In the late 1500s and early 1600s, a bevy of artistic allegorical depictions of America were produced in Europe. Many of the engravings that came out of this period were to commemorate the centennial of the discovery of America in 1492 by Christopher Columbus. This piece, originally printed by Jan van der Straet in 1600 and later engraved by Phillippe Galle around 1620, is a fascinating work that depicts America as an integral part of the Renaissance. It is one of the first artistic depictions of America as more than merely a physical fixture on the map. Indeed, America is seen here as a symbol of a great advancement, a progression, a remaking of the world, a great leap forward in human civilization.
This particular piece, called Nova Reperta (Lat., “New Inventions”), served as the frontispiece for a bound collection of engravings celebrating several inventions and discoveries of the Renaissance. Jan van der Straet (1523-1605) produced this piece, along with nineteen others that served a didactic purpose, educating viewers about the death of the medieval world and the birth of a new world, filled with immeasurable promise.
Let’s notice a few details in the piece. Starting at the upper left and moving across to the upper right, you will see a young woman pointing to a map of America.
The map depicts the continents of North and South America as open, new, yet to be settled and civilized. The map’s position relative to the other details in the piece indicates that America is the first of all Renaissance discoveries. Thus, the discovery of America opens the door, not only to a new physical world, but a new intellectual one as well. The names of Christopher Columbus of Genoa and Amerigo Vespucci of Florence give credit where credit is due: not only to the individuals who are most closely associated with the discovery of America, but also to the great Italian cities that produced them.
The young woman represents a youthful new world, and she is taking the place of an old man who is departing the scene on the upper right side of the map. The old man represents the medieval paradigm, who now plaintively looks back on a world that no longer recognizes him.
Notice an interesting detail that van der Straet includes in both the young woman and the old man. Both are grasping a snake which is devouring its own tail.
This depiction is called an ouroboros, and it is quite ancient. It appears in Western and non-Western art alike, but the symbol has various meanings depending on the cultural and artistic contexts. It is likely that van der Straet is depicting the ouroboros in the classic alchemist style–as a symbol of continuous destruction and continuous renewal. Here is depicted a world that is undergoing both a death and a rebirth.
Renaissance man, starting roughly in the late 14th century with the thought of Petrarch (1304-1374), looked back to the classical world of Rome and Greece and saw a golden age. But that golden age died with the fall of Rome, and the centuries following were regarded by Renaissance thinkers as a dark age. But Petrarch and others believed that a new order could be ushered in that was the culmination of classical Rome and Greece. The spirit of the classical age could be recovered by man’s own efforts, to put to death the dark age that dominated the last 1000 years and bring about a third age superior to that of anything that had gone before it.
The discovery of America was the harbinger of this third age. The ouroboros represents the death of the dark age, the medieval world. It is being displaced by the new ideas, inventions, and discoveries of the new world of the Renaissance. The dying old world depended on a priori assertions, on religious and philosophic authorities, and was suspicious of new ideas and innovations. It has habitually looked to the past and regarded the physical world as a fleeting and inferior reality, and anticipated the perfect spiritual world of heaven.
But the new world of rebirth sees great value in this life, and is willing to put off heaven to enjoy the riches and bounty of this world. It looks forward to the future with the expectation that progress is inevitable. New ideas and new technologies will replace those of the dark age, and the well-worn paths beaten down by mindless dependence on intellectual and spiritual authorities are about to be abandoned for new trails blazed by discoverers and scientists.
America is allegorically depicted here as the manifestation of the death of old ways, and birth of a new order.
As we continue to survey van der Straet’s piece, we see several new phenomena placed below the young woman and the departing old man. These are numbered I-IX.
The first, and most prominent discovery is America. The second, is the compass, pictured on the right and labeled with the name of Flavius Amalfitanus, the Latinized name of the Western inventor of the compass.
The third, labeled ignibus amata puluis, is gunpowder and the cannon.
Fourth, labeled imprimi volumina, is a printing press.
The fifth invention, the iron clock, is labeled roisge iugis indita hora ferreis.
Next is a medicine derived from guaicum wood, labeled hyacum.
Seventh, ab igne ftilla, is the process of alchemy.
The eighth, fila ferica, is the cultivation of silkworms,
and last is the saddle with stirrup, or staphaas: prisco operta cuneta faculo.
Since the sixteenth century, America has been regarded as a symbol of hope and progress. The United States of America, birthed at the apex of the English Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, embodied the promise of inevitable progress. Early American self-identification was laden with this notion in its founding mottoes–E Pluribus Unum, Novus Ordo Seclorum, and Annuit Coeptis, meaning “out of many, one,” “a new order for the ages,” and “God has blessed our undertaking.” And Americans have seen themselves as the “last best hope of earth” ever since. As recently as Thanksgiving Day 2013 (yesterday), one of America’s most prolific and respected writers expressed this very idea in the closing words of her editorial.
This piece also represents the beginning of American patriotic art. I realize that term is a bit of an anachronism. Still, this piece is indicative of American patriotism, even though it was produced long before the United States came to be. Nova Reperta is fascinating in part because it captures much of the essence of what later would be called “American exceptionalism”–the notion that America is in a class by itself. Exceptionalism means that America is more than a nation, it is an idea. America represents an intellectual, political, practical, and emotional break with the old world and the old way of things.
This has been, for many, the reference point in making sense of providence and the flow of history since the flag of the dual kingdoms of Leon and Castille were planted in the sands of San Salvador over five centuries ago.