The Far East in the Early 16th Century: Giovanni da Empoli’s Travels

The Far East in the Early 16th Century: Giovanni da Empoli’s Travels

By Nunziatella Alessandrini

Global Encounters European Identities, edited by Mary N. Harris with Anna Agnarsdóttir and Csaba Lévai (Pisa University Press, 2010)

Abstract: Following the 1498 voyage that established sea links between Europe and Asia, there was an increase in the information available about the Asian world in the form of reports, letters, etc. Drawing upon the accounts of the Florentine merchant, Giovanni da Empoli [ John of Empoli], this chapter briefly traces the development of European perceptions of Asian world, as they gradually expanded beyond the purely economic to include civilizational aspects of the Other, thereby revealing a new conception of alterity.

There have been many studies on the impact of the Portuguese discoveries on Europe, and as a result, new perspectives and approaches to the subject have opened up.

After the historic voyage of Vasco da Gama in 1498, which established the first direct sea link between Europe and Asia, the Portuguese came into contact with a world of which they had only the haziest of notions and that was in many respects completely different from the one they knew. Indeed, the general scarcity of information about this new reality generated all kinds of misunderstandings and confusions between the two civilizations, as can be seen in Álvaro Velho’s account. However, these misunderstandings were gradually attenuated by subsequent voyages, which provided new information conduits, enabling the most significant aspects of this new reality to be decoded. Hence, the European perception of alterity slowly transcended mere economic concerns, as attention began to focus upon other aspects of the civilizations encountered.

This gradual shift in perception reached its apogee at the end of the first decade of the 16th century, by which time interest in the Other was no longer limited to economic matters, but had begun to focus on broader aspects of daily life, considerably extending the range of information available concerning Asian civilization. This was the period of Afonso de Albuquerque’s political strategy, which resulted in the creation of Portuguese outposts in the East, following the capture of Goa (1510) and Malacca (1511). It now became urgent for the Portuguese to gather as much information as possible about the customs and beliefs of these peoples, new to them, as such knowledge would have a direct bearing upon their success in obtaining their commercial and political goals and exercising power.

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