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The Mexican Treasury: The Writings of Dr. Francisco Hernandez and Searching for the Secrets of Nature: The Life and Works of Dr. Francisco Hernandez. (Reviews).

Simon Varey, ed. The Mexican Treasury: The Writings of Dr. Francisco Hernandez

Trans. Rafael Chabran, Cynthia L. Chamberlin and Simon Varey. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000. xix + 281 pp. + 65 b/w pls. $65. ISBN: 0-8047-3963-3.

Simon Varey, Rafael Chabran and Dora B. Weiner, eds. Searching for the Secrets of Nature: The Life and Works of Dr. Francisco Hernandez

Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000. xvi + 229 pp. $60. ISBN: 0-8047-3964-1.

The Spanish humanist physician Francisco Hernandez, at the command of Philip II, arrived in 1570 in New Spain as the protomedico general of the Indies, and he spent the next seven years compiling descriptions and uses of plants and animals not found in Europe. He travelled extensively, observed local customs, learnt the indigenous names of plants, classified them according to the Nahua etymology, and hired Mexican painters to paint the pictures. This culminated in his Natural History of New Spain, which he saw as a supplement to Pliny's Natural History. Hernandez' Natural History consisted of 6 (folio) volumes of Latin text, and a further 10 volumes of illustrations.

The sheer size -- over 3,000 new plants as well as animals and minerals -- of this project was the main reason for its subsequent checkered history of transmission, transformation and deformation, and of the reputation that Hernandez acquired as an authority in New World flora. Redactions, summaries, copies of copies, and partial translations of the manuscript deposited in the Escorial made their way to the printing presses in the next two hundred years, with varying degrees of attribution and editorial intervention. It was not just the text but also the illustrations that suffered a similar fate. In fact, the relationship between text and image seems to have been precarious from the start: Hernandez himself wrote to the King that the textual description and images could not be matched until they were printed, to allow for textual emendations without affecting the images (Mexican Treasury, 58). Although the texts and images were envisaged to be printed alongside each other, with the picture on the left-hand p age and the text on the right-hand page, the original paintings were bound separately from the texts. Furthermore, Philip II took to having the original Mexican paintings cut out from the volumes in order to adorn his chambers, or to give away as gifts. Whatever copies that were made from the originals, it seems certain they were re-interpreted into Western European styles, as the early modern printed versions attest, and they were detached from their original identification, as Galilei reported: "when, in the house of the illustrious and excellent Monsignore Prince Cesi, I saw the paintings of five hundred Indian plants, I had to affirm that either this is a fiction, denying that such plants exist in the world, or -- if true, as it just might be -- it is scouring and superfluous, as neither I nor any of those present knew their quality, virtue, or effects" (Mexican Treasury, 16). The fire at the Escorial in 1671 dashed any further prospects of publication and wider dissemination of the original manuscript an d the paintings; and of any future historians' hope to establish the precise nature, scope and achievement of Hernandez' original project. Yet, it remains one of the most important enterprises in the history of materia medica, natural history, and sciences in general. It is this work, the Natural History of New Spain, that Prince Federico Cesi, Duke of Aquasparta, and his Accademia dei Lincei, better known for their support for Galilei, saw as their flagship publication.

The study of Hernanadez work and achievement thus presents a challenge to historians, and the editors (Simon Varey, Rafael Chabran, Dora Weiner, and Cynthia Chamberlin) of these volumes have struck an admirable balance of scholarly standards and common sense. As codicologists can show, the loss of the original manuscripts, though tragic, does not have to impede historical study altogether; through internal analysis and other pieces of evidence, a stemma of manuscript transmission can be established in relation to the 'Ur-text', whence one may obtain a reasonably good idea of some of the contents of the original. Moreover, the paths of transmissions indicate the various ways in which Hernandez' work was received, and through those paths, historians may also track the ways in which his reputation was established. The volume entitled The Mexican Treasury thus provides English translations of the major texts of botany and natural history that assimilated, and in many ways transformed, knowledge originally gleaned from Hernandez, with extracts from De Laet, Nieremberg, Lovell, Stubbe, Sloane, Ray and Salmon. One can readily use these extracts as student assignments for comparing approaches to New World plants such as chilli, cacao and corn. It would be particularly interesting to compare Hernandez' writings on the inhabitants and customs of Spain with those of Thomas Harriot in North America. This volume also usefully translates all other documents relating to Hernandez; his letters, wills, and an intriguing poem on Christian doctrine. All texts are translated into English either from Latin or Spanish.

The other volume, Searching for the Secrets of Nature, is a collection of essays, which help situate Hernandez, his natural history and medicine in their contemporary contexts, and explain the receptions of his works in natural history texts, floral portraits, and his reputation and myths in the Spanish and Latin American history writing. Particularly intriguing is Benito-Vessels' piece on Hernandez' putative Jewish origin, an allegation levelled at him by those who saw him as too tolerant in his attitudes toward the indigenous people; Lopez Terrarda's piece on the influence of New World flora on seventeenth-century Spanish painting shows the strength and flexibility of Old-World symbolism; Worth Estes, Lopez Pinero and Pardo Tomas assess Hernandez' authority in relation to other authors writing on New World species in the period; none of the articles is overly apologetic or hagiographic; all are helpful and concise, with references to past texts and studies, much of which remains in Spanish. As in the first volume, all the articles in this volume are in English. This second volume is an essential companion for understanding the texts in the first volume. The only pity is that the contrast in some of the reproductions is poor, and the lack of color plates makes it difficult to identify the details such as the odd chilli or tomato in the details of pictures.

Here, then, is an important supplement to Hernandez' scholarship which has hitherto remained largely in Spanish. This is a fundamental contribution in the English language to the study of natural history of the New World, Mexico in particular, in the Renaissance, which must be placed on every reading list of courses on the encounters with the New World.
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Author:Kusukawa, Sachiko
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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