Spices & Christians

Magellan's Voyage

by Antonio Pigafetta, translated and edited by R.A. Skelton
Yale, 2 volumes, 390 pp., $100.00

In 1964 Mr. Edwin J. Beinecke presented Yale University with one of the most magnificent of all manuscripts connected with the early history of European overseas expansion. This beautiful document, carefully written on fine white vellum with illuminated initials and chapter headings in red and blue, is a French version of the celebrated account of Magellan’s voyage by the Italian Antonio Pigafetta. The account itself is a classic, for it offers an eyewitness narrative of man’s first circumnavigation of the globe. Four manuscripts survive, one in Italian and the remaining three in French, presumably prepared for different patrons whose certain identity remains unknown. The Beinecke-Yale manuscript, which is the most magnificent of these four, found its way, like so many other precious documents, into the famous Phillipps collection, and it was through one of the Phillipps sales that it came into Mr. Beinecke’s possession. Thanks to Mr. Beinecke’s munificence, it was not only presented to Yale, but has now been made available to a larger (although necessarily affluent) readership through a superb facsimile, together with an accompanying volume of translation and notes by Mr. R. A. Skelton.

The facsimile itself, with its pretty charts of gray-brown islands floating like scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on deep blue seas with gold-crested waves, is a delight to the eye and would do credit to the most elegant of coffee-tables. Although many will wish to beg, borrow, or steal it, I am not quite clear who will actually buy it; but it should certainly become a standard Presidential gift to every returning astronaut. For it not only makes a very handsome present but also helps to induce a proper sense of humility by putting space flights into perspective. Magellan’s Victoria (one hundred tons) was the Apollo spacecraft of the sixteenth century. Its probe into terrestrial space lasted three years, from 1519 to 1522, and was conducted with terrible loss of life (including that of Magellan himself) and amid incredible hardships. But it got round the world—losing, to the astonishment of its crew, a day in the process—and it brought back a mass of new information, not only about new lands, but also, more excitingly, about new peoples.

The man whom we most have to thank for this information is a Knight of Rhodes, Antonio Pigafetta, who found himself in Spain in 1519 and, having heard “great and terrible things of the Ocean Sea,” decided to take ship with Magellan. His motives, so typical of the Renaissance Europe from which he came, were a compound of curiosity and vanity.

I determined to experience and to go to see some of the said things…that it might be told that I made the voyage and saw with my eyes the things hereafter written, and that I might win a famous name with posterity.

Mr. Skelton’s translation, it should be said, usually reads a good deal better than this. The ordinary reader will no doubt continue to use Robertson’s translation of 1906…

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