Theaters of the World: Spectacular Vision & Early Modern Iberian Expansion


This seminar focuses on the wide-ranging intellectual and artistic forms known as “theater” in the context of the Portuguese and Spanish expansion projects in the Americas during the 16th and 17th centuries.
El modo de bailar de los mexicanos. Tovar Codex. c. 1585. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

With roots in the Greek “theáomai,” “to look at or to behold,” and “théatron,” “a place for seeing,” theater in early modernity could refer to any structure that facilitated the viewing of images. The buildings where audiences watched dances, songs, and other spectacles were called theaters, approximating the term’s most common meaning today. But encyclopedias were also known as “theaters of knowledge”; nature was described as “the theater of the world”; and mnemonic devices were called “theaters of memory.” The use of the term “theater” in the titles of manuscripts and printed books announced the ambition to be comprehensive. This seminar introduces students to dramatic spectacles in the New World alongside other “theaters.” The main hypothesis is that New World theater can be better understood by analyzing how other early modern theaters organized bodies of knowledge and orchestrated visual experiences—histories, maps, grammars, emblem books, triumphal arches, etc.

Iberian expansion sparked dramatic creation. Even Iberian dramaturges, like Gil Vicente, created new kinds of autos, or short religious dramas, for the celebrated return of fleets from abroad; and early Iberian attempts to theorize theater, like those of Torres Naharro, compared the composition of new plays to the quest for new land. In the Americas, chroniclers described their amazement at the songs and dances of indigenous populations, like the Songs of the Aztecs, and pictographic codices by native artists recorded elaborate theatrical performances in the viceroyalty of New Spain.

Such dramatic creation overlapped with the re-invention of other epistemological and aesthetic forms. At the same time Franciscan and Jesuit theater in the Americas depicted faraway places, such as Germany and the Mediterranean, cartographers, like Abraham Ortelius in his Teatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theater of the World), tried to map the whole world. Iberian grammarians, like Antonio de Nebrija, saw language as a tool for empire, and New World grammarians, like José de Anchieta, honed their linguistic skills by composing theater in indigenous languages (Tupi, Nahuatl, Quechua, etc.). Jesuits and indigenous artists in the Americas created emblem books (“theaters of memory”) as well as ephemeral architecture for fiestas. In the early seventeenth century, works of Golden Age Theater, such as Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s El gran teatro del mundo (The Great Theater of the World), were re-adapted and translated into indigenous languages, revealing that there were actually multiple “theaters of the world” in this period.

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This course will be conducted in Spanish and most of the readings will be in Spanish. The course counts as an elective for LAIC majors and concentrators, who will write the assignments and final paper in Spanish. Students from outside LAIC can write the assignments and the final paper in English. This course fulfills the Global Core requirement.