Seville Takes Book Hunters To Heaven

A visit to Seville, in the southwestern region of the Iberian peninsula known as Andalusia, is a high point of any trip to Spain, and for very good reason. The uncommonly beautiful city has an enviable climate, delightful people, splendid and reasonably priced food, crisp and dry wines, and, everywhere, compelling resonances with the past.

Truly a beautiful place.

For bibliophiles with an abiding concern for the continuum, Seville offers two remarkably significant libraries: the Archivo General de Indias (General Archive of the Indies) and the Biblioteca Columbina (Columbus Library). Both are located in the heart of a historical district dominated by the magnificent Gothic Cathedral of Seville. Built between 1401 and 1519 on the site of a former mosque, the cathedral retains the mosque’s ornate twelfth-century tower, called the Giralda. Adjoining the cathedral is the Alcazar, an exotic palace-fortress built in the fourteenth century on a site that still reflects the influences of many cultures, including Roman, Paleochristian, Visigoth, and Arabic. For these landmarks, and more, the classical Spanish writer Luis Zapata described this area near the Guadalquivir River as “the best patch of land” in all of Spain.

Conquest on Paper

Spain’s determined adventures in the New World encouraged a bureaucratic passion for documentation. Indeed, the reign of Philip II (1556-1598) has been described by historians as a period of “government by paper.” On one day alone, it is said, Philip read and signed four hundred documents. “No wonder his eyes grew red with the strain, or that his face acquired the parchment colour of a man who had come to live among, and for, his papers,” J.H. Elliott notes in The Spanish World (Harry N. Abrams, 1991).

The Archive of the Indies was established by Charles III in 1785 to serve as a central repository for materials relating to the Indies then being stored throughout Spain. The immediate catalyst was the frustration felt by Jose de Galves, Marquis of Sonora, who had been commissioned in 1779 to write a general history of the Indies based on “irrefutable documents.” To his dismay, he discovered that much of what he needed was “widely scattered” among many offices, leading ultimately to the creation of a general archive that gathered everything of pertinence under one roof.

As an institution, the archive’s function is not unlike that of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., the official record-keeper of the United States. In Washington, the historical record extends back two and a quarter centuries; in Seville, by contrast, the papers preserved embrace close to half a millennium. The archive’s eighty million pages document nothing less than the exploration, conquest, pacification, settlement, defense, and charting by Spain of an area extending from what is now the southern United States to the lower tip of South America, a region western Europeans called, when they first encountered it, the New World. Materials relating to the Philippines and the Spanish Far East are also on file.

The Archive of the Indies is housed in a rectangular structure built between 1583 and 1646 that once served as headquarters for the Commodity Exchange of Seville, a consortium of merchants doing business overseas. Surrounded by palm trees and flanked by ancient stone stanchions linked by black chains, the building is equally attractive inside. Its spacious rooms, called bays, feature arched ceilings, thick mahogany shelves, and translucent floors inset with polished slabs of Malaga marble. The archive comprises some forty-three thousand bulky legajos, or bundles, each containing about a thousand sheets of manuscript, ten percent of them accessible by computer. Storage boxes filling the shelves upstairs are largely decorative, with the collections now housed in safer, environmentally sound areas in the basement. About seven thousand maps and a support library of twenty-five thousand books also form part of the collection.

During my visit in February, the two reading rooms bustled with readers — about seventy, by my count, within an hour after the archive opened — fully half of them delicately scrutinizing old papers at wooden desks. The others were logged on to forty computer terminals made available to researchers whose requests for access had been approved. Exhibitions are mounted regularly and are open to the public; during my visit, an impressive show titled Felipe II y America: Las Ordenanzas de 1573 displayed various maps, ordinances, charts, fortification plans, settlement sketches, decrees, and administrative reports from various sixteenth-century activities in Spanish America.

To describe adequately the breadth of the materials in a few sentences is a formidable task. Pedro Gonzalez Garcia makes an admirable effort in Discovering the Americas (Vendome Press, 1997), a splendid history of the archive that features 250 color photographs:

   The Catholic Kings and Christopher Columbus, the conquistadors and the

   discoverer, missionaries and encomenderos, masters and slaves, viceroys and

   natives, seamen and merchants, elite officialdom and emigrants, judges and

   protectors of Indians in the New World, treasures and shipwrecked galleons,

   city-building and silver and gold mining, printing works and universities

   leap from the time-worn pages.

A Son’s Tribute

Just a five-minute walk away, in a rear annex of the great cathedral next door, is the Biblioteca Columbina, a discrete collection of six thousand books gathered with consummate taste more than four hundred years ago by Hernando Colon — Hernando Columbus (1488-1539) — the illegitimate son of Christopher Columbus and Beatriz Enriquez de Arana, a Spanish peasant the explorer met when he moved to Spain sometime between late 1485 and mid-1486 (Colon is the Spanish name for Columbus). Beatriz’ brother, Pedro de Arana, commanded one of the caravels that sailed on Columbus’s third voyage to the New World in 1498.

The contrast between the two libraries is striking. By design, the Archive of the Indies is vast and all-encompassing. The Columbus Library represents a considered gathering of books, a focused collection in every sense, assembled within the four walls of one room by the son of a man whose horizons were measured by the scope of the earth itself.

Usually called Fernando or Ferdinand by English-language historians, Hernando was just four years old in 1492 when his father embarked on the first eventful voyage out of Palos with three small ships. In his memoirs, he provides an eyewitness account of the departure of the second voyage, a fleet of seventeen vessels that carried fifteen hundred hopeful colonists: “Wednesday, on the 25th of September of the year 1493, an hour before sunrise, my brother and I being present, the Admiral raised anchors in the Port of Cadiz.”

Nine years later the Admiral of the Ocean Sea took his son along on the fourth voyage. After the death of his father in 1506, Hernando, who never married, became a very wealthy man, with a handsome income derived from property and slave holdings in the West Indies. At long last, he was able to indulge in high style his passion for literature. He traveled widely through Europe, acquiring books at every stop. In 1509, he went to Santo Domingo on an official mission to establish churches and monasteries. He is known to have accompanied Charles V, a close friend, on at least three journeys abroad. He settled finally in Seville, which had become the center of American trade, to concentrate on scholarship. A skilled cosmographer, he directed an official effort charged with correcting navigation charts and developing a globe that would take account of new discoveries.

Hernando intended first and foremost to pay tribute to his father’s achievements. But he also was an accomplished man of letters. He compiled a dictionary of Latin definitions and wrote a treatise on the colonization of the Indies. His biography of his father, a book with a title so lengthy that it usually is referred to simply by the first word, Historie, was completed shortly before his death in 1539. Hernando’s manuscript has long since disappeared, so what serves as the primary text for the biography is an Italian translation by Alfonso Ulloa, printed in Venice in 1571. An English version, The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus by His Son Ferdinand, translated and edited by Benjamin Keen, came out in 1959 (Rutgers University Press). Because the first printed version is not in Spanish, and because no manuscript has survived, some have questioned the biography’s authenticity. Most Columbus scholars, however, including the eminent Samuel Eliot Morison, accept it as genuine. Henry Vignaud, noted French author of numerous histories and monographs on Columbus, has called Hernando’s biography “the most important of our sources of information on the life of the discoverer of America.”

Hernando’s library today is contained within the cathedral complex adjacent to an ancient courtyard installed hundreds of years ago and known as the Patio de los Naranjos, or the Court of the Orange Trees. Here, in thirteen glazed cases resides what remains of an extraordinary collection gathered by Hernando over a period of thirty years, from 1509 until his death in 1539. As a “book place,” this tiny library has a quiet majesty about it, a transcendence that suggests Christopher Marlowe’s wonderful phrase “infinite riches in a little room.”

Anthony Hobson includes the Biblioteca Columbina in Great Libraries (G.P. Putnam’s, 1970), his marvelous survey of thirty-two institutions from the early Renaissance through the mid-twentieth century, and cites Hernando as being “unique among early library founders in placing the emphasis in his collection on the contemporary and the ephemeral.”

Although Hernando acquired some manuscripts, he concentrated on printed books, making him one of the first collectors to specialize in this area. “He bought romances of chivalry and chansons de geste, ballads, carols and poetry of all kinds, moral tales and love stories, saints’ lives, accounts of miracles, prodigies and funerals, relations of current events, mystery plays, prognostications, chapbooks and jestbooks,” Hobson writes. “He bought his books to read.”

Hernando entered detailed notes in all of his books, including information on how much each volume cost, in what currency he paid, and the rate of exchange in Castilian money. As a happy consequence, scholars can track his book-hunting excursions and follow the development of his library. It can be determined, for instance, that he bought books in Rome in 1512-1513, in Italy in 1515-1516, and in Flanders, Germany, Italy, and England in 1520-1522. Hobson includes a detailed examination of this custom in Great Libraries.

In a complicated will, Hernando left the library to his nephew Luis and, as a second beneficiary, the Cathedral Council. As happens so often with a bequest of books, Luis was indifferent to the collection and proved himself an unworthy heir, neglecting the library for many years. The Cathedral Council gained title to the books in 1552 and promptly moved them to the room just off the Court of Orange Trees known as the Nave of the Lizard.

Samuel Eliot Morison writes in Admiral of the Ocean Sea (Little Brown, 1942) that the books continued to suffer from “shameful neglect and dilapidation,” so that today only about six thousand volumes from Hernando’s original library of fifteen thousand remain. Nevertheless, as Morison notes, “this Biblioteca Columbina, adjoining the great cathedral where the Admiral worshiped and where his sons lie buried, is today an inspiration for every American scholar; an alembic as it were where a new civilization was distilled from classical scholarship, medieval piety and modern science.”

Included among the many treasures that do survive is a core collection of items owned by the admiral himself. One high spot is a copy of Marco Polo’s travel diary, annotated in the margins by Columbus. Erasmus of Rotterdam’s Antibarbarorum liber unus contains a handwritten note by the author along with a few words from the ebullient collector: “Erasmus gave it to me in Lovaina on October 7, Sunday, in 1520; Erasmus himself wrote here, with his own hand, the first two lines.”

During my visit to the Biblioteca Columbina, Director Dr. Nuria Casquete de Prado Sagrera said the book she feels is the “jewel of jewels of the collection” is an early printed edition of the Roman dramatist Seneca’s Tragedies (Venice, 1510). These celebrated words appear in the play Medea:

   The age will come in the late years

   When ocean will unlock its chains

   And a great land lie open;

   Typhis shall reveal new worlds,

   And Thule will no longer be

   Earth's Boundary.

In his copy of the book, Hernando penned this comment: “This prophecy was fulfilled by my father, the Admiral in the year 1492.”

A special bookplate has been inserted in each volume in the Columbus Library and contains these words: “Hernando Columbus, son of Christopher Columbus, First Admiral who discovered the Indies, left this book for the use and benefit of all his fellow men. Say a prayer for him.”

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