Who said politicians only stir up trouble? Some, apparently, write best-selling travelogues that survive centuries, until finally winding up in hallowed museum archives—and here’s how you can have a look.
Inspired by the east: How the Islamic world influenced western art is a diverse, multicultural exhibit that was unveiled by the British Museum in London this year. Launched in October, the show will run till January 26, 2020. But it’s a single display that’s making all the noise—Bernhard von Breydenbach’s Peregrinatio in terram sanctam (‘Pilgrimage to the Holy Land’), a pilgrim’s report that was also the world’s first travel guide.
Breydenbach, a cleric at the Cathedral of Mainz, had faced a turbulent time in his youth, and wanted to visit the Holy Land—the biblically-referenced areas between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean—to attain salvation. With the desire to share his learnings in print, he hired Erhard Reuwich, an artist from Utrecht, to accompany him. The duo set out in April 1483 and returned in January next year. Their diary-style travel notes, complete with eyewitness observations and religious musings, were then compiled into an incunabulum (a printed document in pre-1500s Europe), and Reuwich worked on his intricate, large-format woodcuts. Peregrinatio’s first edition was then published in Latin, in 1486—its release, with only 200 copies, almost immediately turned the duo into the darlings of medieval Europe.
Why? Because, before Peregrinatio, nobody had attempted a journey across the Mediterranean into the Holy Land to publish it in the form of a factual, first-person narrative. What we see as a simple travelogue today was a veritable mini-encyclopedia for 15th-century Europe, filled with unknown landscapes, monuments, people and creatures.
Reuwich was the first illustrator be named in print—and he set quite the benchmark, being the first artist to make accurate depictions of ‘alien’ cultures like Cairo and Beirut for European readers. He also made precise topographical maps that showed major landmarks, natural landforms, town walls—even vegetation—in Mediterranean towns. This included four folding maps of Iraklion (Heraklion, Crete), Modoni (Methoni, a historic, harbourside village in Greece), Rhodes and Venice, as well as single-page views of Corfu (in Greece) and Parenzo (in Croatia). Reuwich's most popular map, one that demonstrated great technical finesse, was a 1.62 metre pull-out panorama of the Holy Land. Its scenery stretched from Damascus to Sudan, with Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock dominating the centre.
Calling the book’s reception as a wave of popularity at the time would be an understatement: it was more of a tsunami, with translations published in German, Flemish, French, Spanish, and Polish, along with several reprints in different parts of the continent. Breydenbach’s contribution to western society (and, of course, making the Church look good) earned him the title of Dean of Mainz, while Reuwich became the artist to watch out for.
Peregrinatio becme the most influential incunabulum of its era. So pervasive was the travelogue that The Gentleman’s Magazine, a legendary English periodical, praised Reuwich’s artwork again in 1814, a whopping 328 years after Peregrinatio first came out: “The tasteful Reader cannot have failed to notice...that some of the wood cuts are of no ordinary merit. There is a freedom of penciling and execution...that are very rarely to be met with in publications of the same period”. The critic, of course, had his share of grumbles about the guide’s execution, but ultimately found Breydenbach’s storytelling ‘instructive’, ‘entertaining’ and having a ‘well-founded zeal in the cause of piety’.
But looking at Breydenbach’s clerical background, and the acceptability of ‘othering’ cultures in medieval Europe, the guide couldn’t have been purely objective. Dr Isolde Mozer, a German writer and academic, notes that Peregrinatio also contained crusade-like statements against Islam, as Europe was still shaken up by the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. This would naturally rouse communal sentiments in those feeling threatened, and Orientalist errors on the creators' part could have been glossed over by sympathetic Christian readers for the sake of achievement.
Breydenbach passed away on May 5, 1497. He was buried at the Cathedral of Mainz, where a humble monument in his name still exists today. We’re not sure whether he felt satisfied about his goal of salvation, but other than the stardom, the journey seemed to have done him some good. When the tomb was opened in 1582, his body was found perfectly preserved, embalmed with substances brought back from the East.