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Old Master Print of the discovery of America, by Johannes Stradanus

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Stock number: 18883

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Johannes Stradanus (biography)



First Published

Antwerp, 1588

This Edition

1588 or shortly after


19.5 x 26 cms




This Item is Sold


Legendary and iconic engraving by Theodor Galle after a drawing by Jan van der Straet (ca. 1575), showing Amerigo Vespucci discovering America.

The allegorical figure of America wakes up in a hammock, with a hunting club or spear resting against the tree, and a cannibal feast in the distance. Exotic American flora and fauna surround the scene.

It was probably in Florence around 1575 that Van der Straet made his drawing of the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci encountering an allegorical figure of ‘America’. Amazingly, the original drawing survives and is now part of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

That drawing became widely known in early modern Europe through the famous print offered here, where it was used by the Antwerp engravers Theodore and Philippe Galle in collaboration with Jan Collaert as one of the images in their Nova Reperta, or New Discoveries, a portfolio of twenty prints first published in 1580. The prints documented a series of discoveries and inventions, such as gunpowder, the printing press, olive oil and eyeglasses.

The print derived from Van der Straet’s drawing of America, however, documented a different kind of discovery: that of the New World, which it attributes to the Florentine navigator Amerigo Vespucci. The text that the publishers appended to the print states the nature of this discovery in strongly allegorical terms: ‘America. Americus rediscovers America – he called her but once and thenceforth she was always awake.’ [‘America. Americen Americus retexit – Semel vocavit indesemper excitam.’]

In the print, as in the drawing upon which it is based, Europe’s encounter with America is portrayed as the meeting between a man, whose astrolabe, standard and ships aid in his identification as Amerigo Vespucci, and a nude woman, seated on a hammock, who represents the New World or America. Studies of this image have emphasized its use of gender and sexuality as metaphors for the exploration and conquest of territory, here cast in terms of a series of pictorial oppositions including those of female/male, nude/clothed, reclining/standing and nature/culture.

In its depiction of America as a huntress and, potentially, a cannibal, the scene participates in an iconographic tradition that would endure beyond the sixteenth century.


By the 1570's, allegorical personifications of America as a female nude with feathered headdress had begun to appear in engravings and paintings, on maps and title pages, throughout Western Europe. Perhaps the most resonant of such images if Jan van der Straet's drawing of Vespucci's discovery of America, widely disseminated in print in the late sixteenth century by means of Theodor Galle's engraving. Here a naked woman, crowned with feathers, upraises herself from her hammock to meet the gaze of the armored and robed man who has just come ashore; she extends her right arm toward him, apparently a gesture of wonder --or, perhaps, of apprehension. Standing with his feet firmly planted upon the ground, Vespucci observes the personified and feminized space that will bear his name. This recumbent figure, now discovered and roused from her torpor, is about to be hailed, claimed, and possessed as America.

As the motto included in Galle's engraving puts it, "Americen Americus retexit, & Semel vocavit inde semper excitam" --"Americus rediscovers America; he called her once and thenceforth she was always awake." This theme is discreetly amplified by the presence of a sloth, which regards the scene of awakening from its own shaded spot upon the tree behind America. Vespucci carries with him the various empowering ideological and technological instruments of civilization, exploration, and conquest: a cruciform staff with a banner bearing the Southern Cross, a navigational astrolabe, and a sword-- the mutually reinforcing emblems of belief, empirical knowledge, and violence. At the left, behind Vespucci, the prows of the ships that facilitate the expansion of European hegemony enter the pictorial space of the New World; on the right, behind America, representatives of the indigenous fauna are displayed as if emerging from an American interior at once natural and strange.

Close to the picture's vanishing point --in the distance, yet at the center-- a group of naked savages, potential subjects of the civilizing process, are preparing a cannibal feast. A severed human haunch is being cooked over the fire; another, already spitted, awaits its turn. America's body pose is partially mirrored by both the apparently female figure who turns the spit and the clearly female figure who cradles an infant as she awaits the feast. Most strikingly, the form of the severed human leg and haunch turning upon the spit precisely inverts and miniaturizes America's own. In terms of the pictorial space, this scene of cannibalism is perspectivally distanced, pushed into the background; in terms of the pictorial surface, however, it is placed at the center of the visual field, between the mutual gazes of Americus and America, and directly above the latter's outstretched arm....


Amerigo Vespucci the voyager arrives from the sea. A crusader standing erect, his body in armor, he bears the European weapons of meaning [a cruciform staff with a banner bearing the Southern Cross, a navigational astrolabe, and a sword --each of these referring to discourses of mastery --religious truth, scientific truth, and military power]. Behind him are the vessels that will bring back to the European West the spoils of a paradise. Before him is the Indian "America," a nude woman reclining in her hammock, an unnamed presence of difference, a body which awakens within a space of exotic fauna and flora. An inaugural scene: after a moment of stupor, on this threshold dotted with colonnades of trees, the conqueror will write the body of the other and trace there his own history. From her he will make a historied body --a blazon-- of his labors and phantasms. She will be "Latin" America.

This erotic and warlike scene has an almost mythic value. It represents the beginning of a new function of writing in the West. Jan Van der Straet's staging of the disembarkment surely depicts Vespucci's surprise as he faces this world, the first to grasp clearly that she is a nouva terra not yet existing on maps --an unknown body destined to bear the name, Amerigo, of its inventor.

(de Certeau)

The print series »Nova reperta« (New inventions), which Stradanus drew in the third quarter of the 16th century, is a rich source for cultural history in general as well as for the history of technology in particular. The discoveries and inventions depicted here extend throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance epoch, but the workshops and the people in them generally belong to the artist's time.

The major technical developments of the high Middle Ages include the widespread expansion of the water wheel, which was already known in antiquity, and the introduction of the windmill in Europe. The author commemorates both engines (water wheel, wind wheel) his picture series. Together with the now also better-used animal force they helped to establish a civilization in the Middle Ages that no longer mainly used human muscle as it did in classical antiquity, but that learned more and more to make use of other forces with technical means. The mechanical clock and the spectacles, two inventions of the 13th century, which influenced the bourgeois life substantially, are shown to us in two particularly attractive pictures. The great inventions of the late Middle Ages, gunpowder and book printing, are also treated, but oil painting and the art of copper engraving are not forgotten either. In the fields of chemistry and chemical technology, the images include distillation, sugar and oil paint. The art of distillation had made significant progress since the high Middle Ages. The artist also devotes some quite compelling images to the geographical discoveries and their technical requirements. From a technical-historical point of view, the draftsman has really chosen the most essential inventions of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance as a theme.

The illustrator of the sheets is Bruges-born Jan van der Straet (1523-1605), who in Latin was called Stradanus and in Italian Stradano (or della Strada). Stradanus, painter and draftsman, worked mainly in Florence, where he belonged to the circle of the artist and art writer Giorgio Vasari. Like Vasari, Stradanus moved in the path of late Renaissance mannerism. Characteristic of the mannerism of Stradanus is the abundance of juxtaposed details, the extensive joy, the fragmentation of the space, the narrowness and compression of the images (for example the distillation print), the use of the picture in picture (for example the guaiac wood print) and the contortion of the figures (for example the copper engraving print).

From his Flemish motherland Stradanus brought with him the strong inclination for the powerful and the realistic depiction. Vasari praised Stradanus’ great drawing skills, his excellent ideas and his ingenuity. In the extensive work of Stradanus comes out a variety of pasteboards, which he delivered to the wall carpet manufacturer for the Medici family in Florence. Especially his hunting scenes made Stradanus famous. We encounter his paintings and frescoes mainly in Florence, such as in Palazzo Vecchio, where we also admire, among other things, his 1570 created painting of a distillation laboratory of Grand Duke Francesco I de 'Medici. The picture resembles the sheet "Distillatio”.

The drawings for the series "Nova reperta" were created by Stradanus in the third quarter of the 16th century. At the end of the 16th century, the Amsterdam draftsman, engraver and engraver Philipp Galle had nine of these drawings and a title page engraved in copper by his son Theodor Galle. It was soon followed by another ten leaves that were engraved by Theodor Galle and Jan Collaert. On all engravings Stradanus is a draftsman (Inventor), indicated with »Ioan. Stradanus invent«. The engravers Theodor Galle and Jan Collaert (Inscribed "Theodor Galle sculp.", "loan Collaert sculp.") are only mentioned on some of the engravings.


Johannes Stradanus (1523-1605)

Johannes Stradanus, or Giovanni Stradano, or Jan van der Straet or van der Straat, or Stradanus or Stratensis (Bruges 1523 – Florence 2 November 1605) was a Flanders-born mannerist artist active mainly in 16th century Florence, Italy. Born in Bruges, he began his training in the shop of his father, then in Antwerp with Pieter Aertsen.

By 1545, he had joined the Antwerp guild of Saint Luke or painters' guild, the equivalent of the Roman (Accademia San Luca). He reached Florence in 1550, where he entered in the service of the Medici Dukes and Giorgio Vasari. The Medici court was his main patron, and he designed a number of scenes for tapestries and frescoes to decorate the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, the Medici Villa at Poggio a Caiano, and providing illustrations for the Arazzeria Medicea. He also worked for the Pazzi Family in their estates in Montemurlo.

Many of his drawings became so popular they were translated into prints. Stradanus collaborated with printmakers Hieronymus Cock and the Galle family in Antwerp to produce hundreds of prints on a variety of subjects. He also worked with Francesco Salviati in the decoration of the Vatican Belvedere. He was one of the artists involved in the Studiolo of Francesco I (1567-1577), to which he contributed two paintings including "The Alchemist's Studio".

Karel van Mander wrote about Stradanus in his Schilder-boeck (book of famous painters), mentioning that he was 74 in 1603 and still a member of the Florence drawing academy. He also mentioned his pupil Antonio Tempesta, who painted ships and Amazon battle scenes (bataljes), mainly in 16th century Florence, Italy.

Johannes Stradanus is one of the most well-known unknown artists in history. Even though the Bruges-born painter (1523-1605) had a more than successful career in the highly competitive city of Florence in the second half of the 16th century, his name long remained a well-hidden secret for specialists only. Many of his works, though, are very well known.

Around 1570, Stradanus – who began as designer of tapestries and fresco painter in service of the Medici – started a second career as draughtsman and designer of hundreds of prints. These were engraved, published and distributed all over the then-known world by Antwerp publishers in huge numbers. It are these works – widely collected, copied and used – which secured Stradanus’s place in art history as an inventive and influential artist.

Johannes Stradanus died in Florence in 1605.


New Hollstein (Dutch and Flemish) 342-345 (Johannes Stradanus).
Stevens & Tooley: Map Collector 2, p.22-24, "One of the Rarest Picture Atlases".
van Mander: Schilder-boeck, 1604.
Sellink: Stradanus (1523-1605), Court Artist of the Medici, 2008.
Markey: Renaissance Invention - Stradanus's Nova Reperta, 2020.