Sunday, November 22, 2009


This project started to mature when I acquired, many years ago, two books written by Charles Boxer about Portuguese in the East and a monograph on Namban screens. The screens in question belong to the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisboa.

Now, the people.

What impresses first: there are no fat people in the Namban screens. Although the popular stories of shipwrecks common at the time in Portugal refer fat people, namely one that had to be carried by the famished survivors of one of those shipwrecks through the jungle until, if I remember the story well, almost everybody dies, in Macau there seem to be only slim Portuguese (unless the fat were forbidden to travel because they occupy too much space).
I suspect the presence of so much slim people on the screens is due to an aesthetical choice, or also a caricature reinforced by the long capes worn by most important Portuguese. But, respecting the choice of the artist, I decided to ban the fat. No fat people on my ship!

And now, their heads.

The hair style used by the samurai on the screens are more discreet than the later style that we are used to see in some movies, with shorter hair gathered and knotted in two turns over the shaved top, or at least is how I interpret the hair on the back of these gentlemen in the previous image. Not looking with attention to this picture forced me to redraw some parts of the beginning of the story (I had mainly pictures from the 19th century in mind, like the one bellow, from a picture by Felice Beato taken from Wikipedia, as you can see there is a big difference).
Also the samurai in the screens look a lot happier than the ones in the picture. The artist, showing good humor, represents one of them open-mouthed, fascinated by the arrival of the exotic barbarians.
They use short beards or moustaches and sideburns, but some present themselves to posterity neatly shaved. Based on other pictures of samurai I decided to adorn some of them with a short tuft on the chin. I also used the more simple form of topknot that usually goes along with the unshaved head.
As for the barbarians, which came not only from Europe but also from Africa and the coasts of the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and China Sea, they wear the hair short, sometimes with sideburns, and the Europeans possess frequently an unintentional hairless top that the artist takes delight in showing. Goatees and pointed moustaches are almost obligatory for the Europeans, and the ones that don’t wear it may be too young to have something that deserves showing. Some servants also wear facial air.

And the slaves? We will have a lot of questions about slavery, in this story. Beards were probably still associated with gentlemen’s honor, but things were not that simple. How to distinguish, in the characters of the screens, a slave from a servant or from a simple sailor? None of the dark skinned people represented in there is a well-off merchant or member of the gentry, but apart from that he can be anything, including a freed slave that had no other option than being now a servant. Many of them wear unruly beards. The artist shows some of them in the traditional way of representing the common people, with coarse features and twisted mouths, from which fate he spares others who look more cheerful or dignified.

One European covers his head with a simple piece of white cloth, and another uses one around his head in the Japanese fashion. They are probably veteran sailors or swordsmen.

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