When you're looking at some “old paintings” chances are pretty good these artworks sit somewhere in a wide, loose slice of the timeline called by many names: Age of Discovery, the Contact Period, or the Age of Exploration. Leonardo da Vinci and the Vitruvian man? Yep he’s in there. Hokusai and his Great Wave? Definitely. Like most efforts to slice up history into clean lines, the Age of Exploration is a flawed, blurry concept—but its unifying theme is travel.
There was no single invention or political maneuver that kicked off the Age of Exploration, rather, many innovations, technologies and techniques came to together to enable global travel, at first slowly, and then accelerating faster and faster into the first true global networks. For millennia, travel over land had been arduous and dangerous, and without sophisticated navigational tools, sea trade had largely stayed close to shore. When explorers returned with tales of far off lands bringing stories and exotic treasures, it was exciting, but it didn't change the economy, it didn't change culture. But with the proliferation of the magnetic compass, an already ancient Chinese invention, the evolution of ship design like the Portuguese caravel and the massive Chinese bao chuan treasure ships, the miraculous maps of Arab geographers like Muhammad al-Idrisi and many more right-place-right-time innovations—previously isolated cultures were connected by new trade routes, leading to an explosion of new media, new products, new culture.
It all ended badly of course, with European powers realizing they could extract more profit from the cultures they traded with if they colonized them, enslaving people and strip mining sacred artifacts like the Benin Bronzes. But for art, the impact of global contact was profound. New forms of expression, new sciences, new beliefs were suddenly on the table.
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Reed Enger, "Age of Exploration, Trans-continental travel and the enlightenment," in Obelisk Art History, Published October 20, 2016; last modified September 30, 2021, http://arthistoryproject.com/timeline/age-of-discovery/.
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