The French geographer and author André Thevet (1516-1590) was born in Angoulême and died in Paris. In early life he was compelled to enter a Franciscan monastery, where he dedicated himself to his studies, being gifted with a prodigious memory although not much inclined towards religion. Thevet was a protegé of Francis I, who entrusted him with various missions. While in Italy, he became acquainted with the cardinal of Lorraine, who financed his journey to the East in 1549. On his return to France, Thevet published the chronicle of his voyage, entitled "Cosmographie du Levant". In 1555 Thevet left France as chaplain to an expedition intending to found a French colony in Brazil, in order to protect the emigrants from Normandy involved with extracting an expensive red pigment from the wood of a rare tree that grows in the area. Thevet stayed on an island at the entrance to Rio de Janeiro Bay, and returned to France sick, ten weeks afterwards. In 1557, he published "Les Singularitez de la France antarctique", with his observations on the New World. This work made Thevet famous, and was translated into English and Italian. Among the novelties in Thevet’s work are the first descriptions of the pineapple, cashew nuts, the toucan bird and the tapir. He is also accredited with introducing the cultivation of tobacco to Europe. In 1560, Thevet was named Cosmographer to the King and Chaplain to Catherine de Medici. He served successively four kings of France, while at the same time building a rare collection of Greek and Roman coins, and curiosities of nature from Mexico and Brazil. From 1566, Thevet worked on a universal multi-volume geographical encyclopedia, "Cosmographie universelle", which was published in 1575. His other monumental work, the "isolario" titled "Le Grand Insulaire et Pilotage", was left unfinished, and its contents remain scattered to this day. Last, Thevet published the "Vrais portraits et vies des hommes illustres", in which he presents, in the manner of Plutarch, two hundred and twenty-four illustrious historical personalities from the places he had visited, with the corresponding illustrations.
Thevet sailed to the East from Venice. His first port of call was Crete; he makes scathing comments on Orthodox priests, writes on the mythical inhabitants the Telchines, and mentions the earthquakes to which the island is prone. Of the Aegean islands, he provides information on Chios and Lesbos. He also describes the Dardanelles and Callipolis. Thevet stayed in Constantinople for two years, probably entrusted with an obscure diplomatic mission. Notable are his chapters on the Byzantine hippodrome, lions, tigers, elephants and camels. Thevet also visited Chalcedon and the Bosporus. He voyaged to the Holy Land, visiting "en route" Rhodes, continental Greece (?), Egypt and Syria. From Cyprus he sailed to Sicily and subsequently to Marseilles.
Thevet’s personality was controversial already in his own time. Contemporary research has shown that the text of the "Cosmographie du Levant" was in fact composed by François de Belleforest (1530-1583), a scribe in his entourage. The friendship between the two men turned to mutual hatred. The chronicle was successful, mainly thanks to its twenty-five wood engravings with the curiosities (antiquities, rare flora and fauna) described in the text. However, the information it provides as a whole is a digest of ancient sources rather than a result of first-hand observation.
As Thevet scholar Frank Lestringant has demonstrated, the chronicle of this voyage incorporates descriptions by Strabo, Pliny, Solinus, Pomponius Melas, Diodorus Siculus, Herodotus, passages from the Gospels and the Epistles, as well as texts by contemporary erudite men such as the professor of Greek and Latin L. C. Rhodiginus, the humanists G. Budé and Erasmus, the lexicographer A. Calepino and the physician J. Vadianus. Additional data were “borrowed” from travellers such as La Broderie, P. Gilles, P. Belon, and the geographer S. Münster.
Written by Ioli Vingopoulou