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Italian Reports on America, 1493-1522: Letters, Dispatches, and Papal Bulls & Las Casas on Columbus: The Third Voyage. .

Geoffrey Symcox, ed. Italian Reports on America, 1493-1522: Letters, Dispatches, and Papal Bulls.

Ed. Giovanna Rabitti. Trans. Peter Diehl. (Repertorium Columbianum, 10.) Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2001. xvi + 162 pp. index. bibl. [euro]50. ISBN: 2-503-51180-5.

Geoffrey Symcox and Jesus Carrillo, eds. Las Casas on Columbus: The Third Voyage.

(Repertorium Columbianum, 11.) Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2001. x + 334 pp. index, map. bibl. [euro]70. ISBN: 2-503-51181-3.

The two titles reviewed here are the latest publications in the distinguished series Repertorium Columbianum, designed by the late Professor Fredi Chiapelli. The Quincentenary of Columbus' first voyage in 1992 inspired Chiapelli to organize new editions and English translations of texts relating to Columbus' career and its immediate aftermath. His project was in some ways a selective updating of Cesare De Lollis' multi-volume Raccolta di documenti e studi publicati della R. Commissione Colombiana, published in the early 1890s to mark the Quatercentenary. To be sure, the figure of Columbus is at the center of both the Repertorium Columbianum and the Raccolta. However, both series also devoted volumes to auxiliary materials and these choices provide interesting indices to the specific historiographical milieus in which they were produced.

For example, De Lollis printed a volume of materials edited by Gustavo Uzielli relating to the life and work of the famous Florentine Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli who, at the time, was thought to have corresponded directly with Columbus and to have provided him with a map demonstrating the navigability of the Atlantic which he then used to convince Ferdinand and Isabella to underwrite his "Enterprise of the Indies." Today, scholars have revised the nineteenth-century emphasis upon the influence of Toscanelli on Columbus and have devised other explanations of the genesis of Columbus' ideas, so it is not surprising that Toscanelli does not occupy pride of place in the Repertorium Columbianum. Moreover, it is noteworthy that the first volume of Repertorium Columbianum is We People Here: Nahuatl Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico, edited by the important contemporary scholar of Nahuatl language and culture, James Lockhart. Thus the series appropriately recognizes the strong current interest in the roles that indige nous peoples played in the cross-cultural encounters inaugurated by Columbus' voyages. Throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, these encounters were studied almost exclusively (with noteworthy exceptions such as Joaquin Garcia Icazbalceta, Charles Gibson, Miguel Leon-Portilla, and Angel Maria Garibay Kintana) from a Eurocentric perspective.

Volume 10, Italian Reports on America, 1493-1522, consists of another collection of auxiliary materials chosen from those originally published in 1892 by Guglielmo Berchet in the Raccolta Colombiana, part 3, volume 1 under the title Carteggi diplomatici. These materials fall into two groups; the diplomatic reports of the ambassadors of various Italian polities to their rulers forwarding news of the recent Spanish and Portuguese voyages, and papal bulls and other Vatican documents regarding these voyages. A few of the ambassadorial reports, such as Giovanni Matteo Cretico's description of the Portuguese expedition to India of 1500-01, contain interesting details, but for the most part they are brief, general, and allusive in content. The papal bulls and letters are more substantial. They include the well-known Alexandrine Bulls of 1493 and show a sequence of popes seeking ways to establish and exercise their political and spiritual authority over newly discovered territories and their inhabitants. But, like th e ambassadorial reports, they require a good deal of contextualizing in order to extract the full range of their meanings and assess their significance.

Geoffrey Symcox's introduction addresses this issue of context in a number of ways. His main argument is that these reports will be of interest to those studying the early history of diplomacy in Italy. In setting this historical stage, he notes that the republic of Venice and the papacy had developed the most sophisticated systems of ambassadors by the end of the fifteenth century. However, the reports of the Spanish and Portuguese discoveries that circulated from 1493-1522 were probably of peripheral interest and did not significantly alter or reorient the relations of either Venice or the papacy with their respective allies and enemies. The Venetians were preoccupied with the Turkish incursions and with maintaining their commercial hegemony in the eastern Mediterranean and their political hegemony on the Italian peninsula. The popes, especially the papa terribile, Julius II, were focused on preserving the Patrimonium Sancti Petri in the face of the invasions of forces loyal to Charles VIII which had comme nced in 1494.

But the popes (or their curiae) also did seem to recognize the significance of the discoveries. In the three bulls issued in early May of 1493 (docs. 5-7), Alexander VI exercised the plenitudo potestatis given to him in the Donation of Constantine to distribute the newfound lands between Spain and Portugal, and he invoked his spiritual authority as the vicarius Christi to mandate the evangelization of their inhabitants. In this instance, the discovery of the Americas may be linked to evolution of the ideology (and bureaucracy) of the "papal prince" in the Renaissance--a phenomenon studied by Paolo Prodi and others. However, for the most part the reports collected in volume 10 confirm the well-known thesis set forth some time ago by J.H. Elliott in his The Old World and The New 1492-1 650 (first published in 1970) that the initial impact of the discoveries in Europe was at best, "uncertain." This also is the conclusion reached by Symcox.

Columbus' third voyage, the most complicated and fascinating of the four he made, began auspiciously. In the summer of 1498, he and his crew were the first Europeans to reach the mainland of South America. His observation of powerful currents of fresh water flowing into the ocean in the Gulf of Paria led Columbus to think that they might be the four rivers mentioned in Genesis 2:10-14 and that he might therefore be in the environs of the Terrestrial Paradise. But when he then sailed to the island of Hispaniola (which he governed), he went from heaven to hell, as it were. Upon his arrival, he was confronted with open rebellion from the European settlers as well as resistance from the indigenous peoples. The situation deteriorated and ended with Columbus being sent back to Spain in chains by Ferdinand and Isabella's comendador, Francisco de Bobadilla, in 1500.

The principal source for this voyage is a section (chaps. 130-82) of Bartolome de las Casas' Historia de Las Indias. It in turn is based on a various sources which are now lost, including Columbus' diary of the voyage and letters pertaining to it. Volume eleven of the Repertorium Columbianum offers a new edition of these chapters, based on an autograph in the Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid. This edition, as the textual editor Jesus Carrillo notes on page 18, includes the changes that Las Casas made to the manuscript and preserves various inconsistencies in it and in doing this intends to complement earlier, more "homogenized" editions. This is a good decision. There is a growing interest in Las Casas himself and those who study him know that he habitually emended his work in an ongoing effort to integrate and consolidate the different sources to which he had access; it is very useful to have an edition of the Historia de Las Indias that gives access to this detail.

Since Las Casas was often incorporating the words of Columbus himself into his narrative, these chapters of Historia de las Indias beg the crucial question of the relationship of the author to his subject. On page 5 of his introduction Symcox hits the nail on the head when he observes that the text is "a kind of dialogue" between Las Casas and Columbus: "He [Las Casas] constantly quotes the admiral's letters, often verbatim, and then glosses them with his own observations. The text thus becomes a running commentary, laudatory or critical, on Columbus' own words; Las Casas treats him as his interlocutor in a conversation that runs through the text" (5). Those who study this judicious edition and translation will see Las Casas searching, sometimes struggling, to portray accurately and to understand a man whom he considers to be both divinely guided and morally corrupt.

Ultimately, Las Casas' struggle was to understand himself. His father was among the first colonists on Hispaniola; he himself had been a slave-holder, becoming an encomendero in the Indies around the time that Columbus commenced his fourth voyage in 1502. He began writing the Historia de las Indies in 1527, after he had rejected the life of a colonist and entered the Dominican Order, and he worked on it over several decades. In other words, Las Casas' study of Columbus is inextricable from his own ongoing retrospective apologia pro sua vita and so the Historia de la Indias is doubly important to scholars today.

In sum, these two collections of materials, which are not otherwise readily available, should, as their editors intended, provide scholars and students with grist for pursuing a range of questions and problems related to the complex figures of Columbus and Las Casas, and to the larger diplomatic and ideological environments in which they operated.
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Author:Watts, Pauline Moffitt
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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