Ludovico de Varthema set out to see the world in 1502, leaving Europe four years after Vasco da Gama had reached the shores of Calicut.
His voyage to “Oriental lands”— Egypt, Arabia, Persia, through India to Sri Lanka, Burma and Java — was undertaken roughly 40 years after Gutenberg’s printing press had come to Italy, the printed book a popular entrant into the already bustling manuscript market. It became one of Europe’s first bestsellers, translated into almost 50 languages, including Latin, German, Dutch and Spanish.
The illustrations — copies are on display this month at the National Archives, New Delhi — resemble postcards, in the speed with which they were set down by the unknown illustrator, capturing cobras, elephants, merchants, sati pyres, farmers, festivals, spices etc like a photographic album. De Varthema saw himself in the way a contemporary travel writer might, writing of his desire to “determine personally and with mine own eyes… remembering well that the testimony of one eye-witness is worth more than ten heard-says” the abundance of those fabled, if not uncharted, lands.
He is an entertaining companion, discoursing on the partiality of the women of Arabia for white men — indeed, it's a susceptible Sultana who springs him from jail. De Varthema had a novel method, perhaps wisely not imitated by many tourists, of getting rid of people who bothered him: when two wise men disputed at length about whether he was mad or holy, he settled the dispute by relieving himself on them. “Whereupon they began to run away crying out, ‘He is mad, he is mad, he is not holy.’”
Both the illustrations and the text of De Varthema’s Itinerary feel contemporary; as one of his translators notes, “It is impossible to peruse Varthema’s narrative and not feel… that the writer is telling the truth, that he is describing men, countries and scenes which he had examined with his own eyes.”
As proof of this freshness, the translator adds that there is “a manifest absence of attempt at composition…neither has he felt any qualms of conscience as to his grammar”.
The text brings out how well-connected the medieval world was, even without today’s technology. By the time De Varthema reaches India, he has already formed an opinion of the richness (and trading practices) of its spice and other commodities markets, courtesy his time in Ethiopia and the Middle East. He speaks directly to his audience back in Europe, never forgetting — through all his travels — to underline the unusual.
He records a sultan of Gujarat with “mustachios so long that he ties them over his head”; another king who travels, rather delightfully, with “civet-cats, apes, parrots, leopards and falcons”, aside from the usual entourage; is fascinated with elephants; warns first-time travellers to be on guard against “some lions which are on the road”; pays great attention to the local markets and food habits; and in general, conducts himself with all the skill you would expect from a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide veteran. Sati horrifies him, but he approves of polyandry, especially when one of his fellow travellers is offered the use of their host’s wife for a night.
One of the claims made for the Itinerary is that it is among the first modern bestsellers. It is not hard to imagine how it fed the curiosity and growing appetite for travel — if only by proxy — of De Varthema’s fellow Europeans. And he wrote it at a time when bookselling was perhaps even more important an industry than it is today, since the book held primacy in the absence of television, newspapers and the Internet.
In The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt reminds readers: “The book in the ancient world was not a rare commodity: a well-trained slave reading a manuscript aloud to a roomful of well-trained scribes could produce masses of text. Over the course of centuries, tens of thousands of books, hundreds of thousands of copies, were made and sold.” This held true for Rome in the 16th century, too.
De Varthema’s Itinerary would have been packed in bales and barrels, and have been printed, as was the custom, without the covers — to be added by the purchaser at a bookbinder’s, according to his pleasure and purse. But the demand for the Itinerary was phenomenal. There would be many other travellers to the Middle East and to India after De Varthema, and there had been many before him from other parts of the world. He was one of the first, and most influential, of European travellers, however.
And the sense of discovery in the illustrations, De Varthema’s passion for travel — “as I do not see that I am fit for any other pursuit” — survive the passage of centuries, as fresh as when he first wrote his diaries. The Itinerary is a reminder that many ages, especially the Europe of 1510, once thought of their times as modern and exploratory, as we do our own.