«Given by heaven, to bring back the world to heaven». The adventure of the portugueses in the age of discovery (1415-1580)


“O brothers, who amid a hundred thousand
Perils,’ I said, ‘have come unto the West,
To this so inconsiderable vigil

Which is remaining of your senses still
Be ye unwilling to deny the knowledge,
Following the sun, of the unpeopled world.

Consider ye the seed from which ye sprang;
Ye were not made to live like unto brutes,
But for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge.”
(DANTE, Divina Comedia, Inferno, XXVI, 112-120)

God desired that the earth should be all one,
That the sea would unite and no longer separate
(FERNANDO PESSOA, Mensagem, L’Infante)

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Portuguese sailed to discover new worlds. Despite all their frailty, they desired to be the protagonists of their own lives. They set out in quest of riches and new experiences, but above animated by an ideal for which they gave their lives without measuring their own strength or calculating the results. The Portuguese discoveries were based on a people’s faith which gave men courage, creativity and a conception of life which enabled them to achieve the impossible.
The exhibition, titled “Thou, then give a great part of the world to Heaven”, does not claim to exhaust the story of the Portuguese discoveries of that period but to present some decisive facts which will help us understand the reasons that led those men to leave their homes, families and friends and discover new worlds.
The layout of the exhibition begins by presenting an overview of the events that preceded the discoveries and the causes of the Portuguese expansion. It continues with a description of their travels, above all their sea voyages, their encounters with unexplored lands such as Africa and Brazil and the great civilizations of the East, China, Japan and India. Finally, it examines three large themes of the discoveries: science, art and missions. The exhibition recalls that tens of thousands of men left home and settled in all the continents of the world: even when Portuguese sovereignty was withdrawn, they remained there, setting up families and becoming integrated into the territories they had found.
The Portuguese discoveries were followed by progress across a broad range of different fields: the cartography of the period was already capable of identifying all the continents and oceans; the art of navigation and maritime instruments made considerable progress; exotic fruits and spices began to be used in cooking and there were advances in medicine thanks to the new medicaments and therapeutic properties extracted from them. And wild animals, like rhinoceroses and elephants, began to appear in Europe, for example in works of art, becoming a part of the culture and entering the everyday lives of Europeans.
All over the world we can find the remains of Portuguese art, a sign of their voyages and encounters: for example in Goa, where the Portuguese built their largest church. The meetings between the Portuguese and the different peoples reveals all their gratuitousness, their openness to the Other and their involvement: each man, without forgoing his own identity, looked at the Other in his diversity, and so established relationships, was involved with openness, announcing what he held most precious: Christ in the practice of life. Today we can count some 500 dioceses around the world which were born from this involvement.
“Seeking to respond to what has been asked of us in life means seeking to become protagonists. This is asked of us to become protagonists in life, that is to say to be generators: “Protagonist” in Greek literally means “generator”, the “first agent”, the one who makes things happen” (L. GIUSSANI, Affezione e dimora, p.36).

“To be born small and to die great is to succeed in being a man. For this reason God has given us so little land on which to be born, and so much land for a tomb. To be born, little land; to die, the whole earth; to be born, Portugal; to die, the world.” (Fr. ANTÓNIO VIEIRA, Sermon of Sant Anthony, VII)