The Epistemology of the Copy in Early Modern Travel Narratives

Collaborative Group

Dr. Lisa Voigt, Professor Elio Brancaforte, Dr. Stephanie Leitch


Spanish and Portuguese


The rise of the printing press in sixteenth-century Europe coincided with European exploration and awareness of the wider world, including a previously unknown continent. Yet in order to illustrate the texts describing peoples and places never before seen, early modern European printers often resorted to pirating images from other presses and earlier texts. Sometimes illustrations were recycled for reasons of economy and expedience, as in popular travel accounts that appeared in numerous editions like Hans Staden’s 1557 Warhaftige Historia recounting his captivity in Brazil. Other times images were copied to substantiate textual claims in ambitious travel account collections, such as Theodor de Bry’s lavishly illustrated Grands and Petits Voyages, published in numerous volumes between 1590 and 1634. While scholarship has traditionally dismissed copied illustrations as inferior, derivative, or arbitrary, this project explores their epistemological function in disseminating information about distant places and shaping stereotypical perceptions of the non-European world. The project aims to credit the conventional and repeatable nature of prints as essential to publishing history, to the development of visual literacy, and to the circulation of images of non-European peoples and places that would provide the basis for colonial projects and imperial self-imaginings. The project requires multidisciplinary and multilingual expertise in order to address texts and images representing different geographies in multiple languages, and thus draws on German and comparative literature scholar Elio Brancaforte’s research on European travel accounts to Safavid Iran and Azerbaijan; art historian Stephanie Leitch’s work on visual culture and ethnography in German prints of Africa, Asia, and the Americas; and Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American literature scholar Lisa Voigt’s research on accounts of travel, shipwreck, and captivity in the Atlantic world. The seed of this project was planted in Voigt and Brancaforte’s coauthored article, “The Traveling Illustrations of Sixteenth-Century Travel Narratives” (PMLA 2014), and subsequently developed in a Collaborative Cluster Fellowship held by Leitch and Voigt at the John Carter Brown Library in August 2017. The resulting coauthored book will trace the spread of stereotypes across national, linguistic, and confessional borders as well as their relation to European imperial, commercial, and colonial projects. Award period: May 1, 2019 through April 30, 2021