’s capacity (in this case, the chants of the dancers) to speak to us. It is not difficult, however, to see the limitations of such paragoni, concepts that are so caught up in the efforts of Renaissance humanism to rescue painting from the mechanical arts that they fail to account for the strangeness, and one might even argue the magic, of a Renaissance pictorial naturalism that was one of the chief means by which Europeans sought contact with the inhabitants of the Americas.
A more helpful language would be to think of de Bry’s picture not as a “representation,” a concept that reduces the copy to a second-order status in relation to the original, but rather as an act of “mimesis.” Mimesis is not to be understood here in the limited and general sense of illusionistic imitation in the visual arts, but as the specifically “primitive” form of imitation theorized by nineteenth-century anthropologists like Edward Tylor:
Man, in a low stage of culture, very commonly believes that between the object and the image of it there is a real connexion, which does not arise from a mere subjective process in the mind of the observer, and that it is accordingly possible to communicate an impression to the original through the copy. We may follow this erroneous belief up into periods of high civilization, its traces becoming fainter as education advances.
Mimesis, conceived in these terms, refers to the way the senses penetrate into the world in order to inhabit its otherness. It is a kind of knowing that refuses reflective distance and instead insists on an intrinsic and corporeal connection, often understood in terms of occult sympathies, between an imitation and the thing it imitates. The maraca can stand as one obvious example: by giving the gourd hair, a mouth, and eyes, the Tupinambá endow it with a life of its own; it speaks and eats.
Although mimetic behaviors of this sort appear throughout de Bry’s America in the idolatrous practices of New World pagans, our perspective on mimesis is not always that of Mignolo’s humanitas looking out upon its primitive anthropological other. In the illustrations to the second part of America, which is an account of the short-lived French Huguenot colony in Florida during 1564–1565, mimesis becomes a subject for reflection and cultural comparison. The engravings for the volume are based on drawings by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, a Huguenot artist who had been part of the expedition to northeast Florida and carefully observed the customs of the indigenous Timucua people. Le Moyne’s images occasionally juxtapose European and Timucuan behaviors, and just as Michel de Montaigne, in his essay “Of Cannibals,” finds in Tupinambá anthropophagy an occasion to reflect on European barbarism, Le Moyne appears less interested in establishing firm hierarchies across the Atlantic than in prompting his viewer to contemplate both variety and similarity in human customs. In one instance, he offers up his own artistic practice for such contemplation (Figure 1.12). In a plate entitled Cervorum venatio (“The Hunting of Deer”), Timucuan hunters approach their prey while disguising themselves in deerskins. As Le Moyne’s caption explains, this practice, one “which we had never seen before,” has the practical function of allowing the hunters to sneak up on the deer. The wearing of the skins also suggests the animalistic nature of the savage. But Le Moyne complicates the otherness of this New World practice in the reflections that appear in the stream running through the center of the composition, where the hunters and prey, whom we initially see as different (deer and men dressed as deer), become identical with each other. Surely Le Moyne is asking us, through this watery metaphor of art as a mirror of nature, to reflect on the similarity of his own imitative art to that of the Timucuans. To enter into this image, in other words, is to put it on like a second skin in our desire to be like. De Bry’s America is full of such invitations to clothe ourselves in New World difference.
The desire to put on the New World, rather than merely to represent it, was occasionally pursued with a striking literalism in early modern Europe. One of the more notable instances occurred in September 1550, as King Henri II of France and his queen, Catherine de’ Medici, made their royal entries into the city of Rouen. Such events were great mimetic spectacles. As the monarch traveled in a lavish procession that evoked a Roman triumph, an elaborate pageantry that included works of painting, sculpture, and tableaux vivants reanimated the past to establish the legitimacy of the sovereign in the present. In Henri’s entry, for example, his genealogical affiliation with the Trojan hero Hector, legendary founder of the French royal line, took the form of a “living” statue standing fifteen feet tall, from whose body spouted a plume of blood that created Henri’s insignia of a triple crescent. The most unusual aspect of Henri’s procession, however, was the living tableau that awaited the king when he reached the banks of the Seine on the outskirts of the city. There, he encountered a large meadow planted with natural and artificial shrubs and trees to look like a Brazilian forest, home to exotic birds, monkeys, and squirrels. Two villages of huts made from tree trunks had been constructed in the forest, and the whole scene was inhabited by fifty captive Tupí men and women who had been brought to France on merchant ships, along with another 250 Frenchmen who were as naked as the native Brazilians and participated in their activities. They ran after monkeys, fired arrows, rested in hammocks, chopped “brazilwood,” and carried it to the river to trade with French sailors. Amidst all of this, a battle broke out between two Brazilian tribes, and after furious fighting with arrows and clubs, the victors burned one of the villages to the ground. In an encore performance held the next day for the queen’s entrance, the second village was burned. Mock combats had traditionally been part of royal entries, but nothing like this had ever been seen previously. The king, it was reported, showed his enjoyment openly.
The king watched these events unfold from a scaffolding that had been set up to provide the best possible vantage point. Fully encompassed by Henri’s view, the entirety of this elaborate spectacle reflected back on the king as confirmation of his own sovereign authority. Most of France, of course, was not present for the royal entry in Rouen, and for this reason, a festival book was published in 1551 that sought to convey the king’s perspective to a wider audience. The volume, which includes detailed verbal descriptions and numerous woodcuts, presents the entry as an opulent but orderly affair glorifying Henri at every turn. One of the most elaborate woodcuts is a two-page panorama entitled Figure des Brisilians, in which the Brazilian forest is presented as at once Edenic, pagan, and violent (Figure 1.13). Among the many figures populating the scene are a man and woman reminiscent of Adam and Eve standing to the right, five nude figures dancing in a circle to the left, and the two tribes waging war on each other in the foreground. Numerous tiny figures throughout the forest are engaged in the various pursuits described in the text as the two Tupinambá villages burn in the distance. In short, there is much for the beholder to take in, but the power of the sovereign’s panoptic view lies precisely in its ability to manage this excess. Still, the overabundance of the scene prompts speculation on what a more proximate experience might have been like. If the woodcut places us at an imperial distance from the object of the king’s magisterial gaze, the performance itself aimed for a “real connexion” to its object by eliminating any distance whatsoever between sixteenth-century Brazil and a meadow along the banks of the Seine. Clothing themselves in the New World, the participants closed this distance with such fervor that they reduced their stage to ashes in the very pursuit of lifelikeness. As the author of the festival book describes the event, “it seemed to be real, and not simulated.”
The insatiable desire for likeness that animated the king’s entry into Rouen in 1550 suggests that we should question the primitivizing of mimesis by anthropologists like Tylor. And, indeed, writers such as Walter Benjamin and, more recently, Michael Taussig have taken mimesis out of Tylor’s nineteenth-century evolutionary framework by treating it as a universal human faculty that is no less at work in everyday language and modern technologies than in ancient dance or pagan ritual. Rarely, however, does historical scholarship entertain the ways in which this mimetic magic remains operative within a presumably disenchanted Western modernity. Yet, what is Léry’s own verbal mimicry of the Tupinambás’ beautiful words but a moment of ecstatic, sonorous alterity, a becoming-of-the-other from which he returns but that he also never forgets? And what is de Bry’s engraving but an effort to recover this sound through its invitation to enter into another’s skin and experience an alien world so fully we can hear it? Responding to this mimetic impulse does not, of course, mean that we should put all critical faculties on hold to pursue a fantasy of presentness existing outside of determining historical factors. Mimetic desire is hardly free from the violence of the colonial matrix. But it does mean that, when we look upon a sixteenth-century depiction of a Tupinambá dance from the critical distance of art history’s disciplinary scaffolding, we should be prepared to lose our balance.