- Visions of Persia: Mapping the Travels of Adam Olearius
Elio Brancaforte's book fully delivers what it promises. As suggested by its title, the reader finds in it several "visions" of the region now known as Iran and its vicinity; as the title announces, the book focuses on the account of Adam Olearius, a seventeenth-century German humanist traveling as the official secretary of the Holstein mission to Persia. Somewhat unexpectedly however, this study is most informative when dwelling on the visual aids of this and other works by Olearius: that is to say, when it reads the engravings that constitute the narration's frontispiece in addition to those that adorn Olearius's varied repertory of works.
Hence, the first part of this study details the Holstein mission to Persia in the middle of the Thirty Years' War and lays out its commercial ambitions; the second and third sections are dedicated to the different ways in which Olearius interprets the early modern frontispiece. Finally, the book ends with a section on Olearius as a cartographer followed by a series of concluding thoughts. This division reflects Brancaforte's intent of exploring the link between the written and the visual text, and he certainly is most persuasive when delivering his reading of Olearius's images.
Each subject analyzed here is contextualized within the appropriate field of study. Thus, Brancaforte situates Olearius's travel against the backdrop of early-modern European travels to Persia, the engravings that illustrate this narrative are interpreted in relation to the genre of the Baroque frontispiece, and Olearius's translations and maps are each juxtaposed to other contemporary examples of their genres. This setup adds clarity to the structure of the book, uncovering the design that governs it by revealing the link between words and images. Simultaneously, though, it can also leave the reader at times not completely satisfied, since its [End Page 645] investigation spreads in many directions, thus limiting the chances of a deeper analysis of each. This is a trait, however, that renders the book appealing to a wider audience than the scholarly community most often pursuing similar studies.
On the other end, Brancaforte's study is particularly informative when developing a reading of the western vision of the East that emerges from widely used symbols and motives, offering a detailed analysis of the genre of the Baroque frontispiece and of the tropes that recur in the representations of the East. Once again, the study aims at demonstrating how the interplay of words and images is necessary to convey a meaning that couldn't have been fully developed otherwise. Such intent is carried on nicely in the reading of the frontispieces' representation of the written texts that they accompany. As an example of such felicitous reading, the motive of flaying — here analyzed in the frontispiece of Jan Janszoon Struys's travel account — stands out over and above the others given its highly charged symbolism.
Another merit of this study lies in its awareness of the limits posed by the impossibility of comparing Olearius's account to Persian views of the encounter. Brancaforte pursues this direction of analysis, but abandons this line because "unfortunately there is hardly any Persian material — be it visual or verbal — that relates to the visit of the Germans" (187). His comparativist background, however, seems to necessitate a reflection of "two separate moments of encounter between the two cultures" (188), namely one of the illustration to Olearius's Vermehrte Newe Reisebeschreibung (its account of the Holstein mission to Persia) and an unfinished drawing by Jurgen Ovens showing the Duke Frederick III receiving the Persian ambassador. Textual narratives accompany both these documents, a condition that fits Brancaforte's analytical intent. By choosing to end his book with this juxtaposition, he clearly indicates the direction in which further research could be pursued in order to add another dimension to what constitutes an already persuasive and stimulating inquiry.