The New World in Practice: Placing Columbus in a New World

14.  These significantly ornately framed woodcut images worked by encompassing and creating a politics of location–and providing a tool for describing social relations–by evoking a specific landscape.  At the same time as early world maps provided a surface to locate the new toponym that could be embodied for viewers, and reconciled with an ancient tradition of mapping the world’s surface, the Colombian letter suggested that it overcame the difficulties of envisioning the relation of Europe to the New World.

The 1493 frontispiece from a Florentine edition of the letter Columbus had purportedly penned while returning from the New World, and was first printed in Rome that June 15, ostensibly versified at the request of the Italian-born private secretary to Ferdinand, evoked the peoples that Columbus described as dwelling there on islands; the imprint of late October, 1493 included a quite rhetorically significant image rarely described as a map, but reveals a newfound interest in the authority of the map as a medium to train one’s eye accurately on the New World and its unclothed inhabitants.

Ferd II of Spain observes New World

Osher Map Library

15. The crowned Spanish monarch Ferdinand is regally shown attired in stately robes and royal regalia, indicating with one finger to express sovereign claims on the island where Columbus landed.  Although located far away from the unclothed natives–entirely women–in one island that Columbus visited with three ships, his indicated the inhabitants of the isles and the islands as if he were able to do so through a map, which has conveyed the story of the galleons’ voyages to the far-off lands across the Atlantic.  If not representing the royal authority that Columbus mediated in the New World, the reference endowed their all too difficult to imagine their existence with a reality able to be effectively converted to territorial claims:  for despite a language of universality, little sense of precedent for the expansion of monarchical authority across oceans existed.

The booklet’s very title–La lettera dellisole che ha trouata nuouamente il Re–underscored the “discover” as if it were the monarch’s very own, but was illustrated to make sure that readers clearly understood it as naming a place, and indeed showed the region as a place to which the  monarch held clearly spelled out relations:  much as if he were locating the islands of Hispaniola on a map or nautical chart, the monarch, spatially removed across the Atlantic ocean whose distance Columbus’ trio of vessels had traversed, appears posed with index finger extended, while seated, fully coiffed and costumed in full regalia at his throne, but leaning forward with decisive eagerness as he gestured to the new land and its long-haired inhabitants.

Did the map not allow him to make this gesture of claiming, naming and designating, even as Columbus had named the region that the letters purported to describe?  

Ferd II of Spain observes New World

Frontispiece, Giuliano Dati’s Italian 1493 versification of Columbus’ letter/Osher Map Library:  the Spanish Monarch surveys the caravels arriving at Hispaniola to meet unclothed, long-haired natives

The conspicuously naked natives who huddled in the island were certainly indicated as new subjects of the royal king–and are observed by the clothed sailors who act as representative of the monarch. after their arrival in Hispaniola.  The composure and studied poise of the seated monarch contrasts to the native populations of women who the sailors are shown as first encountering as they reach its shores, watching what seems a moving dance from the boats in which they are seated, almost motionless, witnesses of the long-haired women and, it seems, a bearded man, whose figures seem to almost vibrate as they move across the field of vision, the lines of their long wavy hair echoing the lines on the thatched huts behind them, beside a palm tree that bisects the frame of the engraving and seems to define the distance and remove of the far-off island people from the grasses and flowers on the shore where the monarch sits.

Despite the absence of what we might consider a “map,” the politics of location are symbolically underscored by this 1493 frontispiece to a  popular book.  Indeed, the designation by a pointed finger of the monarch from his throne provided a gesture of internalization and symbolic condensation concretizing relations of power across the seas, less credibly represented in a planispheric or terrestrial map.  In ways that revise the frontispiece to De Insulis super in mari Indico repertis (1494) but which dispenses with variations among New World natives, the Dati frontispiece suggests the ability of maps to conjure the far away as if it lay close at hand, transporting the observer as if he were a royal sovereign himself; rather than offering a summary and condensation of what Columbus and his sailors saw, the woodcut symbolizes a sudden contraction of spatial relations across the oceanic expanse of the Atlantic that the Letter promised, and indeed on which it promised to transport those readers who read about the customs, habits and material attractions of this world whose religion and rulership were unknown.

The elevated regal index finger by which the monarch imperiously indicates the island and its inhabitants across the Atlantic–“unless it is pointed as a prelude to a fist,” as Bruno Latour has written recently in quite another context about indicating the frontiers between forest and savannah after his expedition through the Boa Vista forest in Brazil: “the extension of the index finger always signals an access to reality even when it targets a mere piece of paper, an access which in this case encompasses the totality of the site . . .  [in which] thanks to inscriptions, we are able to oversee and control a situation . . . and we are able to gather together synoptically all the actions that occurred over many days and that we have since forgotten.”  Ferdinand’s indication of the far-off land is a way to bring it within the ambit, however improbably, of his own claims to monarchy and rule, and to bring it closer to be interpreted within the discourses of rule and domination that European viewers would be better able to understand–beckoning to the recently discovered islands to indicate proximity, as if to include the New World within the sphere of a radically expanded monarchy by a gesture towards those lands lying far across the sea.

Insulis in mari Indico 1494

1494 Basel edition, folio 29v (courtesy Osher Map Library/University of Southern Maine):  Columbus’ Landing in the New World

The depiction of the moment of landing in Hispaniola and contact with the New World was imbedded in the volume that reprinted Columbus’ letter, but defined the Colombian moment of knowledge of the other and the unknown.

Columbus had frequently described himself as sailing “in search of the islands that the Indians told him had much gold, and some of which had more gold than earth” shortly before Christmas 1492, in ships whose speed and maneuverability led them to be praised as “ocean-going vessels,” also described by contemporary sailors as Inigo Arrieta as ‘’corredoras extremadas, buenas para descubrir tierras“–but for which no plans or single iconographical tradition exists.  The most Christian monarch had of course been most interested in dispatching Columbus to discover a route of trade to Asia, but was readily recast as the interested ruler of these new far-off lands, having recently expelled Muslims and Jews from his state in exercise of his sovereign powers.  The wonders of the world revealed to the King of Spain in these far off lands offered an occasion for a prophecy about what the future of the very islands taken by the King would be–and what its inhabitants were.

16. A German-language woodcut imagined the wondrous discoveries in the New World as personally described by Christ to the Spanish monarch, as if the expedition were an extension of a pastoral effort.

funden synd durch der kunig von Hispania

Frontispieces that were printed in subsequent editions of his letter met the popularity of the treatise by transposing the “map” onto a landscape view, prominently naming and conjuring the far-off places of the “Insula hyspana” where the Spanish ships encountered “unclothed” inhabitants who lived with the near-absence of built structures, before being renamed subjects of the Spanish monarch.  (The nudity of these future colonial subjects, as well as testifying to their vulnerability and aquisition to Europeans’ arrival, echoes the lascivious attributes so famously described in multiple accounts of the New World –in a particularly evident whitewashing of the actual violence against women and children inflicted by Columbus and his sailors after their transatlantic transit, acts of violent possession which led to mass-suicide of inhabitants.

Canoe as CHinese Junk 1494 Basle

“Spain” was, as is often noted, a new construction in the early modern world.  The victory of their “Catholic majesties” Ferdinand and Isabella, whose 1479 marriage had united the previously separate kingdoms of Castille and Aragon, which were recently expanded by the conquest of Granada, the sole territory which Moors ruled in Iberia, celebrated in the very same book that the letter was reprinted and appeared.  The context and placement of the letter must have implicitly presented the islands as new possibilities for conversion of their most Catholic majesties, and the 1494 Basel edition prominently included a new mapping of the islands on its seventy-fourth page.  The late insertion in this landlocked city of a map within an edition of the Columbus letter, itself claimed to be from the navigator’s own hand, created the first mapping of the islands that Columbus had described.

Although a map was not included in the early editions of the Letter, the Basel edition included one explanatory map, curiously from an edition printed in a landlocked city, without orientational cues or indices of longitude and latitude, to illustrate the plurimas Iu[n]sulas innumeris habitatas hominibus.  The image of a set of magical islands in open seas gestured to the romantic poetic tradition of an isolario or book of islands to magnify the romance of discovery and stories of fantastic wealth or riches:  in the context of the letter, it seems both to provide a confirmation of the new places located in the ocean that perpetuates the myth of their abundant wealth, and a reminder of the access that the departure of Columbus with the charge from Ferdinand to find an access to the Indies directed his ships to these islands.

Leave a comment

Filed under Columbus, commemoration, geographic mobility, Voyage of Discovery, World Maps

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.