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Nature in the New World

Nature in the New World: From Christopher Columbus to Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo

Copyright Date: 1975
Pages: 480
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    Nature in the New World
    Book Description:

    InNature in the New World(translated 1985), Antonello Gerbi examines the fascinating reports of the first Europeans to see the Americas. These accounts provided the basis for the images of strange and new flora, fauna, and human creatures that filled European imaginations.Initial chapters are devoted to the writings of Columbus, Vespucci, Cortés, Verrazzano, and others. The second portion of the book concerns theHistoria general y natural de las Indiasof Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, a work commissioned by Charles V of Spain in 1532 but not published in its entirety until the 1850s. Antonello Gerbi contends that Oviedo, a Spanish administrator who lived in Santo Domingo, has been unjustly neglected as a historian. Gerbi shows that Oviedo was a major authority on the culture, history, and conquest of the New World.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7381-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Translator’s Preface
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  2. Part 1. From Columbus to Verrazzano

    • I Introduction
      (pp. 3-11)

      THIS study of Oviedo and the earliest chroniclers of American nature grew out of my research on the “weakness of America,” in other words the thesis that the American continent is in some way inferior—and, to be more specific, immature—in relation to the Old World, and that animal life in America suffers from degeneration and arrested development. Hegel is the most famous exponent of this thesis, which was first formulated in scientific terms by Buffon.

      It is of course true that chroniclers and travelers had referred to relatively weak or inferior aspects of American nature long before Buffon,...

    • II Christopher Columbus
      (pp. 12-22)

      CHRISTOPHER Columbus had things other than nature to occupy his mind. His indifference to some of the most astonishing aspects of the Americas, such as the new constellations to be seen in the American heavens, has been remarked on more than once.¹ The flora and fauna of America do, however, immediately attract his attention and even manage to distract him momentarily from the search for gold, producing reactions in him that already contain in microcosm all the later attitudes of the European in America.

      It is now more than a century since Humboldt congratulated Columbus on being as shrewd an...

    • III Doctor Alvarez Chanca
      (pp. 23-26)

      ONE of the members of the Admiral’s second expedition was a doctor from Seville, Alvarez Chanca. And from Hispaniola, Dr. Chanca wrote a letter-cum-report to the cathedral chapter of Seville which was read and used by Andrés Bernáldez but subsequently remained unpublished right up to the beginning of the last century, when Navarrete published it. In view of its date, late 1493 or early 1494,¹ of the rarity of other authentic accounts of the second voyage (which was in fact, as we know, the first voyage of reconnaissance and colonization of the new lands discovered accidentally on the 1492 voyage),...

    • IV Nicolò Scillacio
      (pp. 27-30)

      NICOLÒ Scillacio too was a doctor, but his affinities with Chanca go no further than this shared profession. First and foremost, Scillacio, a Sicilian and doctor and teacher at the University of Pavia, never set foot in America. He did however visit Spain as a young man and was later in Barcelona where he studied a “novelty” of pathology, the so-called Gallic disease, and he was always a great friend of the Spanish. Secondly, Scillacio wrote his epistle to Ludovico il Moro,De insulis meridiani atque Indici maris nuper inventis(13 December 1494),¹ not in Castilian but in Latin, thus...

    • V Michele da Cuneo
      (pp. 31-34)

      NO less realistic, indeed at times quite bluntly and cheerfully coarse, is Michele da Cuneo, a native of Savona, who sailed with the second expedition and told its story in a letter (to Gerolamo Annari) dated 15–28 October 1495. With his unqualified devotion to the Admiral and the frankness of his impressions, Michele da Cuneo seems to give us a rough foretaste of the so much later account which Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote (in 1568) glorifying Cortés and the conquest of Mexico. But his simplicity, or rather inexpertise, does not prevent him attempting what is the first methodical...

    • VI Amerigo Vespucci
      (pp. 35-44)

      THE contrast between Columbus the visionary and Vespucci the realist is a cliché of Americanist literature. With the added twist of the now familiar series of events that led to the New World being given the name of the Florentine rather than the Genoese,¹ the theme lends itself to such obvious and prolific variations on the ironies of men’s destinies, on geniuses cheated of their due glory and astuteness or downright fraud triumphing over innocence that it is small wonder it should have prospered and be prospering still in the immense congeries of writings on the subject.

      The contrast is...

    • VII The Pseudo-Vespucci
      (pp. 45-49)

      AFTER Magnaghi’s studies, the authenticity of the reports attributed to Amerigo Vespucci—theMundus Novus(August 1504) and the letter to Pier Soderini known in various reprints and translations as theQuatuor Navigationes(September 1504)—is generally rejected. They were drafted by some unknown and not very talented scholar in the early sixteenth century on the basis of the Florentine’s few and sober original letters, and rushed into print to exploit the momentary thirst for information on the New World and the eternal hunger for tales of marvels and fantasy. The crudeness of the author’s Latin, the naivety of some...

    • VIII Peter Martyr
      (pp. 50-75)

      CONSIDERABLY different from Columbus’s attitude is that of Peter Martyr, “the Livy of American historiography,”¹ the Milanese humanist at the court of the Catholic Kings whose letters and pamphlets to princes, bishops, and scholars first spread the news of the transoceanic discoveries throughout civilized Europe,² Peter Martyr has nothing of Columbus’s mystical temperament: the influence of his beloved teacher, the paganizing Pomponius Laetus; his familiarity with the Latin classics; and the very environment of the court, in which he always seems to have been thoroughly at home, obtaining important offices, honorary missions, and substantial benefices—everything combined to produce in...

    • IX Martín Fernández de Enciso’s Suma de Geographía
      (pp. 76-91)

      WHEN Martín Fernández de Enciso, bachelor of laws and veteran of the Indies—where he had fought under Ojeda’s orders and worked on Ojeda’s behalf—sat down to draft hisSuma de Geographía, first published in Seville in 1519 (and reprinted in 1530 and 1546), he was well aware of its originality. This was no journal, or relation, no mere letter or series of letters on this or that newly discovered land. TheSuma de Geographíais not only the first book on America printed in Spanish,¹ it is a general treatment not just of the West Indies but of...

    • X Hernán Cortés
      (pp. 92-99)

      THE five letters in which Cortés tells the emperor the story of his discoveries and conquests take us a step backward, though not so much chronologically (they date from 1520–1526) as in the author’s attitude to the new lands described. They remind us less of Peter Martyr’s keen curiosity and immediate mental sympathy than of Columbus’s determined efforts to convince their Catholic Majesties that they made a really good deal when they agreed to fit out his expedition. Cortés does not address himself to a readership of cultivated scholars, but to his superior and sovereign. He never forgets that...

    • XI Antonio Pigafetta
      (pp. 100-112)

      On 8 September 1522 there arrived in Seville the wretched and glorious remnant of Magellan’s great expedition—just one ship with 18 survivors, of the five ships and 237 (or more likely 265 or maybe 280)¹ men that had quit that same port on 10 August 1519; the ship dropped anchor near the wharf for which they had so long been yearning, all the guns were fired, and the following day, barefoot and in their shifts, candles in hand, they trudged to the churches to fulfil the vows they had made in their hour of peril. For the task of...

    • XII Giovanni da Verrazzano
      (pp. 113-116)

      THE letter from Giovanni da Verrazzano to King Francis I (8 July 1524) incorporates a large stretch of the coastline of North America within the description of American nature, which had hitherto been confined to the lands discovered by the Spaniards, and thus brings into the picture details and characteristics markedly different from those observed in Central and South America. It also affirms the continentality of the Americas, previously looked on as mere appendages or breakwaters of Asia.¹

      The Florentine’s report, though it remained largely unknown until recent times (despite the appearance of Hakluyt’s English translation in 1582, long before...

    • XIII The Spanish Government and the Geographical Knowledge of the Indies
      (pp. 117-123)

      THE crown’s desire for detailed information on the newly discovered lands appears to have been neither as intense nor as constant as the scientific curiosity of the cultured classes in Europe in general, and Italy in particular. Jiménez de la Espada, who studied more than fifty instructions and “capitulations” addressed to captains, pilots, and adventurers between 1501 and 1573, in the course of his research into the antecedents of the famous “Ordenanzas de poblaciones y descubrimientos” of 1573, found himself forced to conclude that there was no invariable directive on this point. Sometimes the departing explorers were asked to furnish...

    • Interlude
      (pp. 124-126)

      BEFORE looking at Oviedo’s ideas on nature in the Americas it might not be amiss to take stock of the sum total of knowledge gathered and set down before the publication of hisSumario(1526). This is in fact the only way we can hope to assess the novelty of his contribution and see each of his observations in its true perspective. Our rapid review of the writings of all those who preceded Oviedo in settling their gaze on the physical reality of the New World was of course undertaken for that very purpose.

      But now that we find ourselves...

  3. Part 2. Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo

    • XIV Life and Literary Reputation
      (pp. 129-144)

      OVIEDO’S literary reputation has suffered curious fluctuations. TheSumariowas a huge and immediate success and theHistoria General y Natural de las lndiaseven more so. The first part of theHistoria, the only part published in the author’s lifetime, in 1535, was reprinted (1547), translated into French (by Jean Poleur, 1555),¹ and included, in Italian, in the third part, of Giovan Battista Ramusio’s classicRaccolta de navigationi et viaggi(Venice, 1550–1556).²

      The success of that first part is further proved—albeit negatively—by the various explanations put forward for the nonpublication of the other parts, which Oviedo...

    • XV Oviedo and Italy
      (pp. 145-200)

      THE chronicler’s relations with the men, things, cities, and books of the peninsula call for closer scrutiny. We might pick up the story again with his arrival, at the age of twenty-two, at the Aragonese court of Naples (above, chap. XIV). For though, as we have seen, Oviedo traveled the length and breadth of Italy, from Milan and possibly Turin all the way down to Palermo, the most important moment, and most lasting memory, was his stay in Parthenope.

      Early in 1501 France and Spain had come to an agreement—adducing various hypocritical pretexts and with prompt pontifical blessing from...

    • XVI The Claribalte
      (pp. 201-212)

      IT was to Ferdinand, duke of Calabria, firstborn son of King Frederick of Aragon, that Oviedo dedicated—both in the frontispiece and in the woodcut embellishing it—the first printed work to bear his name, the chivalric romance entitled theClaribalte. Unfortunately theClaribalteis one of those irritating works that pose more problems, arouse more hopes, and leave the reader with more doubts than their intrinsic merit can possibly justify.

      TheClaribaltewas formally repudiated by its author and is in fact a somewhat sorry work. It was written, however, in 1519 and therefore deserves a certain attention as...

    • XVII Historical Criteria and Geographical Setting
      (pp. 213-254)

      WHEN the thirty-six-year-old Oviedo stepped ashore in America for the first time and settled his gaze on the new lands his prompt and joyful reaction was an avid thirst for knowledge, just as it had been when, seventeen years earlier, he first greeted the lands, courts, and cities of Italy. Once again he felt the thrill of a sudden and vast expansion of his mental horizons. And just as his time in Italy had served to complete his own education, rounding out his own upbringing with the intellectual riches of humanism, so his immediate response on arriving in the Indies...

    • XVIII View of the Historical and Natural World
      (pp. 255-305)

      FOR Oviedo, everything is material for history. But his view of the world of men is altogether different from his view of the realms of nature. Natural history and “general” history are coupled even in the title of his major work. In a certain sense, as we have already seen, one is the necessary complement of the other. But just as they are unequal in their degree of certainty and therefore in historical worthiness, so Oviedo’s attitude of mind toward the two fields varies. Possibly as a reflection of the abovementioned gnoseological premises or more probably as a result of...

    • XIX Relics of Medievalism and Dawn of a New Society
      (pp. 306-377)

      THE above claims, however, are not intended to present Oviedo as being more “modern” than he really is. Oviedo is a typical Renaissance Spaniard, and the Spanish Renaissance is notorious for the way certain medieval elements stubbornly survived alongside the innovatory and progressive tendencies.¹ This association of long outdated cultural forms with the fruitful seeds of the new era tends at first sight to be rather disconcerting and sometimes, on closer examination, proves to have that alluring and ambiguous fascination that all hybrids have. Sixteenth-century Spanish literature, art, and political institutions are often found to contain features and elements which...

    • XX The Quinquagenas
      (pp. 378-384)

      WE have already seen how the progression from the earlier to the later books of theHistoryis accompanied by a steadily increasing occurrence of sermons, homilies, and edifying observations. It comes as no surprise, therefore, to find that theQuinquagenas, composed by Oviedo in his ripe but prolific old age (1546–1556), consist almost entirely of such elements. Perhaps we should really be glad that Oviedo had this moralistic work constantly to hand as a ready-made outlet for his banal reflections and puerile precepts, many of which therefore never found their way into theHistory.¹ What does surprise us,...

    • XXI Oviedo’s Art and Humor
      (pp. 385-406)

      OF Spanish literature, of the sixteenth or any other century, I must frankly admit to a complete ignorance. But it seems obvious to me that Oviedo is not an insignificant writer. The reader who has had the patience to stay with me thus far should be as convinced of this as I am. I have quoted fairly abundantly, paying little heed to the requirements of fluent exposition or the “beauty” of the printed page, because I am persuaded that Oviedo’s simple and colorful style can speak for itself and gain the recognition it deserves.

      To date, in fact, it has...