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Home / Books / Essay: On the Codex that features scenes from the Maritime Silk Road

Essay: On the Codex that features scenes from the Maritime Silk Road

Peter Gordon and Juan José Morales, authors of a new book on the Códice Casanatense, an album of 76 striking water colours made in Goa around 1540 by an anonymous Indian painter for an unknown Portuguese patron, believe it was the first example of intellectual fusion between Asia and Europe

books Updated: Sep 04, 2020 17:55 IST
Peter Gordon & Juan José Morales
Peter Gordon & Juan José Morales
Hindustan Times
A bathing scene in Muscat, Oman, from the Codex.
A bathing scene in Muscat, Oman, from the Codex.(Wikimedia Commons)
Abbreviated Press; Available on Amazon
Abbreviated Press; Available on Amazon

Just around the corner from Rome’s Pantheon, on the Via di Sant’Ignazio, is the famed Biblioteca Casanatense. Among its precious books and manuscripts is an album of 76 striking water colours made in Goa around 1540, the work of an anonymous Indian painter for an unknown Portuguese patron. The Codex, or Códice Casanatense, contains illustrations of daily scenes, occupations and religious ceremonies, as well as illustrations of the peoples of what is now known as the Maritime Silk Road, from East Africa to China.

Lively and evocative, the Códice Casanatense is a unique historical record that provides a human window into an Asia that Europeans were only just entering and a first testimony of an encounter that would transform the world. Yet this unique and extraordinary document remains largely unknown, and it has never been discussed in detail other than in a small number of scholarly papers.

When we began this project after a discussion with the Italian Cultural Institute in Hong Kong as part of a programme of cultural outreach, we believed the Códice Casanatense to be a collection of charming and fascinating paintings which deserved to be better known in the English-speaking world, on the one hand, and in Asia on the other. We did not expect to uncover that the anonymous Indian painter had in fact taken inspiration not only from his own pictorial traditions but also from some of the first European travel books and illustrations. Also unexpected was the striking discovery that the Codex had inspired illustrations in one of the most influential books of any age, Jan Huyghen van Linschoten’s Itinerario — that the painter had in fact produced a central document in the cultural history of the early-modern world, an early, perhaps the first, example of intellectual fusion between Asia and Europe.


By the time the Codex was composed, the Portuguese had been ensconced in India for four decades. In 1530, Goa became the capital of the Estado da Índia, Portugal’s possessions in the East, which ran all the way from East Africa to East Asia. The city was known as Goa Dourada, or Golden Goa; a Portuguese proverb went, “Quem viu Goa excusa de ver Lisboa” (He who has seen Goa need not see Lisbon). This, then, was the bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis in which the Codex was produced, a city situated in a similarly cosmopolitan India.

In 1545, the Vicar General of Goa, Miguel Vaz Coutinho wrote to King Dom João III noting that “In Goa, native painters normally paint images of Our Lord, Our Lady and other Saints and sell them by the doors...”. Visitors to Indian tourist attractions can easily find modern watercolour or gouache renditions of classical scenes — elephants, camels, dancing girls. Indeed, one rarely has to look for them: the paintings often come calling. It seems from Miguel Vaz’s letter that such painters abounded in 16th century Goa as well.

One can imagine one of these painters approaching a Portuguese gentleman and asking if he’d care for some paintings and that perhaps he might wish for something other than renditions of Christ, the Virgin Mary or the Saints: perhaps a war elephant, not unlike some still produced and sold today to tourists. Or perhaps something more picante, like women bathing or a gory sketch of religious sacrifice.

Although they resemble cartoons, there is nonetheless something appealing about these illustrations: they have a humanity that is often missing in the more formal paintings — from both East and West — of the period. The figures often have a hint of a smile or a twinkle in the eye; when arranged as a couple, the Codex’s most common format, one can, on occasion, discern what appear to be looks of real affection. Before a group of women take a dip, they carefully hang their clothes and shawls on nearby branches and bushes. In the portrayal of a wedding, the attendees, dancing, give every indication of enjoying themselves.

The few illustrations of Portuguese people aside, there is nothing in the Codex to suggest its origins in a European-ruled metropolis. The Codex shows a world seen through Indian eyes.

The Portuguese patron obviously made suggestions as well. The painter could not have visited all the places the Codex covers nor seen everything the Codex portrays. The patron had been feeding the painter with information and probably objects: there are several south east Asian men sporting a very accurate representation of a kris, the region’s iconic dagger. The Portuguese had taken a fancy to the weapon; the painter might have been shown one. Some information was however inaccurate: a Chinese couple look more like European bourgeois expats. But Tomé Pires had, a couple of decades earlier, described the Chinese as

white, as white as we are... They are rather like Germans... They wear well-made French shoes with square toes... The women look like Spanish women. They wear pleated skirts with waistbands and little loose coats longer than in our country...

If that is the information the patron had to go on, one can perhaps see why the couple in the illustration might look as they do.

A Chinese couple in the Codex.
A Chinese couple in the Codex. ( Wikimedia Commons )

But the Codex is filled with details of the painter’s own vision. The women who come to collect water are decked out in bangles and earrings. People from all walks of life (including what appear to be Portuguese) stream down the hill to visit the money changer. A herder drives his cattle with a forked switch. His eye was just as keen when it came to the Portuguese: the diners at a dinner party (incongruously taking place in a pool due to the heat), the European clothing and utensils are so detailed that they would seem to be the result of direct observation. And when the painter had no information, as it would seem he hadn’t for the costumes of some women from far-flung places, he would dress them in saris.


Most remarkably, we can point to actual European artwork that the painter must have seen. Among the passengers on a 1505 Portuguese fleet to India was Balthasar Sprenger, an Austrian trader. Sprenger’s account, illustrated with woodcuts attributed to Wolf Traut, was published in 1509, very soon after his return, with a long title usually abbreviated to Die Merfart. One of these well-known woodcuts, labelled “India Maior”, shows a warrior, presumably from the Malabar Coast, with a round shield and sword held aloft. If there were any secular book that one might have expected to wend its way to India, it would be this one, covering as it did the people and places along the outbound voyage.

Balthasar Sprenger’s
Balthasar Sprenger’s ( Wikimedia Commons )

Did the painter of the Codex see a copy? He has several men in an identical pose, and one, identified (in the annotation at least) as a Malabar Nair which looks for all the world like a direct crib.

Malabar Nairs in the Codex.
Malabar Nairs in the Codex. ( Wikimedia Commons )

The illustrations of the various peoples of the region are usually in pairs, a format that had recently been pioneered in European travel books and later became a common composition found, for example, in the margins of maps. Some influence here seems likely as well.

But we still need to place the anonymous painter within his own world. Hints can be seen in the focus on secular, quotidian and quite plebeian scenes, something which one can see likewise echoed in Jain Vijñaptipatra scrolls—highly-illustrated invitation “letters” sent by Jain communities to eminent monks. Although most extant examples date from considerably later than the Codex, many contain images, for example, of shops in the bazaar, in much the same spirit as the Codex’s illustrations of blacksmiths, goldsmiths and a moneychanger.

Kanarese blacksmiths in the Códice Casanatense.
Kanarese blacksmiths in the Códice Casanatense. ( Wikimedia Commons )

And one illustration in the Codex leaves little doubt. The rendering of a Portuguese woman in a palanquin, is almost, and strikingly, compositionally identical to a Jain temple mural in Tamil Nadu (in Tiruparuthikundram).

Jain temple mural in Tiruparuthikundram.
Jain temple mural in Tiruparuthikundram. ( Wikimedia Commons )

The similarity does not mean that one was taken directly from the other; indeed, this particular composition appears in several places in the murals, as well as in at least one other temple, an indication that it was a standard scene. The painter has been remarkably inventive: he has repurposed the composition for an entirely different, secular use.

Illustration of a Portuguese woman in a palanquin in the Codex.
Illustration of a Portuguese woman in a palanquin in the Codex. ( Wikimedia Commons )

This particular illustration is central to understanding the Codex’s influence for there is little doubt that it was used as the basis for a similar illustration of a lady in a palanquin in the famous Jan Huygens van Linschoten’s 1595 Itinerario. Linschoten, a Dutchman, had been aide to the Portuguese Archbishop in Goa in the mid-1580s. He had made good use of his time: he had kept a diary, had interviewed travellers and merchants, and — more significantly — his position had allowed him access to charts and trading information that was otherwise confidential. Once back in the Netherlands, he published the information he had gleaned about Portuguese Asia. The importance of the book was immediately recognised: it opened the Indian Ocean to European imagination, the Dutch would make their inroads to Asia based on the book’s information; an English edition came out only three years later.

The palanquin illustration in the
The palanquin illustration in the ( Wikimedia Commons )

Thus we can, in fact, track a single composition from the walls of a Jain temple through the Codex to one of Europe’s best-selling and most influential books of the early 17th century.


Peter Gordon
Peter Gordon ( Courtesy the author )

Nothing else quite like the Codex has yet been located. But echoes appear in the striking compositional and subject-matter similarities between the Codex and (much) later “Company paintings” produced for the foreigner, if not necessarily foreign, market. Coincidentally or otherwise, these later works, while on the whole more sophisticated, share several characteristics with the paintings in the Codex: the odd toddy-tapper as an illustration labelled — one presumes incorrectly — as Malabari Jews, but also more general subject matter such as occupations and couples, as well as media and execution.

Jews of Malabar in the Codex.
Jews of Malabar in the Codex. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Despite an interval of at least more than two centuries, some of these later paintings look as if they might be copies. They can’t be, at least not directly, but the similarities seem too great to put down to mere coincidence. Perhaps in the Codex we can see the first extant example of this commercial artistic genre, one which has remained active through to the present day, and which has more recently received belated recognition through dedicated exhibitions in London and elsewhere.

Juan Jose Morales
Juan Jose Morales ( Courtesy the author )

The Codex was sent to Lisbon in the early 17th century for reasons unknown. It would be acquired at some point by the Italian Cardinal Girolamo Casanata, a voracious 17th-century collector of books and manuscripts. When Casanata died in 1700, he bequeathed his collection to form the basis of the library that now bears his name. And there the Codex lay largely undisturbed for the next two-and-a-half centuries.

The painter’s work was clearly appreciated in his own century, as evidenced by the care the Portuguese patron took in curating the images and the interest it evidently espoused in such intellectuals as Linschoten. After almost five centuries, it’s time to appreciate it anew.

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