Distilling the Americas: European Attempts to Understand the World Through BooksBeginning in the 16th century, an expansionist Europe sought to make sense of a world which extended far beyond continental boundaries. As a result of exploration, conquest, and colonialism, the old world societies of Europe were put into contact with non-Western peoples, cultures, and objects. Less than a century earlier, the invention of the printing press made paper the primary medium through which Europeans understood the world around them. The clashing of these two historical moments — the discovery of the New World and the increased accessibility of books — led to a concerted attempt among European intellectuals to make sense of the new, expanded world around them. Compiling accounts, cartographic data, primary sources, and rumors, European writers, cartographers, and artists engaged in an ambitious project: to condense the known world into a book (or several volumes of them). The principal examples of this effort examined in this section are costume books, travel narratives, and maps.
Europe’s Renaissance period laid the foundation for the effort to condense the world into books. A period of great intellectual development, this time was marked by a significant evolution of arts, humanities, and sciences in Europe, with new knowledge being produced and consumed on a grand scale. Following a revival of interest in classical knowledge from Greece and Rome, the Renaissance informed a new vision for human potential, inspiring many great thinkers who wished to shake off previous limitations on human thought. This culturally significant time coincided with the Age of Discovery. This overlap was marked by a great increase in overseas exploration and interactions between Europe and the New World of the Americas. It’s hard to track the impact of the Renaissance on travel and the goal of distilling the world. However, the Renaissance primarily influenced European elites, many of whom participated in the Age of Discovery. As St. Francis of Assisi propagated in the proto-Renaissance period, there was a rebirth in the admiration of nature, not from a mere aesthetic point of view but importantly from a spiritual one. Nature was seen as that expression of divine creativity, and travelling the world was to discover nature. While colonialism was ultimately the product of the Age of Discovery, one of the era’s purest intentions was an exploration of the ‘Natural World’ and the beauty of diversity in God’s creation. The Age of Discovery was an important pretext to the Spanish invasion of Mexico. The Spanish support of Columbus’s Atlantic travels was an example of this. During the seventeenth century, however, the Spanish empire experienced military setbacks in Europe. Historians note a decline in military power starting from 1558, when Spain launched an attempt to defeat England. Ultimately, these military declines only increased the pressure on Spain’s colonial project in Mexico.
Costume books were unique works which attempted to portray the culture and history of a particular city, region, or nation through the depiction of a clothed figure. The clothes, or costumes, ostensibly act as a visual representation of the heritage of the person wearing them. Costume books are an “imagining of the world” and thus represent a historical snapshot of European conceptions of the world. This “imagining” is central not just to costume books, but to the loose project of ‘the World on Paper,’ with Europeans chronicling how they perceived the world. Travel narratives collected images, first hand accounts, and stories from travellers around the world and were compiled by shrewd — and sometimes heavy-handed — editors into collections to be enjoyed by future explorers and armchair travellers alike. Often, images that made their way into Europe were reproduced in costume books and immortalized in that form, forming the basis for European ideas about a given subject. Lastly, there are maps, which visually represented how Europeans saw the world and their place in it. These ranged from large scale maps of continents—such as Gerhard Mercator’s Atlas, sive Cosmographicæ meditationes de fabrica mundi et fabricati figura—to city-level illustrations—such as Braun’s Civitates. As maps were considered reliable sources of information at the time, they were able to transmit a different version of the ‘imagined’ European world. They “made arguments about the relationship of human societies, bodies and cultures to their environments,” especially as it was thought that geography had an impact on human customs. Illustrated maps, which often included depictions of the peoples of a given region, were a unique genre that fits in line with “a key part of the history of Renaissance ethnography,” the impetus to describe foreign populations and cultures through visual media. Due to their illustrations—which separated them from travel narratives which lacked many images—and their prevalence—unlike costume books which were more ephemeral—maps provide the most enduring snapshot of the ‘World on Paper’ project in Europe during the 16th century.
Distilling the Americas: European Attempts to Understand the World Through Books
The invention of the printing press in the 1450s made printed books the primary medium through which Europeans perceived and constructed a world that was quickly expanding and changing, not least due to the “discovery” and colonization of the Americas. European scholars attempted to make sense of the “New World” as part of an ambitious project: to present all of known existence on the pages of books. This case examines some of the different forms such efforts took, focusing on maps and travel narratives.
New Interpretations in New Spain: Assembling the Indigenous PastFrom the ashes of the Spanish invasion of Mexico, a new society emerged in New Spain, and the way pre-Hispanic history was collected was subject to whomever controlled the narrative. There were the Europeans, Mestizos (individuals of indigenous and Spanish descent), Criollos (Creoles, American-born Spaniards) and the indigneous peoples. Despite a century and a half of Spanish rule, the Europeans struggled to keep order in New Spain. There was dissonance between the memory of violence and the ordered, picturesque version of New Spain that the Spanish were trying to achieve. The weakening Spanish crown paved a way for groups like the Criollos and Mestizos to pursue political and economic power at the local and viceregal levels. Each believing themselves to be the true heirs of New Spain, these American groups sought to legitimize themselves by documenting or inventing their history, usually showing influences of European traditions. The Criollos and Mestizos believed their DNA heralded from Spanish conquerors and original indigneous rulers. In turn, they thought they could best rule this new racially-mixed society. However, due to prevailing European thought that Americans were barbaric, they sought to glorify the indigenous past to prove their roots were ‘civilized.’ Through assimilating their indigneous history into European models, they could be accepted by the Spanish but also help cultivate the nascent criollo patriotism. The Mestizos had another motive: to prove that their ancestry was linked to indigenous groups that aided the conquistadors during the conquest to win favor with the Spanish crown. Biased by their ancestry and different political pressures, the content of these newly-constructed histories sheds light on Mexican patriotism and how European perceptions of the Americas were changing.
It was with the help of indigenous documents that criollo and mestizo authors wrote and constructed new histories in response to their respective political agendas. Therefore, the manuscripts that these scholars generated or collected are imbued with their own motivations. One of these scholars, Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, proved formative to Mexican creole patriotism and then later “Mexican nationalism after independence.” But why did he write? What were his motivations? Mentioned before, at the turn of the 16th century, the colonial system rewarded pre-Hispanic Mexican nobility & allies of the Spanish crown with political privileges. While Ixtlilxochitl was a castizo and came from a noble background, his hometown of Teotihuacan was relatively small and inconsequential. In turn, Ixtlilxochitl had two motivations in preserving documents and creating histories: (1) connect his family’s lineage to the larger Mexica kingdom of Texcoco and (2) aggrandize Texcoco and its importance. By doing so, he could receive greater sociopolitical privileges. The second point also speaks to the idea that Ixtlilxochitl created a new history of the Mexica Empire. Javier Clavijero, a Creole scholar writing a century after Ixtlilxochitl, wrote against the European Enlightenment discourse surrounding the history of Central America. His book The History of Mexico (1780-1781) was written squarely during the period of Enlightenment when prevailing thought held that indigenous manuscripts and codices were not as credible as European sources of history. This erasure of indigenous history was especially propagated by the Scottish “armchair historian” William Robertson. In order to combat this erasure, Clavijero based his history on 10 indigenous texts most of which predate the conquest of Mexico.
Ixtlilxochitl and Clavijero both aimed to create new interpretations and understandings of indigenous history and New Spain at large. It’s interesting, then, to consider the ripple effects of their work. By bringing two other scholars of Mexica culture and history into the conversation—Lord Edward Kingsborough and Lorenzo Boturini—it becomes possible to do just that. Lord Kingsborough was an Irishman who published full reproductions of Mexican manuscripts and codices in his 9 volume work The Antiquities of Mexico, a project that lasted from 1831 to 1848. While his motivation to print was in large part due to his belief that the Mexica people descended from the ten Lost Tribes of Israel, the 9 volumes are a testament to the changing attitudes towards the credibility and importance of Mexican manuscripts and documents. In fact, Ixtlilxochitl’s works were first put in print by Kingsborough. Lorenzo Boturini, a Spanish subject who traveled New Spain extensively in the mid-18th century, relied upon Ixtlilxochitl’s scholarship in order to write his own histories, revealing the success of Ixtlilxochitl’s project. Ixtlilxochitl and Clavijero’s constructions of an indigenous Mexican past, based on indigenous Mexica codices, became the frameworks for many scholars after them. Overall, both Europe and New Spain’s attempts to put the world on paper involved imagination and creativity.
New Interpretations in New Spain: Assembling the Indigenous Past
Many authors and collectors in colonial Mexico had an interest in the indigenous past. Mestizos (individuals of Indigenous and Spanish descent) and criollos (Creoles, American-born Spaniards) had different political agendas, in pursuit of political and economic power at the local and viceregal levels. They shared a strong commitment to dispelling the many incorrect ideas and prejudices about New Spain circulated by authors from Spain and other European nations, which they sought to combat through the preservation and use of Indigenous documents as historical sources.
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