- The Travels and Journal of Ambrosio Bembo, and: Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discoveries, 1400–1800
These two books that came out in 2007 from prestigious university presses are important contributions to travel writing and historiography. Ambrosio Bembo’s travelogue is a fascinating logbook of his journey from Venice through the Middle East to India and back, providing a unique glimpse at the cultural geography experienced by a seventeenth-century European merchant. Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s scholarly work opens with remarkable clarity and large brushwork some new vistas on the way in which the rich and varied cultural space between Turkey and China was perceived, inhabited, appreciated, and made sense of by the Persian, Turkish, and Indian Muslim (with the exception of the Russian orthodox Nikitin) travelers [End Page 240] from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century. While the first book consists principally of a translation of the seventeenth-century unpublished text written in Italian, the second book by an accomplished tandem of historians versed in European and Asian languages needed for this endeavor is, as one may by now expect from them, a whole library of travel writing with extensive plot summaries, appropriate footnotes, and an ample bibliography.
One should underline a major difference in editorial approach between these two printed works. From the finished product, it is clear that the University of California Press preferred to attract a wider audience by paring down scholarly apparatus to a minimum. Given that the translation was made from a manuscript in Italian, extant in two examples, one of which is not even properly referenced and the other in an American library, we are forced to accept the translation by Clara Bargellini (which reads well) and the academic editorial solutions by Anthony Welch on a great deal of trust. Moreover, the fifty-two line drawings by the French draftsman Guillaume Joseph Grélot, who accompanied Ambrosio Bembo on his return journey from Goa to Venice, are reproduced too small for careful viewing. In addition, when the drawings are indicated in the introduction and elsewhere in the main text, the careful reader will be perplexed by the muddled numbering and downright mistakes (p. 29). A very meager bibliography and an index with too many lacunae are also regrettable.
On the other hand, Indo-Persian Travels from Cambridge University Press is a scholar’s feast that makes few concessions to readers unacquainted with the larger historical and geographical context. Every single text is properly repertoired and all the historical actors are identified as far as possible. However, the idle but cultured English-speaking curiosi and curiose may feel uneasy in reading this book because of the density and unfamiliarity of places, people, and things. The effort is, however, worthwhile.
One of the merits of The Travels and Journal of Ambrosio Bembo is its detailed information about trade routes between Aleppo and Goa, the manner in which one traveled on land and along the waterways, and the careful dating, sometimes to the hour, of his four-year expedition (1671–1675). Although he does not mention it, Bembo must have kept a diary all through the journey as well as an expense account, printed at the end of the text. We also get a sense of the way he managed his financial resources and the problems he faced in cashing in his promissory notes along the way. It may come as a surprise that members of the European religious orders (Franciscans, Discalced Carmelites, and Capuchins) were often intermediaries in financial transactions. In their [End Page 241] monasteries and residences placed strategically along the trade routes, they also provided board and lodging to the European travelers.
It is clear from Bembo’s transactions that his journey was no mercantile enterprise. He had nothing...