We long placed Columbus’ transatlantic voyages in a “discourse of discovery”, if we now almost ritually question that link, as we debate the valor and commemoration of the Genoese navigator. Columbus became a lens, and even a name, to refract as much as come to terms with contentious legacies of colonialism and colonization, legacies rooted in deep problems of the recognition of the other–and the inhabitants of other lands. We can imagine the difficulty of processing the extent of the Atlantic Ocean in earlier times, but the very idea of “discovery”–“a dude discovered America? c’mon, like it didn’t already exist??!!?“–poses questions of privilege and race, in ways we are challenged to come to terms–or even perhaps fully admit, of naming, mapping, and sovereignty.
The problem of viewing the New World from afar was one that maps provided tools to address, but abilities of reading space on a map–let alone reading the networks of space that we readily digest from airplane route maps or Google Maps–were so foreign to being internalized that we must look beyond questions of cartographic literacy or the power of maps. The ability to frame–and indeed unite–the Atlantic in what might be called the “first” spherical age of global mapping, although the globes only circulated among quite elite audiences, was based on a new epistemology of proximity, as the frame of the map–of a scale and expanse that was previously communicated only in the nautical map, a fairly expert sort of document drafted on sheepskin or vellum, and rarely exhibited to large audiences, or able to be read by then–suddenly migrated to a new audience of readers and a new reading public who rarely read maps or used maps as tools to process terrestrial (or territorial) expanse, but vaguely stake sovereign possession.
We might do well to ask, in looking at them, what sort of work is done by images like maps, and the claims to sovereignty encoded in them–
Hunt-Lenox Globe, ca. 1510/courtesy New York Public Library
–and indeed the almost existential questions of situating those individual mariners who sailed the highly maneuverable crafts of caravels across the Atlantic ocean in hopes to “discover” them.
All of which should force more attention to the informational value of maps. Consuming, digesting, and materializing trans-Atlantic expanse was not only deeply challenging; it encouraged or taught abilities to mediate royal authority across vast oceanic waters, reframing relations of sovereign to land in ways that frontispiece to the first editions of his Letter rehearsed and sought to recapitulate by its iconography of a monarch observing from his throne indigenous peoples overseas whose descriptions the three caravels had born news. The tension between a throned man in the lower left hand of the frame–Ferdinand–and the naked natives in thatched grooves is linked by the intermediaries of the four sailors in one of three caravels at the shore of these islands with palms. Its most striking apsect however remains the bridging of the ocean by a gesture, as if in token of the words of a set of letters they preface to bridge the sea, and the virtual map it frames of the Atlantic not as a navigable space but in fact a unified sovereign domain.
The prefatory woodcut must be looked at after removing the ghosts of Columbus’ legacy as a navigator, so often and ahistorically elevated in far more recent iconography, and placing him in a network that was more accessible to the readers of early books. The legacies of the navigator were magnified in the many statues of Columbus across the built landscape in a craze of commemoration and of memorialization after the U.S. Civl War, that also intersected with the four hundredth anniversary of his first voyage across the Atlantic.
The building of monuments across states was not only an attempt to find national collective meaning, but a mending wounds of civil war. And the pronounced fetishization of the map as a logic of manifest destiny mirrored may have helped justify the geographic expansions westward by purifying its inhumanity in a discourse of discovery and invention as native lands were confiscated and folded into the nation, happening in the culmination of violent claims of expanding claims to sovereignty into western lands. Columbus offered an apparently safer, purer ideal of conquest, as the Columban encounter was imagined as if with less spilt blood.
Processing of the New World’s place on the map still provides a worthy site of reflection, however, and perhaps especially in a globalized world, especially by spilling blood in the New World, or revealing the spillage of blood that was concealed in narratives of discovery and indeed the Colombian myth, as sought to be shown by protestors in Providence RI this Indigenous Peoples Day..
October 13, 2019
We were long far more apt to recognize the reduction of Columbus to the visage of Renaissance man with a plan to sail the ocean blue in 1492, twinning foresight and navigational endurance, as twinned in the verso and recto of to celebrate the anniversary of the voyage in an anonymous medallion printed for the Colombian Exposition of 1892, which honored the Renaissance man shown in his furs and coiffed hair looking out spaciously, on one side, s if his piercing stare allowed him to cut across waves of neoclassical design emphasized the historical scope of the voyage of one ship across waters as its prow cut across the intervening oceans to arrive in the New World, unimpeded by any elements, and erasing the idea that he even encountered any indigenous inhabitants after he set sail across the ocean seas, and creating the sense of frictionless travel without obstacles enabled by a penetrating gaze.
To express the sense of transit and remove, that was preserved in the woodcut prefacing Colombus’ widely read letters about the New World, we must perform the work of cutting away encrusted images of Columbus as a modern hero, perhaps for the last time rehearsed by none other than Venetian nobleman (and former fascist) count Vittorio di Colbertaldo, who in 1957 was accompanied by a group of Italian sailors as he unveiled a triumphant statue of Columbus in San Francisco, accompanied by a group of Italian sailors; Colbertaldo proudly invested Columbus with clear fascistic idealism as a man of state, a commander of European nobility, triumphalism written into his visage and martial brow with more kinship to fascist statuary than Columbus had been endowed, but only slight exaggeration in its iconography.
As a sculptor, Colbertaldo had recently formulated unsubtle ideas of the role of monumentality as he worked to promote the iconography of government in Fascist Italy, where he wrote I Monumenti e l’uomo; the preferred sculptor of Benito Mussolini–who he had served as personal bodyguard–must have arrived at Columbus in cicuitous ways, one is tempted to read into the readiness with which he endowed the navigator with neo-fascistic qualities for an American audience with license, to accentuate the clear-eyed vision that subdued distance and oceans to his person, in an uter triumph of individuality, linking man to state by an illustration of personal force, almost not needing a map–projecting an image of European nobility across the ocean–if now, in San Francis, looking commandeeringly over the Pacific, bearing with pride a cross on his robust chest, as if to refer to the expansion of American sovereign claims in the Pacific, and letting the map in hand fall to his side, after perhaps having been inspired by it to take on his destined role as a soldier of Spain–and fulfill a majestic historical narrative that swept his ships across space. In the postwar period of America, the ship is absent from the person, perhaps as military mapping had so expanded in accuracy to make the moment of perception of America more dramatic as a will to power. The space of the Atlantic was not problematic to bridge, as the expanse of the Pacific was in the midst of deterritorialization.
This Columbus’ determination is evident in his brow–startlingly akin to the face of Mussolini as rendered in fascist statuary– in what was the most recent incarnation of Columbus as emissary, and soldier, if looking more like a superhero whose virility seems tied to his ability to look to overseas shores with determination. The recent vandalization of the same statue with red paint, in an attempt to connect the dots between the bloodiness of conquest and the heroism we have long imagined called for more than stripping off paint or veneer, but seeing the navigator differently and renarrativizing that hackneyed narrative, shown in its most grotesque in Colbertaldo’s glorification of white determination–no doubt making it a perfectly appropriate target for vandalism.
In its contraction of a transatlantic journey, the woodcut that prefaced the Columban letters, the first written description of the New World encounter, recalls the contraction of time and space to the arrival of the navigator elegantly garbed in the moment of arrival in the New World shores, as if to take possession of them with considerable elegance, as in the Currier and Ives print that was sold widely at the Columbus Exposition of 1892, to be exhibited in American homes, which recduce the voyage to a triumphant gesture of arrival, and planting of the Spanish flag unfurling in the New World, as if below a spotlight onstage to which the dark-skinned anonymous natives approached with something akin to veneration, as Columbus and his men express gratitude to something like the gift of having been granted discovery.
The commemoration of the Colombian discoveries encouraged scenic images that erased any sense of indigenous suffering, or more explicitly martial relations in later years long before the late nineteenth century, as a poetics of discovery was rehearsed as a pastoral scene enacted entirely among men.
The celebratory tones of both were removed from the problem of refiguring the manner of the progression of authority in the new world, or the If Codalbeto’s statue stares out to the Pacific, as if recognizing a new frontier, the actuality of contact was less processional that Currier and Ives proclaimed in this image that was wildly popular in American household, complete with the unfurling of monarchical flags, or as clear an encounter under blue skies. If the image of regalia of state was well-established in later years, leading Edwin Austin Abbey to expand the arrival and planting of the Spanish flag before the arrival of flamingos–who seem almost to arrive for the occasion, celebrating the navigator’s arrival in a natural symphony of color on command, in harmony with the Spanish flag as if to illustrate a natural seamlessness of staking sovereign claims in the island where Columbus arrived.
The qudricentennial of 1892 was not only an American celebration by any means, as Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Quarto abeunte saeculo declared a religious holiday and commemoration in both Americas, in a seeming act of utter blindness, to commemorate an “auspicious event” to honor the initial papal celebration of the news of discovery as opening lands to conversion and spreading the faith.
But of course the image of the frictionless arrival needed to be crated, and distance to monarchical lands bridged. The sense of domination over the lands was reduced, in synecdoche, to a triumphal mental dominance over the globe in the the sculpture of the navigator designed and erected for the 1892 centenary in New Haven’s Wooster Square, elevated on a granite pedestal, by the city’s immigrant Italian-American populations, displaying the elegantly robed Marriner pondering the terrestrial expanse he would traverse, as if capturing the very moment of ideation of transatlantic voyage, meditating attentively on a small globe resting in his palm, a compass in the other, idealizing the new relation of man to world voyages of discovery required.
And so when Berkeley CA first re-recognized Columbus Day in 1992, by naming the second Monday of October Indigenous Peoples Day, in recognition that they lay on Ohlone land, only fourteen years after Malcom Margolin celebrated their way of life. If the abolition of Columbus Day inspired annual exchanges on the telephone with my New York relatives, Berkeley ran against a largely northeastern tradition of public commemoration that had seemed particularly strong in the nation’s south; Columbus held many meanings, if the statuary that elevated Columbus as an exemplar to self-made men, the recent decision this year to abolish Columbus Day in Washington, DC, attests to the redress of lionization as much as the changing optics of commemoration–and a rethinking of what a nation means as a community, and whether we can consider conquest and enslavement to be part of the nation.
Outside the United States, such statuary is largely limited to Liguria and Spain’s coast–and have recently been, however, motions to httpremove the imperialist Columbus statue from Barcellona –suggesting rather limited ties of the figure of Columbus to anything like universal values, or secularism, in an age of globalist distancing from imperialism. The statuary of Columbus has become a form of monumentalism, almost removed from mapping. Indeed the place of maps in these monuments has become so outdated that the triumphalism of the statues seems all that is left.
The emergence of Columbus as a heroic image was intentional, and not in nationalistic ways: in monuments like that on Wooster Square, in New Haven, commissioned by Italian Americans on the quadricentennial, a distinguished navigator proudly balances the round globe before his eyes, to ask who is really an immigrant; the northeastern crowding of statues to Columbus suggested monuments to respectability. But the geopolitics are undeniably disturbing as an expression of identity: in the statue of Columbus in Columbus, Ohio, he grasps the globe to his chest and points, indicating the way westward, has given way to open calls to transfer all memorials to museums. (Might Columbian monuments be kept out of sight, perhaps with statues of Robert E. Lee, in a city of memorials, in a space akin to Budapest’s Szobopark, or Memento Park, where Marx, Engels and Lenin statuary mingle, outside urban space, in a theme park of past public memories boasting the “biggest statues of the Cold War”?)
It would resolve problems of annual defacement.
The actual Almirante’s distinctive descriptions of the New World as the “discovery of many islands” worthy of interest to the monarchs–as well as attracting interest for a second voyage, was of interest to a wide audience, when reprinted with the letters announcing the discovery of what he called an “Insula Hyspana.” The rapid translation into multiple languages of the letters suddenly made the Indies spatially concrete, or elevated the demand to do so, even among those who did not possess maps.
The trick played in the below woodcut worked by a considerable cartographic contraction of the global landscape. The new landscape included in early editions The Letter Columbus wrote about his first voyage, directed to his royal patrons Ferdinand and Isabella, in June 1493, was also particularly effective. The edition printed in Valladolid presented claims to the discovery of New Lands to a broad audience, and began from a landscape that performed a cartographic contraction of the globe–long recognized as round, but now imagined as a place, before Facebook, long before Lorenz’ “butterfly effect,” the gesture of a raised index finger lifted by an enthroned man was imagined to erect drastic transatlantic consequences over a long space by a rather unimaginable contraction enacted by Christian intermediaries.
Although the absence of a map may be most striking to modern readers, the shrinkage of space in the composite landscape persuasively condensed the miracle of distance into a single frame, as if to capture the problem of spatial remove in its frame.
The emissary-like role of Columbus helped create a landscape that caused the letter to be rapidly reset and reprinted for audiences from 1493-97 in Basel, Antwerp, Paris and elsewhere that set new standards for high-interest news in the network of printed books–far more broadly than the 1474 map Toscanelli sent that inspired the subsequent oceanic voyage, or the single-sheet folio letter printed in Spanish in Barcelona before being quickly reprinted in Latin, and the landscape maps of the “insula hyspana” that was imagined to be filled with unclothed inhabitants gained wide currency in an image of outright European decency: the exchange of gifts and the image of trade the woodcut immediately provoked imagined the expansion of a European overseas venture even without noting the questions of scale, distance, and measurement that had been surpassed, and led to the commemoration of the commission of a transatlantic voyage after the vicious conquest of Granada and forced conversion or expulsion of Jews.
The image of Columbus, index finger extended as if gesturing overseas before the two seated monarchs, conjures the powerful poetics of the letter’s first-person narrative, which linked individual observation of the landscape’s beauty and wealth to its great economic value, emphasizing the possibility of transporting readers by imagination before the land was actually mapped–focussing as it did on the very moment of contact.
But the language of discovery circulated separately from maps, and was firmly situated in nautical voyages around other continents’ coasts. The pre-Columban currency of announcements of geographical discoveries is evident in the clearly carved stone pillar, or Padrão, closely emulating ancient epigraphic skills, that Portuguese ship captain Diogo Cão carried to the mouth of the Congo River in 1483, which he placed in present day Cabo do Lobo in Angola, bringing it from Lisbon, where it was carved: the stone pillar specially carved for placement at identifying markers of the African coast proclaimed the region’s discovery by Portugal above a cross, as if an emblem of global conversion, explaining to all how “in the year 6681 of the World and in that of 1482 since Christ’s birth, the most serene, excellent and potent King João II of Portugal did order this land to be discovered . . .“
The careful tabulation of royal edicts of discovery placed less agency on Diogo Cão, whose voyages were later glorified in Pessoa’s Padrão, but deployed the topos of discovery as if it were familiar, but clearly mediated through royal authority. As a boundary stone, the announcement to all who sailed by and could read it rehearsed claims of royal authority in an unknown land with a sense of monumentality that suggested the first-hand inscription as a rehearsal of royal authority, and a performance for all who wanted to see.
However, Columbus’ widely reprinted letter relayed the announcement of discovery over spatial and cultural distances never before encountered. The voyager’s performance as an agent and extension of royal authority was of course repeated by Columbus. But whereas the Padrão was an accepted rehearsal of royal authority on the African coast, the landscape-map was a more persuasive accompaniment for the performance of royal authority in the New World–and a basis for performing acts of sovereignty about previously unknown lands. Alternate worlds had long been discussed before Columbus described his voyage to Hispaniola and the New World, but never before had the description of another world been so rooted in personal testimony–or so easily able to be translated onto a map on which it could be made legible. Columbus paid significant attention to the sort of enticing account he would give of the New World or the Indies during the over nine years he had tried to court interest in the voyage to the Indies, but the mediation of Columbus’s voyage posed problems of incorporating his testimony of its marvels and inhabitants, and the relation of the old world to the new–of mapping its proximity and claims to the extension of a personal relation to expanse, as much as of the illustration of its distance.
Maps, as well as landscapes, provided cognitive forms able to mediate that discovery: they allow a story to be told, without the expressive limits that that promoter of meaningful visualizations, Edward Tufte, so famously identified in how Microsoft’s PowerPoint’s power destroy “the capacity for sustained, critical thought” by insisting on a static template to deliver and order information for viewers. Tufts argued that PowerPoint’s failure lay precisely in obscuring the unpacking of relations between parts and wholes–with potentially disastrous consequence of impairing analytical reasoning. The manner in which maps lead viewers to enunciate about discoveries unlike a stone pillar–and effectively stake claims to space–is too often naturalized as a creation of design, however, removed from visual cultures of reading and recognizing landscape, and the distinct relation between viewer and space landscape animates. While Powerpoint despatializes, abstracting the floating image to be passively received, the first images that opened the New World landscape created a focus of cognitive attention and interrogation. Whereas PowerPoint’s prevalence suggests the diffusion of a salient “co-authoring” distributed across the tempo and pace of delivery of a talk that it structures, maps lacked clear styles of formatting informational content or clear coordination of visual and textual content.
Although numerous presentations crafted on PowerPoint describe Columbus’ discoveries, it’s difficult not to note that the very first version PowerPoint was first shipped–pre-Microsoft–included a handy template openly modeled on what it took to be Columbus’ proposal to the Spanish monarchs, in which a world map occupied less prominence in what was playfully cast as Columbus’ mock “Business Proposal” or streamlined personal “Mission Statement”–in order to suggest, one presumes, how much more effective Columbus would have been at making his case if he had at his fingertips the persuasive value of a performing a PowerPoint demonstration before Ferdinand and Isabella, the better and more compellingly to make his case.
The PowerPoint slides render the proposed project of sailing to New World as chiefly possessing advantages as an opportune route of trade where a fleet of ships were to set course to be guided by the opportune man who was able to command a clearly organized expeditionary fleet able to best enact his plan of sailing to the Indies–and, simplicity, as the prime example of a man whose presentation made the most convincing case to his patrons–and suggest the value of PowerPoint as a versatile and personalized expressive tool. But the map is less part of this toolkit–and is in fact only a basis to project the nature of the voyage, rather than a medium that creates a network of power–or as doing work by convincing his audience of the landscapes he has seen.
PowerPoint Visualization (1987)
The limited space that was granted back in 1987 to the individual map as a persuasive tool or an expressive format within this imagined business presentation is particularly striking since it denies how the historically crucial format of the map operated as as a form of distributed reading–and placed saw the need for an argument as lying in the planning of the voyage, rather than in explaining what was seen. As such, the small role that the map holds in the PowerPoint also denies the power of the map as a medium, or its improvised nature.
1. The speed with which the discoveries of the New World were quickly translated into mapping form raise questions about how the mapping of the unknown regions offered a format for effectively processing the new distribution of power over and across space that was unfolding with the discovery of the islands known as the Indies, after they were presumed to be islands of the Indian ocean, but before the semantic value of maps had purchasing power for a large audience. The map worked better as a stage to create a network of meaning about the new land, and to rehearse the relation of the removed monarch to it, rather than only show the region as a ‘place’: it created an interlocking network of practices and sites that were never earlier shown in relation to one another, and articulating a relation of places and performances that were only able over time to be inscribed in a map. If practices of mapping contained many silent agents, distributed over space in their preparation, the performance of the map–where the map gains the sense of completing, making perfect, and making whole–began in a sense from the articulation of exchange across sites, and the creation of a site that was able to be mapped.
For even if the letter did not include a map, it boasts a map-like ability to frame and unite spatially removed places within a single form. The image that prefaced the “letter” about the discoveries, De Insulis super in mari Indico repertis (1494), proclaimed a new relation to space that maps allowed one to imagine: it shows a Spanish monarch surveying the geographically removed unclothed inhabitants, who move among themselves in a rhythmic pattern, as if dancing, from atop his throne, his gaze almost actively bridging two continents. The image locates the robed sovereign’s relation to a geographically removed landscape, as a way to link the reader to a place outside the known world. Did this collapse of space, partly mediated by four sailors in one boat, and collapse of two different cultures within one frame, joined by the arrival of caravels, provide a symbolic unification of a new mode of dispersed power, able to link spaces in ways earlier difficult to conceive?
The image of a robed monarch gesturing with one index finger to space while lightly holding his scepter, served to create a sense of location that would be instantaneously legible, and able to be interpreted by readers of the booklet, as much as the luxuriant palms of the islands located outside known nautical space served to whet the viewers’ appetite. Today, we mark terrestrial positions by GPS, relaying an immediately calculated place to establish relations between center and periphery instantaneously within a terrestrial matrix of terrestrial coordinates, separate from any representational space and indeed from terrestrial measurement. While we live in a world where position is calculated immediately, with the readiness of reading the time of day, in ways that resolve the problem of time-keepers as chronometers or oscillators, and the notion of contrary timepieces seems charmingly antiquated, so instinctual is the smooth uniformity of space and time, the extreme lumpiness of the symbolic space of early modern Europe is difficult to imagine–or reconcile with the symbolism of the continuous distribution of a reticulated grid of a Ptolemaic map.
The anonymously engraved image of the enthroned monarch gesturing across the ocean in which three caravels lie on the waves, close to land, performed important work of linking a more spatially removed place than could be imagined. Whereas GPS calculates position independent of cartographical tools of triangulation or astronomical observation, location is announced and constantly updated: we may select “Terrain View” as one option among other base maps of a region, but largely as a cognitive aid to situate locations measured by a network of relay stations, independently from local observations: the satellite view is one option that assists us to process and understand their relations, interchangeable with other options. The translation of place is less part of the operations of mapping, than a format that allows us to invest a separately existing system of coordinates with the representational attributes of legibility that we’ve come to expect.
There are few engraved maps of the New World islands that communicated the location of the discovered lands in ways that viewers might situate in space, although they were organized and distributed along recognized mathematical principles. These maps did however attempt to domesticate their discovery and create a contact to the mental categories of sovereignty or classical images provided the most common rationale for their construction–as the copperplate engraving of the Florentine mapmaker Amerigo Vespucci interpreting the astrological sign of a stellar cross in the night sky, in order to translate an astronomically derived sense of location to a map that would successfully mediate an unimaginably removed location, but which, once transcribed to a map, could be made legible to his audience.
Today, we interpret relations between center and periphery that are instantaneously calculated by Geographical Information Systems, in ways that are for the first time independent of a representational matrix: we are apt to select “Terrain View” as but one option among others to create a base maps of a region, but do so as a cognitive aid to situate locations that are measured independtly form it: the view is but an option, interchangeable with other background options, that allows us to interpret their coherence. The translation of place is less part of the operations within Google Maps or other servers, than a network we can invest a range of representational attributes. We read maps with the thrill of recognizing places, pausing over the places we have visited to return to them in our minds, or navigate the places to find their bearings on maps, rarely finding ourselves suspended between the correspondence between where we are located on the screen of a handheld device and a sheet of paper in our hand. We rely on a GIS system of coordinates, established separate from a representational space, and let Google lead us to where it directs as if it is where we want to go, in an illustration of the authority of Geographical Information Systems as a construction of space, which sometimes seems an abdication of map-reading skills. But the fascination of the early modern map as a way of disentangling man from nature, and lending concreteness to the far-off remove of place, was no mean or easy operation. Do we have a diminished sense of rediscovering places when scanning the screens of Google Earth?
The problem of placing was particularly acute in defining sites of discovery in the early printed book.
2. For far too often, historians have treated the epistemological claims of cartographical projections as implicit properties–rather than examining their conscious masking of the “limits of perception” by treating maps as images. The highly emblematic image of the ambitious Florentine mapmaker Amerigo Vespucci engraved by Stradanus condenses the aspects of divine revelation, conversion, and providential indication of the New World implicitly staked in Columbus’ narrative of discovery staked for European readers–a point that the humanist cartographer Martin Waldseemüller made for readers in his Cosmographia by claiming of the fourth region of the world that since it was discovered by Vespucci, is named after him–“quam quia Americus invenit, Amerigem quasi America terram sive Americam nuncupare licet”–as if almost denying its existence prior to appearing in maps Europeans might read. In a counter-reformation setting, the engraving celebrates the Christianity that led Vespucci to mediate the location of the New World in ways that later generations could read.
The image of the seeker who has been led by the stars to the New World condenses the similar emblems condensed in Stradanus’ even more famous copperplate print showing Vespucci first viewing the reclining unclothed personification America, more conquistador than cartographer: as he stares grimly ahead, seemingly arrived from a caravel, is the naked crowned embodiment of America rising to greet him, or beckoning to invite him to join enter the hammock in which she reclines, amidst a setting of rich foliage, in an apparent an invitation to sexual congress that prefigures his translation of her riches into cartographical form? If it seems that she invites the sexual violation from the mapper who bears a rigid upright crossed staff in his right hand and a compass in his left, one might do well to remember that the embodiment of the continent celebrated the historical accomplishment of the Florentine cartographer as much as an allegory of voyages of discovery to the New World. (“I am not the wheatfield,/Nor the virgin land,” was Adrienne Rich’s rejoinder to this iconography of embodiment and discovery.)
Jan der Straet, “Americen Americus retexit & semel vocavit inde semper excitam” Antwerp, 1585.
A similar frisson of contact was rehearsed in early modern maps that formulated the problem of mediating an imagined proximate relation to the New World, and indeed of locating the New World in relation to the subject-position of a map-reader. For all maps constitute forms of embodiment–and embodiment of meaning–as Stradanus took the embodiment of America, already familiar from Ortelius had ten years previous embodied the continents on the frontispiece to his Theatris orbis terrarum (1570), the first modern “atlas” figuring “America” as an archetypal “Indian” queen, half-reclining, if armed with arrows and bow–armaments stripped of the continent’s personification who appears in almost inverted form in Stradanus’ later print.
3. Even as these images stake claims for geographical discovery, Stradanus’ engraving of Vespucci as guided by the stars’ providential alignment in the south, also offered the central emblems of his craft–an astrolabe and divider–even as it situated him within a recognizable landscape and expressing devotion to the crucifix, rising from his study and the tools of his trade to acknowledge the discovery of the New World as if he was a visionary divinely inspired, rather than by his craft. The image celebrating the skill of the cartographer celebrates his ability to bridge old world and new by the ingenious tools of his craft: while he remained in Florence, the image forged a link between New World and Old through distinctively Old World emblems of learning, study and devotion.
Much as Stradanus paired Vespucci and Columbus in his highly pictorial atlas Americae Retectio (1585)–“Quis potis est digni pollenti pectore carmen/Condere pro rerum maiestate hisque repertis?”–linking both through Lucretius’ praise for the ambitions of undertaking any description that attempts to reveal comparable intricacies, majesty, and wonder of the created world, the figure of Vespucci was condensed beneath a banner of sovereign possession and a cross of conversion, but in which the astrolabe Vespucci holds proves the means by which he comes to encounter America, this embodiment of the New World. Michel de Certeau aptly described the erect armored traveller as ready to write his history on the body of the other, Stradanus’ condensation of Vespucci and Columbus as a stoic pilgrim who approaches the reclining unclothed figure who seems to proffer her fruit and riches, half rising and half reclining, in what also elides a celebration of Stradanus’ own inventive abilities, the figure of Vespucci in the Nova Repertae employs the astrolabe to constructs his destination by finding the southern cross, in the manner that Vespucci described himself as using a mariner’s astrolabe in 1499 while sailing to America, Stradanus gave central place to the spherical astrological astrolabe as the rational tool for staking his relation to the New World.
The far more dramatic image of Columbus crossing the Atlantic that Stradanus drew by hand showed the navigator balanced delicately on a ship’s prow braving the ocean and heading west on stormy seas, surrounded by the sea monsters he braved encountering on the inhabited world’s edge, openly acknowledging the steep risks and triumphs of cross-Atlantic sea-travel.
Biblioteca Laurenziana Medicea
For all since maps are collectively made documents, whose selective synthesis from different sources are often mediated or translated into curiosity, forms of mapmaking respond to the specific needs of users as much as timeless metrics of accuracy or exactitude: the practice of most data visualizations help process our place in a society and culture where we are ever more increasingly quantified. And the practice of mapping correspond to a variety of needs. For the woodcut images of place that accompanied Columbus’ printed “letter” to his sovereigns that described his encounter (and “discovery”) of the islands of the New World, the producers of the incunable De insults super inventis faced the problem of illustrating actual proximity to the world the letter described. The landscape Columbus conjured in it of a “fertile” land of “may great and beautiful rivers,” “a great diversity of trees [including] seven or eight varieties of palm which in height and beauty, just as with the rest of the trees, herbs and fruit, easily excel our own,” and “vast woodlands and plains very fruitful and very fit for planting,” aimed to establish both the proximity of what he saw to the European world, as much as its difference–Columbus noted only at its very close that the same land “abounds with spices, with gold, and with metals,” peopled with individuals of “no great diversity in appearance,” but who “always go naked, just as they were brought into the world,” and would be ripe for conversion.
The description of how “the inhabitants of both sexes always go naked, just as their mothers bore them, except some women, who cover their pudenda with some leafy frond or cotton skirt” stuck in the imagination of readers, but evoked not only lust but an image of a pre-fall world across the oceans in ways Columbus knew would not able to be resisted as sites of conversion and potential colonization, expectations he seems to have credibly sewn.
If curiosity of the New World and its inhabitants fed the production of contemporaneous world maps, which we are often all too prone to judge by questions of their accuracy and assimilate to criteria not different from our own, as if to ascertain how clearly their their contents were informed by geometric precepts, or the chronological revisions in their content, we neglect the practices maps of different period make in charting a known space. For if it reflects Columbus’ testimony of encountering unselfconscious inhabitants skilled in communication, eager to trade, as a land that is “desirable, once seen, that is never to be relinquished,” problems of naming, staking a clear relation to and placing on a cognitive map are all wrestled with in the images inserted to the widely published “Letter” that narrated the first voyage to the New World–which almost diminish the role of the caravels by which he sailed there, as they create a promise of direct observation in themselves.
For while maps of the discoveries have been provocatively presented as grappling with the existence of a continent not previously known, the practice of mapping on coordinates of latitude and longitude are all too often treated as operations that were designed for the ready understanding and digestion in maps–bracketing processes of translating claims for discoveries and preparing a mapped view too readily cast as a rational tools of processing distance or space, let alone oceanic travel. Can one see the making of maps as a more complex practice of rendering the far-off in terms that might be more readily interpreted?
4. We might begin from appreciating maps less as the sole medium for stating or affirming the existence of a new continent–and indeed registering its presence–by taking the practices of translation concealed in maps’ fabrication as less readily accomplished by the encoding of place in a terrestrial projections, open to uncertainty and even debate, asking how projected maps came to designate a relation to a place that lies at an almost unimaginable spatial remove.
The earliest images of the New World fed a curiosity for a coherence of global settlement and diversity were as important an engine for their creation as the legibility that they offered for presenting a distribution of coherent proportions or scale: the ways that maps acted own claims to power over space and place by embodying a coherent space as often depended on the coherence that they created as the accuracy of rendering routes of arrival or the exactitude of locating place across oceanic divides. For the map consciously and explicitly sought and strove to create a stable sense of meaning in a spatial network, it depended on creating a sense of the meaningful nature of the indexicality of space, in other words, and as a form of producing the legibility of space through a network of indices. How that indexicality functioned in situating the New World in a clear matrix of referentiality was by no means clear, when the otherness and remove of the New World was by no means clear.
Gores of Globe by Martin Waldseemüller, c. 1507
Before the map gained clearcut epistemological authority as a representing regional coherence and spatial contiguity, the problem of mapping the New World turned on the credibility of staking a relation between the reader and a far-off place as a site of encounter with inhabitants, with a convincing reminder of voyages to islands in far-off seas, and interestingly conjoined the possibilities of religious proselytization with economic exchange, re-imagining a harmonized notion of contact that was more directed to problems of domination, enslavement, and taking possession in ways only beginning to be re-examined, but might be condensed in the radical renaming the very islands where the Columban expedition arrived and whose “discovery” Columbus sought to claim as his own, and not only by extension of the Spanish monarchy. The much-cited punning in which Columbus indulged of his first Christian name–“Christo ferens”–magnanimously celebrated his personal role of bearing Christianity to the New World by poetically magnifying the personal role he played in conversion of unknown lands and naturalizing the individual agency by which he did so.
5. For places are the recognized sites from which meaning pours at full force from maps, rather than pre-established.
The places that were illustrated in the first maps of the New World maps are surprisingly interesting and seductive because they conjure a place where few had visited, and seem to provide access into the cognitive tools brought to the process of discovery. The politics of location were somewhat surprisingly important in the very first images of the New World, as were the political relations of regions, considerably before the forms of planispheric mapping enjoyed clear epistemological authority, the letter in which Columbus described how he came to “plurimas Iu[n]sulas innumeris habitatas hominibus” and took “possession” of them “for our most fortunate monarch,” when no dissent was voiced [“contradicente neminem“]–what seems preposterous was a formula, less optimistic–or outright preposterous or comical–than it was inherited from canon law. The absence of objection prefaced the decisive act of renaming of the islands “Guanahanyn” by Christian names in a privileged “Western” cartographical re-writing of space. (The lasciviousness that were widely attributed to the disordered appetites of New World denizens was not only evidence of the fact that they were in need of rule, in fact, and of the ordering of instincts that the Christian monarchy would be able to provide–the magnified sexual appetites of native s were a repeated touchstone of Columbus’ letters and the early printed accounts of the discoveries, both evidence of the need for governance and otherness as much as a source of pleasure, tapping into European fantasia, and became something of a metaphor for the concrete experience of contact.)
What we recognize as a map rarely accompanied or illustrated the narrative of renaming or fantasy of naming in the seven editions of the letter printed Latin translation. But the images accompanying most effectively served their own clear ends of mapping and functions of effectively orienting readers to the recently discovered unknown by inscribing locations within a mapped space, even though the very maps that they created were by necessity improvised. As much as foreground the site of contact, however, which Columbus described, foregrounded in the frontispiece as a focal point that may evoke the sacramental exchange of chalice and wafter and suggest the evangelizing project to which Columbus’ letter repeatedly returned, the figuration of these new shorelines evoke the epistemic claims that engravers increasingly invested in early printed maps–and even the placement of words on a surface that indicates both spatial and terrestrial expanse, as the “Insula hyspana” against which lap the undulating waves of rolling seas that seem to have led Columbus’ caravel across the Atlantic, and in which a small skiff arrives at an island never before mapped but newly named as a part of the recently expanded Spanish state.
Osher Map Library
The unimaginable geographical remoteness of the islands claimed to be Spanish–and subject to Spanish sovereignty–must have necessitated something like a map. But to depict an unknown wilderness not able to be efficiently mediated by what we acknowledge and call cartographical constructs. An absence of familiarity with mapping forms among a large audience of readers was remedied by offering an assemblage of strategies to include the new in the old, and which might be cartographical in a proper sense of writing an unknown space: the context of triumphalism that began from an image of Ferdinand’s ceremoniously armed royal body gracing the title page of a book in which the letter circulated seems of sufficiently capacious authority to comprehend both the recently conquered city of Granada, which a panegyric by the court humanist Sebastian Brandt glorified within the same volume that the famous letter appeared.
The placement of the letter–quickly translated into Latin in a pamphlet dedicated to the expanding realm of the Spanish monarch, who had united the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile–extended his domain of rule to the islands that the Genoese mariner first described. Much has been made of the formulaic nature of the announcement that the mariner ostensibly made on the open seas: but the declaration ceremoniously effectively linked the place where he had arrived to the authority of the spatially removed sovereign in necessary if performative ways. In the root meaning of “performance” of effecting, bringing into being, and completing, the letter was a performance of taking ownership and possession of the islands before they were actually mapped. While a map was secondary, in other words, the letter provided the performance that the map later enacted across space.
Such modes of inscribing regions in print are rarely considered pertinent to projects of rendering of map data in vector tiles and graphics libraries, or construction of GIS maps on the layers of a webmap, but the flexibility with which woodcuts improvised models of inscribing a distant place are particularly compelling–but they suggest the novelty of the cartographic inscription as a notation of place, even as the surprisingly limited prominence of maps interfoliated in editions of the letter contrast with the prominence and authority that we regularly assign maps as if transparent records today. For the woodcuts perform a set of operations for bringing the remote land that Columbus described in his letter to the eyes of its reader as the letter circulated among European audiences, offering the only first-hand testimony of the New World to supplement his account.
The images provided a check or counterpart to the suspicion or alarm the “gente de razon” probably felt before the customs of eating, costumes, and practices of greeting and welcome encountered in the islands, as they mediated and prepared readers the first images of these new lands and their relations to the far off lands whose inhabitants had no clear place in their mental horizons. In the “letter” he adressed to his sovereign, allegedly composed on his return from the New World in one of the caravels he commanded to traverse the oceans, he reported how he had first believed, when he arrived at the islands of Santa Maria Conceptions, Ferdinand, Isabella, Hispaniola, San Domenico and Isabel to have arrived at the continent of Cathay. He only realized, after seeing the absence of towns or cities on its shores, to send two of his men to explore it over three days, searching to see whether it had a ruler, and judged it to be a “place” without “government [regimine]“ that was, in fact, unknown–and, given the rustic costumes of its inhabitants, was implicitly open for re-inscription in a new model of sovereignty and inclusion in a map. Even as he judged the shorelines of the island he circumnavigated at some 322 miles, drawing a “map” was both not possible and anyway somewhat beside the point to convey its trees and hills that seemed to be still in Spring even in November, and the marvels of its wildlife and apparent wealth of metals.
The images situated some seventy pages into the book recreate the experience of encounter for readers even as they bridge the remoteness of the transoceanic travel, effectively carrying news from the New World much as Columbus traversed the oceans in the caravels under his command.
The arrival of images of the New World and fashioning of maps of the discoveries is among the most intensively studied and persistently attractive aspects of early modern cartography: the approximations of the unknown continent’s shores not only created a sensation of novelty, but set the stage for the re-embodiment of geographical landmasses in an innovative whole. That the images in early editions of Columbus’ letter do not employ strategies of hydrographic mapping is not surprising–such strategies of picturing space were familiar to few as a basis for reckoning extent. The images provide a basis to register the remove of New World inhabitants by bringing them into the language of reason by which their place in the world might be clearly inscribed.
The woodcut images rather suggest a variety of strategies to lend legibility to the landing of Columbus on the other side of the Atlantic. Instead of mapping the undefined routes by which he had arrived across the seas or the places he encountered and which he had named, they establish a qualitative sense of the places of the world over which possession was taken by Columbus–“cui aetas rostra multi debet.” They do so to help situate the content of the Latin translation of the Columbus’ letter announcing the discovery of the islands to the Spanish sovereign Ferdinand. While printed and widely disseminated in some seven editions from 1493 in Latin translation, the woodcut images “map” the claims for their discovery in intriguing ways, dominated by tools of landscape rather than hydrographic maps, or with the indices that are associated with the ancient geographer’s Ptolemy’s project of mapping the “inhabited world” or ecumene.
Tzvetan Todorov influentially (if in ways that were quickly contested) interpreted the Columban voyage as marking a point when “men discovered the totality of which they are a part, whereas hitherto they formed a part without a whole.” The claiming of place provided a more potent and conceptually compelling figure in the woodcuts designed to accompany the letter in printed form in ways that stand as an alternate map, however, rather than the picturing of the world. The bridging of both shores was itself a sort of confirmation of his regal authority to unite two coastlines, and an image of the numinous authority by which Columbus had himself carried on his caravelle to the New World. Rather than mapping expanse in a global fashion, the letters the earlier concepts of a whole existed, the place across the oceans established the justification for the voyage itself. From the synthesis of biblical histories with recent Ptolemaic maps in ways that tried to systematize and process a large ancient corpus of geographic texts for a large audience of readers to the deluxe codices of comprehensive works of world geography that were adorned with images, the format of the map assumed a new autonomy both as an invitation to innovate and expand, and even more to a vehicle by which to view far-off lands with an immediacy that would not have been otherwise possible–or would have lacked the tactile immediacy that landscape possessed.
The role of landscape in the first illustrated edition of the letter evoked the presence of and investing immediacy in the far-off and remote. The images, included in the first printed copies of the letters of Columbus, so striking for the multiple narratives that they are able to hold, and indeed the several narratives that can be woven about the discovery of the New World which Columbus was himself particularly careful to create, are the subject of this post, for they offer an early hint both of the limits of the literacy in reading maps and the role of maps in communicating and diffusing geographic knowledge. The stories that were woven about locations gained endowed with a far greater immediacy than in a nautical chart or a planispheric projection of terrestrial expanse, and invested with far greater power as social acts even as they were difficult to invest with the epistemic claims to mediating a record of first-hand observations.
6. The act of mapping relations between place provided a basis to convey oceanic travel not only, as Todorov asserted, by semantically describing “the [global] totality of which [men] are a part, whereas hitherto they formed a part without a whole.” It is striking that frontispieces to early versions of Columbus’ letters describing his successful voyage to “islands in the Indian sea [mari indico],” published in an illustrated edition of the landlocked city Basel from 1494, focus on the point of contact and exchange that followed arrival on the shores of a renamed the “Spanish island” Santa Maria Conception, epitomized by an encounter between clothed and unclothed: woodcuts printed in editions of the letter suggested the bountiful landscape located there in strikingly qualitative terms by the accumulation of local details of fruits, metals, and buildings, rather than place it at a given longitude or latitude or map its distance from Spain in a global map.
The presence of images in this edition of the letter of 1494, how offers important ways to map the relation of readers to the place of discovery. The letter rather described the discovery as an amplification of the majesty of royal rights, in a gesture toward worldly empire that did not require a map to stake claims. The frequent printing of the letter beside a history of the conquest of Granada by Innocent IX’s chamberlain, the humanist Carolus Verardo, created a context of the expanding frontiers of the Spanish monarchy, and a praise of the monarch Ferdinand, king of the Spains, i.e. Castile and Aragon, “besieger, victor and triumphant,” and fit the discovery of the islands within a form of imperial praise. The congratulatory fulsome panegyric dated May, 1492 emphasized the monarch’s power rather than provide geographic information–though the humanist Sebastian Brandt may have combined praise for the island’s discoveries to the victory over the city of Granada, the book presented the new islands as a culmination of this so fortunate conquest that liberated the city from saracens. For Brandt took as promising the likelihood that the “cunctus nostris sub legibus orbis/Iamdudum foret [the world will be soon joined by our laws]” as would befit an empire.
Although the title page to Brandt’s panegyric identified Ferdinand’s royal power as “Hispaniarum regis . . . & regni Granatae,” and united the coats of arms of Granada, open halves of a seeded pomegranate, with the lions rampant and castles that united Castile and Léon, claims to sovereignty over the New World did not rest on a universal claims to authority of classical lineage–as would be later carefully cultivated by heirs of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V–despite the imperious gesture of Ferdinand made from the throne and the evocation of a new Holy Roman Empire, worthy of Maximilian I.
The 1492 panegyric, although printed with the letter of Columbus in seven editions, was indeed originally intended to address the victory over Granada, described as liberated to the Christian world, to which the letter of Columbus that narrated his discovery of the New World was added as if to further augment the monarch’s fortunate triumph. It is not difficult to see the New World islands being included in a new map of worldly power, rather than a geographical map. The augmentation of Ferdinand’s domain as a polycentric entity that had united not only the two Spains (Castile and Aragon) to Granada, but a complex including Sicily and the Kingdom of Naples to which the New World islands could be joined, in a policentered state headed by the monarch who, from his early marriage to Isabella I, had cultivated his claims to worldly sovereignty–becoming Réy Catolico of Aragon, and from 1468 King of Sicily, from 1474 jure uxoris King of Castille and after the conquest of Granada and completion of the Riconquista, of a Spain from which he expelled all Jews as if to increase his sovereign identification with the Catholic church.
The gesture of imperium that the Spanish monarch had made when he indicated the islands of the New World from his throne in the image that is the header to this post resonate with his assumption of imperial rule echoing the Roman empire. Its claims to imperial authority of a military conqueror conjure with the broad claims to sovereignty expressed he expressed over multiple lands, and the praise of his victory in Grenada was effectively extended to the New World, as he had originally charged Columbus to search for a route of passage to Asia.
Osher Map Library
In what might be seen as an early awareness of the centrality of the Colombian exchange–what for Alfred Crosby constituted diseases, crops, and animals, as well as objects, but for Todorov revealed an inability to realize differences–the woodcut below foregrounded the act of exchange at its center and focal point, as a chalice is offered to the unclothed native inhabitants, one of whom holds a circular object. As if to connote the arrival of a circular host or a monetary coin, the presentation of the chalice resonates with the implicit project of conversion–unstated if evident in the letter–and the introduction of monetary exchange, as if to present the project of contact with the inhabitants of the previously unknown islands to a broader audience. For Todorov, the discovery of the “other” denied natives’ status as subjects, but treated them as uncivilized and lesser subjects–evident in this woodcut only in the clearly unclothed status of the island’s dwellers. The collective classification as willing subjects, but as of nuclear customs, must have made them in need of rule and conversion–so remote that their discovery as subjects are rarely acknowledged–that created the basis for the cognitive bizarreness of claiming sovereignty over a people that denied any social organization among them: the illustration of a Colombian exchange lay here in a presentation of gifts, as if it were a recognition of rule over such remote peoples. The relation of the costumed sailors who disembarked from the offshore caravel in the foreground, who contrast to the unclothed natives crowding the shores and rocky shoals in the image of encounter by the now-tired topos of discovery:
Osher Map Library
7. 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.
Osher Map Library
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?
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.
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.
A German-language woodcut imagined that the message of wondrous things in the New World were personally described by Christ to the Spanish monarch, as if the expedition were an extension of a pastoral effort.
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.
“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.
8. Cartographical renderings of the disposition of the islands at which the ship arrived appeared much as were named by Columbus in a map. Columbus enticingly described them as very different from Spain both in its smells and abundance of gold and other metals and named the islands to take possession of them, in ways it suggested that the unclothed inhabitants never had, and opened the lands to European observation in ways that, implicitly, the natives would not have access: even more, in the map the almost interlinked islands seem inhabited by castles and dwellings of their own, but are not only not known, but belong to a landscape which the Spanish sailors have assumed rule and renamed to mark as continuous to the known world–if quite different in their vegetation and in the unclothed condition of their inhabitants, as the letter repeatedly stressed and the sailors must have been impressed–in addition to the variety foods they ate, their practices of eating, their nakedness and their rudimentary dwelling sites.
1494 Basel edition, 31v (courtesy Osher Map Library/University of Southern Maine)
Although the narrative of arrival at these new lands was primarily shown in pictorial form to highlight the moment of contact–
1494 Basel edition, folio 29v; courtesy Osher Map Library/University of Southern Maine: Columbus’ Arrival
with trade at its ostensible center, trade was somewhat suspect, and only the immediate focus of attention and curiosity.
Osher Map Library
For the deeper possibilities and filters through which the contact with these islands was seen, heightened by the context of reading Columbus’ purported letter in the context of the papal humanist Verardus’ rather triumphal history of the conquest of Granada with which it was published, and the dramatization of this conquest that had been performed on stage in Rome, was concretized in this landscape/map of Hispaniola and part of San Dominic (Santo Domingo) as areas ostensibly ready for its own future conversion–indeed as offering to map the possibilities of conversion that their discovery portended for a universal victory of Christianity in the now-amplified inhabited world, rather than a re-mapping of the ecumene. The quasi-divine nature that Columbus arrogated to himself, confirmed by the ostensible numerous signs received in his mission’s progress across oceans–“By many signal miracles God has shown Himself on the voyage,” he wrote in his journal on May 1, 1493–confirmed that although he claimed to wish to discover the entire coast of the newly found lands, to “give the story of them to Your Highnesses,” the story of conversion loomed particularly large, if not centrally, to his suspicions of a far more expansive “mainland to the west.”
So did the potential profit of the island’s rule, and the administration of its evocatively described gold mines.
The sense of a network of in which to process the discoveries is also evident in the presentation of the discoveries in the gores that allowed the construction of the unique form of globe-shaped maps that have been suggestively found to have emerged with perhaps more widespread nature than had been earlier thought soon after 1500. The “description tam in solido quam in plano [illustration as much in solid form as on a flat surface]” seems to have provided a convincing way to represent the practice of discovery–and indeed the matrix or network of the discoveries–for a large audience, in ways that different both from the nautical map in its organization of space as a network that could be read.
The complex concretization of “America noviter reperta” within a spatial network that unites an oceanic expanse, as much as terrestrial space, appeals to the harmony of a grid-like representation to reduce terrestrial expanse as an indexical network, as well as to concretize the globe, often assumed to be innovated by the humanist Martin Waldseemüller’s Cosmographia Introductio (1507), but which continued through the first two decades of the sixteenth century as a way to stabilize speculations about the New World. The gores seem to have been intended to reproduce a readily comprehensible image of global relations on a network of spherical form, as the apparent assembly instructions of this flysheet, recently discovered in Munich–
–and which would probably have resulted in the creation of a more detailed and far more legible reproduction, something like the below reconstruction, which seems particularly suggestive of the perils of trans-oceanic travels, but takes pain to confirm the fundamental indelibility of the network of space that embraced a churning oceanic expanse.
1507 edition of the Cosmographiae Intruductio edited by Louis Boulengier, adapted from Waldseemüller (adapted as a globe by Georg Zotti)
9. The suggestion of a plenitude of such manually spinnable globes–try your hand at the game of spinning early modern globes and the apparent mastery of global networks that their rotation offers–suggests the appeal of comprehending the mastery of an interconnected network of space, often comprehending and noting the courses of recent ships and including the maritime conveyances of ships themselves. The way that such a network established a frame of reference to describe and indeed reproduce a stable discourse about reports of the New World demands to be studied as a network of meaning, as much as one of discovery; the relationships that it suggested became ways of rendering visible a variety of networks, as much as for comprehending spatial immensity, as it provided a surface with which readers could meaningfully interact.
The site of performance of reading maps became a basis and excuse for their reproduction, as much as the systematization of meaning. Although the humanist Waldseemüller has been credited with the innovative assembly of a globe that indicates America as a site readily localized on a world map’s surface, the ability for locating its place seems perhaps not only more widely diffused, but a more concerted effort of a corpus of widely printed cartographical depictions.