Peter Gordon and Juan José Morales, "Painter and Patron: The Maritime Silk Road in the Códice Casanatense" (Abbreviated Press, 2020)


Today I talked to Peter Gordon and Juan José Morales about their book Painter and Patron: The Maritime Silk Road in the Códice Casanatense (Abbreviated Press, 2020).

The Códice Casanatense, or Codex Casanatense 1889 as it is formally known, is a 16th-century Indo-Portuguese collection of some 76 captioned watercolours now held in the Biblioteca Casanatense in Rome. Deposited there at the beginning of the 18th century, it resided in almost complete obscurity for two and half centuries and was not brought to scholarly attention until the 1950s. It has never been discussed in detail for the general reader.

Painted by an Indian artist, and annotated in Portuguese, the Codex is a remarkable work of collaboration that portrays the peoples, costumes and customs of a region extending from Africa to China. This region, crossed by Portuguese explorers and traders, maps on what is now commonly called the Maritime Silk Road. Lively and evocative, the Códice Casanatense is a unique historical record that provides a human window into an Asia that Europeans were only just entering and a first testimony of an encounter that would transform the world.

Although the painter has deep connections with Indian artistic traditions, he also drew upon the illustrations in Balthasar Sprenger's iconic 1509 Die Merfart, while the Codex itself was a source for the illustrations in Jan Huygen van Linschoten's classic end-of-the-century Itinerario. Both influenced and influencing, the Codex is unveiled as an archetypal example of East-West cultural and intellectual fusion.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books and publisher of Chameleon Press. He was also a founder of the Man Asian Hong Kong International Literary Festival.

Juan José Morales is an entrepreneur and historian who has published a variety of works ranging from poetry anthologies to works on arts and culture.

Jenny Peruski is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University, Department of History of Art and Architecture. Her research focuses on ornamentation and bodily adornment in coastal eastern Africa. She can be reached by email at

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