America by Johannes Stradanus
Edward J. Gallagher
"Guiana is a countrey that hath yet her maydenhead." Sir Walter Raleigh,The Discoverie . . . of Guiana (1595)
"Here whole shires of fruitfull rich grounds, lying now waste for want of people, do prostitute themselves unto us, like a faire and beautifull woman, in the pride and floure of desired yeeres." Laurence Keymis, A Relation of the Second Voyage to Guiana (1596)
"Never again may mortal men hope to recapture the amazement, the wonder, the delight of those October days in 1492 when the New World gracefully yielded her virginity to the conquering Castilians." Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea (1942)
"I am not the wheatfield, / Nor the virgin land." Adrienne Rich (1975)
In the anti-imperialistic and gender-sensitive critical climate of the 1990s, the unfamiliar America (c. 1575-1580) by Johannes Stradanus (Jan Van der Straet) is making fair bid to replace more familiar images of our founding moment such as John Vanderlyn's Landing of Columbus (1844) as the heraldic shield for America, as the emblem of Discovery. Stradanus depicts a very European Americus Vespucci awakening and bestowing his name on a very naked Sleeping Beauty of a Native American. "Americus rediscovers America," the motto reads, "He called her but once and thenceforth she was always awake." Europe, Africa, and Asia had always been gendered female, but the image of a naked continent is virtually unique to America (le Corbelier), flourishing in the last quarter of the 16th century and persisting well into the 19th (Honour 91). This erotic image of the first contact of European Self and American Other is art as "the instrument of empire," indicative that America was "produced for Europe" (Hulme, Colonial 3,2) as a passive vulnerable female waiting for her lover/conqueror.
Stradanus was born in Bruges in 1523, progressed in 1545 to master artist in Antwerp--then "the largest and most active port city in Europe" and the publication site of some of the earliest travel books (le Corbelier 210)--after which he worked in Florence producing, before his death in 1605, a spectrum of religious art for wealthy patrons like Cosimo de Medici, as well as collaborating with the Galle family of engravers in Antwerp to produce two successful series of prints (not under consideration here is Venationes [Hunting Scenes], 1578)--sold as wall decorations and then bound into books--aimed at middle-class audiences (Dibner 3). America opens a twenty-part series of realistic prints called Nova Reperta (New Discoveries), published in the early 1580s, celebrating Renaissance progress in art, science, and technology, to which were appended four allegorical works on explorations by Columbus and Magellan as well as Vespucci under the title of Americae Retectio (America Rediscovered).
The setting in which America appears contributes to our understanding of its purpose and significance. Nova Reperta is not just a paean to progress in the European standard of living because of the discovery of the magnet and the cure for syphilis; or the invention of gunpowder, iron clocks, stirrups, the watermill, the winged mill, spectacles, the astrolabe, and oil paints; or the development of processes for breeding silkworms, distilling medicines, making olive oil, measuring longitude, and polishing armor. More to the point, Nova Reperta is a textbook of sorts, designed with educative purpose for wide distribution. "The picture that you see," one motto reads, "will teach you in very many ways the art in which sugar is made." And, furthermore, Nova Reperta is a series of windows into workshops, studies, studios, laboratories, throne rooms, city streets, and mill and farm yards through which common people can view a variety of common people busy making, using, or enjoying Progress. Nova Reperta, then, itself mass-produced through new methods of printing and engraving copper, is engaged in shaping the "vision" of a mass audience.
And that didactic appeal to a wide audience is precisely what makes the ideology of America so interesting, so heinous to a variety of modern critics. This is our inaugural naming moment seen through the naked "discourse of colonialism" (Hulme, Colonial 8), an example of "writing that conquers" (Certeau xxv). It reminds us that mind-management necessarily complements military and economic power in the repertoire of imperialism. Moreover, America "draws on a long tradition of male travel as an erotics of ravishment" (McClintock 22), is a "projection into the New World of European representations of gender--and of sexual conduct" (Montrose, "Work" 178), an example of a "coherent hermeneutical strategy of feminization and eroticization" that makes "gendered difference" the meaning of the New World (Zamora 157). European consciousness is encoded as masculine; Vespucci discovers an uncovered woman; America is a male "voyeur's paradise" (Mason 171); territorial conquest is possession of the female body; and rape--a rape invited by the irresistible combination of voluptuousness and vulnerability--inevitably follows gaze. What is the meaning of the "persistent gendering" of imperial discovery (McClintock 24)? Gender is a primary way of portraying "relationships of power" (Scott 42). Woman has no name, no identity, no history of any real value till Man the Master arrives and gives her life--for his purpose and his possession.
Stradanus first invites our imperial male gaze (Mulvey) to the contrast between Americus and America in the center foreground of his work. Americus, fully clothed, stands straight and firm, aligned with and between a tree and his staff, while America, her body totally open to his gaze if not to ours, half-rises from a supine position with an ambiguous gesture. Americus's strength is aggressively technological--an ocean-going ship with sails at full-furl, the astrolabe and the Southern Cross as signs of world-wide mobility, the sharp steel of the draped dagger and sword; America's technology is her hammock, and, though her body is substantial, her feathered crown and loins offer no protection from European violence or violation, and her hand-carved club rests, out of reach, on a tree bearing a sloth. Man-made ships frame Americus; pineapple plants, an ant-eater, a tapir, and (presumably) a mountain lion frame Nature-dwelling America. He leaves home under the power of the Cross; she stays home under a bower of leaves. Europe/America, Man/Woman, active/passive, strength/weakness, energy/torpor, technology/nature, mind/body--this primal moment is represented as radical dichotomy, as radical difference.
There is one other very important element of difference to note, for Americus and America frame a cannibal meal in the center background. America, then, is a cannibal, and cannibalism is "the mark of unregenerate savagery" (Hulme, Colonial 3), and, more than that, since there are no Native men depicted, America is probably also an Amazon, and Amazonianism contradicts European patriarchy. Stradanus depicts not only the land as woman but a land of women, an anticulture that kills male children and precisely inverts "norms of political authority, sexual license, marriage and child-rearing practices, and inheritance rules" (Montrose, "Work" 201-2). America as "simultaneously naked and passive and riotously violent and cannibalistic" (McClintock 27)--the combination more than justifies European intervention to restore phallocentric order (Mason 173). America's monstrous nature demands male mastery. The saboteur of the European way of life, the provocateur of male anxiety (McClintock 26-27), must be destroyed. The desire to fornicate meshes with the duty to subjugate. America will be woo'd and subdued with the sword. Unlucky America.
Vespucci's own "prurient gaze" (Mason 171) provided a basis for the imperial/sexual politics of Stradanus's America. His letters from the New World highlighted the "inordinate" lust of Native women who used the bites of poisonous animals to thicken their "husbands' members" and were "very desirous to copulate with us Christians," as well as the treachery of cannibal women who clubbed and roasted a sailor "before our eyes" (Vespucci 49, 64, 88). Though, then, Nova Reperta leaves a "clear representation of the crafts and technology. . . . of one of the greatest epochs in human history" (Dibner 2), in America it also reveals the root ideology that denied "the natural right of possession to indigenous peoples" (Montrose, "Work" 184) and resulted, some say, in one of the greatest depredations in human history (Stannard).
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