Theses Doctoral

Staging the Foreign: Niccolò Manucci (1638-ca. 1720) and Early Modern European Collections of Indian Paintings

Becherini, Marta

My dissertation explores the formative stages of European interest in, engagement with and consumption of Indian pictorial art over a period of one hundred and fifty years, from the mid-16th century up to the early 18th century. During this period, European cabinets of curiosities witnessed the arrival of increasing numbers of a previously unknown class of collectible: Indian paintings on paper. Interest in these paintings was spurred by a growing curiosity about the East, combined with a general re-orientation of the European system of knowledge towards a more “scientific” methodology of inquiry, which encouraged a revision of the stereotypes that had informed medieval European conceptions of India through engagement with original sources. The relevance of this phenomenon to the history of early modern exchanges between India and Europe can hardly be overstated. Yet, modern scholarship has tended to ignore it, focusing instead on the Indian fascination with and reception of European artistic forms and techniques. This dissertation seeks to develop a more exhaustive picture of the early modern artistic encounter between India and the West, one in which European consumption of Indian paintings is dutifully represented and India plays an active role in the emerging system of knowledge.
The starting and central point of my investigation consists of the vast and diversified collection of Indian paintings gathered by a Venetian traveler to India, Niccolò Manucci (1638-ca. 1720), as a visual accompaniment to his travel account, the so-called Storia do Mogor. This collection, which has remained largely ignored, makes a crucial case-study for approaching issues relative to the nature of European interest in Indian paintings in early modernity, the contexts and modalities through which this interest was articulated, as well as its relevance to processes of knowledge making and identity construction that were prompted by European encounters with alterities. The first part of my study provides an in-depth analysis of Manucci’s collection performed through a careful examination of the paintings it comprises along with contemporary textual sources, including the original manuscripts of the Storia do Mogor. My analysis exposes the interrelatedness of Manucci’s collecting enterprise with his authorial project, as well as assessing its broader scope and intended aims. The second part of the dissertation situates this collecting enterprise within its broader historical context by examining other European collections of Indian paintings dating from the 16th and 17th centuries and characterized by comparable subject matter: portraits of historical and living personages associated with Indo-Muslim dynasties, depictions of native Indian peoples and socio-religious customs, and representations of deities of the Hindu pantheon. Besides delving into the specifics of these collections, I explore their dialogic relation to one another and to descriptive practices and interpretative discourses that gained shape in European travel writing and print culture. In doing so, I highlight their participation in broader cultural trends and their contribution to evolving European approaches towards the Orient. This corpus of largely neglected works offers precious insights into the complex dynamics of cross-cultural encounter, as well as exposing the pivotal role played by early modernity in shaping later trends in Indo-European artistic interactions. Offering a direct antecedent to “Company painting,” a 19th-century Indian pictorial genre for European consumption, these works call for a revision of traditional understandings of the latter as an artistic development prompted by the rise of British colonial interests and agendas, and invite a broader reassessment of a unique historical era – the early modern one – that is key to understanding the roots of institutionalized Orientalism.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Dehejia, Vidya J.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 17, 2016