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Art and Architecture Circa 1500 A.D.: The Age of Exploration

An overview of artistic and cultural achievements around the globe during the Age of Exploration.

The Age of Exploration: 1400 to 1600

In 1400, Ming China was still a great naval power, sending out vast fleets on expeditions of trade and exploration that far exceeded anything Europe then mounted. Having touched the shores of Sri Lanka, Persia, and even distant northern Australia, the Ming pulled back: a great expedition of 1433 to the Middle East and East Africa was the last such Chinese effort, and in 1436 the emperor forbade further journeys or construction of blue water ships.

It thus fell to Europe’s schooners and frigates, not to Chinese junks, to map the oceans and open the world to intellectual and cultural intercourse, as well as to economic exploitation and colonization. The Age of Exploration by Europeans was different from all others, therefore, in having the lasting effect of linking the world’s oceans into unified navigational and trading systems.

It was also the second half of a two-part response to the new geopolitical reality of Islam.

Now, with an even greater Muslim power rising in the east—the Ottoman Empire—Europeans sought a way around the immovable Islamic world to the markets of India and China.

The new approach to an old problem was made possible by key navigational innovations, including the magnetic compass, astrolabe and portolan chart, stern-mounted rudders, and triangular lateen sails. Those technological breakthroughs combined with new astronomical knowledge acquired from Muslims ... made maps more accurate and ocean-going navigation somewhat less perilous to crews and investors.

The effort was also partly inspired by the famous journals of Marco Polo and visions of Asia as a land of vast wealth, by dreams of mythical empires such as Atlantis or the lost Kingdom of Prester John, and by a more immediate desire to reach the sources of African gold suspected to exist somewhere along the Guinea coast.

Exploration, Age of (c. 1400--1600). In Greenwood Encyclopedia of International Relations.

Art in the Age of Exploration

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Millicent Fullmer
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