The Symbolic Importance of the “Exotic” in the Portuguese Court in the Late Middle Ages

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This paper aims at presenting the work in progress of our PhD thesis, entitled Images of Power. The “exotic” in the Portuguese Court in the Renaissance. It is generally accepted by the historiography that the Portuguese court seems to have been characterized by less complex and sophisticated forms of representation when compared to the French, Italian or Burgundian courts, which were undeniably more formal and refined. Our dissertation intends to evaluate the accuracy of this perspective. For this, we will focus on the importance of the “exotic” in ceremonial and politically relevant moments for the Portuguese monarchy. We will start by analysing the presence of African and Asian animals, products and objects in gift-giving practices and in political and ceremonial rituals –such as weddings, parades and banquets– of the Portuguese Monarchy in the 15th and 16th centuries. The figures of Henry the Navigator and Kings John II and Manuel I will be particularly emphasized as figures of transition, who used these “exotic” elements as an intrinsically medieval form of symbolic representation. The famous embassy sent by Manuel I to the Pope Leo X in 1514, which included the Indian elephant Hanno, is the most ostentatious and significant episode, but other examples will be addressed. It is important to mention that this subject will be studied in close comparison to a broader European cultural context. However, instead of adopting the 17th century Kunstkammern of the Habsburgs as a term of comparison, we will look at previous practices of gift-giving and consumption, since we can identify a use of non-European animals as living heraldry and signs of power, ever since the Arab Abbassid Caliph Harun al-Rashid sent and elephant to Charlemagne. The main purpose of this paper is, thus, to underline the presence of “exotic” elements in the Portuguese court in the 15th and 16th centuries as part of a medieval cultural phenomenon, as opposed to an exclusively early modern tendency.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)517-525
Number of pages9
JournalAnales de Historia del Arte
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • Exotic
  • courtly culture
  • animals
  • material culture
  • marvellous


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