André Thevet traveled extensively and wrote prolifically. Few sixteenth-century writers covered more territory or wrote more ambitiously. While serious doubt exists as to whether some of the writing published under his name was really his, Thevet remains an important figure in early geographical writing.
Born in Angoulême around 1516, Thevet’s early education was apparently limited; we know little of his early life. Thevet became a Franciscan friar, and his first excursion into the world occurred in about 1550, when he accompanied the Cardinal Jean de Lorraine on travels into Italy and the Mediterranean basin. Shortly thereafter, Thevet published his Cosmographie de Levant, a compendium of facts about the people, places, flora and fauna of the area. The section on the Nile, for example, includes a woodcut depiction of a crocodile (p. 138), something contemporary readers would most likely never have seen. The intriguing illustrations have been attributed to Bernard Salomon.
Thevet's experience as a traveler attracted the attention of Nicolas Durand, Chevalier de Villegagnon, who was preparing to found a colony in what is today Brazil. He asked Thevet to accompany the expedition as its confessor. Thevet fell ill during the voyage and had to return to France after only ten weeks in Brazil. Using his own observations, however, combined with information gained from other travelers, Thevet quickly produced his Singularitez de la France Antarctique. The first edition was published in Paris in 1557.
After the publication of the Singularitez, Thevet received royal recognition and eventually became cosmographer of the Valois court. He began his most ambitious work, the Cosmographie Universelle, which described and defined every part of the known world.
While today Thevet is seen largely as a compiler and editor of experiences that belonged to others, his works, with their extensive descriptions and lavish illustrations, give a broad picture of the historical and geographical knowledge of the sixteenth century.
(University of Virginia Library)