Media @ McGill

Globalising the Periphery: Poland-Lithuania, World-Making and the Dispersal of Origin, 1587–1668

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Tomasz Grusiecki

 

My doctoral thesis, ‘Globalising the Periphery: Poland-Lithuania, World-Making and the Dispersal of Origin, 1587–1668’, examines the place of Polish-Lithuanian material and visual culture in a larger context of early modern Europe and the wider world. In so doing, it asks questions about the inclusion of this purportedly peripheral lore into the cultural practices of the places that are traditionally regarded as Europe’s major cultural centres. Defying the usual bias to study material and visual culture through the prism of influence, I instead argue that no cultural practice can ever exist in isolation, but only in relation to other cultural practices. By paying attention to this dynamic relational process where a culture is never stable or fully shaped, this thesis focuses on the mutual interdependence between Poland-Lithuania and other—often multiple—cultural regions.

Part 1 of this project focuses on the representations and perceptions of Polish-Lithuanian costume and custom, both domestically and in western Europe. More specifically, I explore processes of transculturation, that is, when one’s experience of another culture changes the way one thinks of their own. In the mid-sixteenth century, Polish-Lithuanian nobility largely dispensed with western European fashions and instead adopted Ottoman-style costume. I argue that this appropriation was a form of strategic essentialism embraced to oppose Poland-Lithuania’s marginality in Europe. Concurrently with championing Ottoman fashions, the country was re-imagined as the ‘European Sarmatia’ of classical geographers, a liminal place at the crossroads between east and west. The simultaneous espousal of Ottoman costume and the disavowal of its origin not only created a sense of Poland-Lithuania’s classical heritage, but also marked the country’s uniqueness from the rest of Christendom. The cultural liminality of Poland-Lithuania is crucial for my analysis as it exposes the blurry line between Christendom and the world of Islam. The first chapter addresses the process of domesticating Ottoman costume in Poland-Lithuania and its subsequent treatment as ‘native’. The following chapters discuss the cultural ambivalence of Polish-Lithuanian costume—Ottomanesque yet still European—as it was perceived in Rome, Paris and Amsterdam. I argue that the notion of Poland-Lithuania as a cross-cultural contact zone helped the political and mercantile elites of the continent’s key cities to conceptualise their own sense of belonging to the imagined community of ‘Europe’. Replacing the older category of group identity rooted in creed, ‘Christendom’, ‘Europe’ was emerging as an entangled domain defined by tangible borders, at the same time exposing the porosity of these borders. This study thus reconsiders the relationship between nativeness and foreignness by demonstrating that those sentiments were by no means antithetical, but rather two sides of the same coin.

Part 2 focuses on the questions of artistic convergence and divergence between Poland-Lithuania on the one hand, and Italy and China on the other. This part moves beyond the traditional dyads of influence/reception, self/other and native/foreign, proposing an open-ended and horizontal account of cultural entanglement. Chapter 4 examines how Polish amber shaped local identity at the Medici court in Florence. Chapter 5 charts the long visual ancestry and erratic succession line of one particular image in Michał Boym’s Flora sinensis (1656), which was the first illustrated treatise on Chinese flora and fauna. My interest lies in Boym’s potential to unsettle the paradigm of origin that has for so long denied the peripheries an equal standing in the study of visual culture. In tracing the Sum Xu‘s erratic journey through space and time, I foreground random connections, fault lines, and unexpected mutations instead of originary creative moments. The key aim of this chapter is to ‘provincialise’ the artistic centre by dismantling its role as the alleged site of originary creation, which then gradually trickled down to the peripheries. In expanding the scope of visual enquiry, this chapter thus purports to address the ways in which the study of visual culture may be renewed both for and from the margins.