Origins and aims of the De Bry Collection
By the 16th century, there were finally some images from the recent geographic discoveries, but they were few in number and often quite basic (such as the woodblock prints from Hans Staden’s Brazilian travelogue). For this reason, the De Bry Collection—the first volume of which appeared almost exactly one century after the discovery of America (1590)—marks a decisive step in the visual representation of the world outside Europe. It does so both in the number and variety of the illustrations (maps, portraits, bestiaries, cultural practices, etc.) and the global scope of its iconographic corpus (the illustrations are drawn from the entire known world). Along with a manifest intention to provide images of newly-discovered countries and their “singular uniqueness,” one also finds a polemical streak. Theodor de Bry and his successors sought to glorify the Protestant English and French expeditions and to promote Dutch settlement in the East Indies to the detriment of the Spanish and Portuguese, who are often portrayed as cruel and destructive.
Despite this, it is impossible to assign an ideological orientation to the entire De Bry collection, given its scope and multiple editors. Made up of twenty-nine parts, published over the course of nearly half a century (1590-1634) and overseen by five successive editors, this collection came together over time and was shaped by geopolitical shifts. Theodor de Bry, the originator of this this vast editorial enterprise, offered no projection of a definitive, overarching form when he published the first part in 1590. At the time of his death in 1598, the first six parts of the Great Voyages he had published clearly show a bent of Protestant propaganda. The championing of English settlement in Virginia (GV1), French settlement in Florida (GV2), the Brazilian adventures of Reformed pastor Jean de Léry (GV3) and Benzoni’s Historia, based on the Chauveton translation (GV4 to GV6) are all editorial choices which demonstrate this orientation. The polemical dimension of the prints that accompany these six volumes is clear: while the moments of contact between New World inhabitants and Reformed church members are depicted as peaceful and cordial, Spanish and Portuguese Catholics are shown, systematically, to inflict stark cruelties upon Natives who in turn take every possible opportunity for vengeance.
Upon their father’s death, Johann-Theodor and Johannes-Israel de Bry took up the Great Voyages series and began the Lesser Voyages, composed of smaller-format volumes of texts and prints pertinent to Africa and Asia, but also to Oceanic islands, northern countries and lands in the Southern Hemisphere. Twenty parts of the collection appeared under their direction (GV7 to GV12 and PV1 to PV11, along with supplements to GV9, GV11 and PV9). The vast majority of the texts that make up these parts deal with Dutch settlement in the East Indies. This subject is also well-represented in the prints, which also depict the peoples and curiosities of the wider world. The final three parts were published by Johann-Theodor de Bry’s sons-in-law: Willem Fitzer published the supplement to PV1 (1625) and the last of the Lesser Voyages (PV12, 1628), while Matthäus Merian published the final part of the Great Voyages (GV13, 1634). The prints were often taken from earlier parts, and the texts, large in number and often abridged, complete the general picture of exploration narratives that had come into focus over the course of collection’s preparation.
Among the six hundred prints, nearly three hundred were based on the travelogues. The other half were drawn from a wide array of iconographic sources: drawings, sketches, watercolours, woodblock prints, etc. The De Bry house was not alone in producing copper-plate prints for the purpose of illustrating travel narratives. At the same time, several renowned printers working for Dutch publishers released illustrated travelogues. Some of these would be republished by members of the De Bry family, who at times simply copied the original prints.