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Man of the Year

Even in the chapter of Renaissance Characters devoted to merchants, we hear how this body, despised in ancient theory and medieval theology, bought status in its dealings with the Church—among other things, by heavy traffic in an “indulgence” system it helped systematize. As the chapter’s author, Alberto Tenenti, puts it: “What else, for example, was the promotion of belief in the expiation of faults in Purgatory if not a double-pronged economic speculation and a veritable business deal?” Tenenti notes the tremendous growth of insurance policies in this era—and some took out insurance on the afterlife. Hardheaded merchants were as anxious to be on the Church’s good side as was Columbus himself. The state money for Columbus’s first trip was taken from advances on indulgences.

Tenenti’s chapter should be read in conjunction with Jacques Attali’s 1492 and Fernand Braudel’s Out of Italy. Columbus’s avidity for gold has been treated as a private obsession, but Attali claims that all Europe was in need of gold to prevent trade “asphyxiation.” With land routes being choked off and sea transport of bulky items made difficult, Europe needed portable hard specie to deal in the easily moved spices of the East. The desire for gold, as well as for trade routes, had driven explorers farther and farther down the coast of Africa. When Spain brought back the gold from America, that item coursed rapidly through Europe—mainly through Italian networks of commerce, as Braudel emphasizes—as internal products were sold cheap to get gold for trade with the Orient. This is one possible explanation for the price depression Braudel notes in the midst of Renaissance lavishness.

Attali and Braudel are both “Eurocentric”—though Attali, especially, is critical of Europe, too. He notes, for instance, how Europe gathered energy for its amazing outward pounce in this era by denying its intellectual indebtedness to Palestine and Islam, trying to “purify” itself of alien influence—an effort that reached its fulfillment in the expulsion of Moors and Jews from Spain. Christians in other lands wrote that Columbus’s success was a reward to Spain’s “Catholic Majesties” for their extrusion of the infidels.


But we can no longer rest in a Eurocentric interpretation of Columbus. If it is necessary to put him back into his Renaissance setting in order to understand (if not condone) his ruthlessness, religiosity, and rapacity, we must also set him—as he could not do himself—in the “new world” he claimed to have found.

On the old TV show Candid Camera, people faced with unexpected things like talking utensils or walking trees often pretended the event had not occurred. It could not be fitted into their sense of reality, so a thick perceptual grid just refused to let the evidence through. That was Columbus’s reaction to the strange world he insisted on treating as the Indies, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. He did not “discover” America, or even recognize it; he invented a nonexistent Orient and grew more stubborn in clinging to that fiction as time went on. The legacy of that imperviousness is the term “Indians,” which stuck after he gave it to the Americans.

Not only were the natives given the wrong title. Their own title was denied them while others usurped it. Theodore Roosevelt argued, in his ambitious four-volume history, The Winning of the West, that Europeans in America deserved the title “Americans” and the natives did not, because the Europeans’ racial energy made them take and improve the continent. In the same way, “discovery” was used of Columbus’s arrival because only one side of the transaction mattered. I am reminded of Garry Trudeau’s cartoon strip on “the secret bombing of Cambodia,” where a Cambodian says it was no secret to him. Some have been amused or annoyed by the energy with which “discovery” has been denied to Columbus’s voyages. But the language of finding or losing is ownership language—as in the “Who lost China?” debate, where people assumed that China was America’s to lose. The natives had no need to find America. They had never lost it—until aliens claimed to have found it.

Language can itself be an imperial tool. Naming is a way of appropriating, as we see in the many old comparisons of Columbus naming “new” islands to Adam naming the beasts in Eden. This is a truth that informs the recent explosion of books dealing with Prospero’s use of language in Shakespeare’s “colonial” drama, The Tempest. Some people think it is mere squeamishness to avoid the word “discover.” On the contrary, the main indication of a lingering squeamishness is reluctance to use the obvious term, “conquest.” (In the nineteenth century, there was no shying from Conquest in the titles of W.H. Prescott’s volumes on Mexico and Peru.)

Stephen Greenblatt, who wrote one of the seminal essays on The Tempest, deals with exploration literature in his new book, Marvelous Possessions. He argues that “wonder” is a two-edged emotion—prompting curiosity about the new, or making one recoil from the abnormal (the monstrum). He quotes a fine passage from Saint Albert the Great about the “heart-stopping” wonder at a natural anomaly (prodigium), which leads to a suspension of the desire for knowledge (suspensio desiderii ad cognoscendam causam). The passage concludes:

Now the man who is puzzled and wonders apparently does not know. Hence wonder is the movement of the man who does not know on his way to finding out.5

Albert is echoing a famous passage in Saint Augustine:

The desire present in all seeking goes out beyond the seeker and is suspended (pendit), somehow, unable to rest in a goal until what was sought is found, and embraced by the seeker. This desire—this seeking—does not seem to be love, for love is of a known thing, and this is an effort toward knowing.6

The suspension of wonder can become a paralysis—Albert calls it nerve-racking (an agonia) and heart-contracting (systole cordis).

Greenblatt’s is a useful way to look at reactions to the unknown in the age of exploration. The “heart-stopping” response to the unknown would become terribly literal in the conquerors’ heartless treatment of Americans. Columbus could not make that leap outside himself toward the unknown that Albert and Augustine describe. He grabbed, desperately, at fugitive things that could plug the gaps in his theory and save his preconceptions.

It is absurd for people to remain pent up inside the prison of Columbus’s heart-stopping wonder. We can see some of what he was blind to. Yet some think that a refusal to accept his terms is a “pandering” to politically correct attitudes about the original Americans. They fear that any motion toward “multiculturalism” leads to an inevitable cultural relativism, to what Jeane Kirkpatrick calls “moral equivalence.” This either-or approach serves to make the only alternative to moral relativism a determined enclosure within Columbus’s own moment.

Others answer that it is liberating to see the world as it was spread out before and beyond Columbus’s view in 1492—a position made vivid in the stunning National Gallery show in Washington DC, running until January 12, Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration. Here we can see the artifacts of those first Americans Columbus encountered, the Tainos, see the exquisitely beaded belts worn by people who were just “naked” to Columbus. A wood figure shows a rain god whose countenance has been hollowed out by rivulets of his tears. This is Boinayel, whose face suggests that rain is tortured out of nature. It is certainly better at expressing cosmic anguish than Bramante’s weeping philosopher in this show (on the detached fresco, Democritus and Heraclitus). The Taino figure also has the accidental symbolism of sending its grief to us, over the years, from a doomed culture.

As men of the enlightenment could see nothing but savagery in Gothic architecture, there was a time when people could see nothing but “primitivism” in art from the Americas—or even from the Orient. We are now, perhaps, broad-minded to a fault. But what treasures open to the mind when we see in the Circa 1492 exhibition the eloquent telegraphy of Shen Zhou’s Chinese ink-and-paper lobster and crab—as closely observed and vibrant as, in its own medium, is Leonardo’s live ermine in the arms of Cecilia Gallerani, brought here from Cracow for the show.7 In fact, the most sophisticated imperial culture of the Americas had artifacts of a mind-numbing complexity. The intricate Calendar Stone in Mexico City—a lesser version of which is in the show—tells the whole past and future of the world in cryptic number-and-symbol combinations. The coming of an apocalyptic end is signaled—just as it is in Bosch’s Lisbon triptych of Saint Anthony, also on display in this exhibition. The eschatological texts in Columbus’s Book of the Prophecies—written around the time of his third voyage in 1500—were common currency of the mind; and the same cosmic problems were troubling the natives of the place he was invading.

Two of the most important Aztec artifacts in the show are its pre-Hispanic omen-books—forty-some pages of accordion-folded deerskin covered with labyrinthine signs. One, the Codex Fejéváry-Mayer from Liverpool, was used by a merchant for dealing in auspicious times and places and goods. The other, the Codex Cospi from Bologna, is a temple text—something like the combination of a cathedral’s liturgical calendar, missal, and summa theologiae. Only the priests could read the combination for liturgically correct times and kinds of services, prayer, and sacrifice.

It is worth noting that the most “advanced” society, the large bureaucratic Aztec empire, was the one that had human sacrifice at the center of its religion. Exquisitely ornamental sacrificial knives demonstrate, here, that there is nothing necessarily “primitive” about human sacrifice—something no student of twentieth-century Germany should be surprised to learn. The Aztec culture was also a slave culture—like those of classical antiquity.

The similarities between cultures, so obvious to us, did not escape the early invaders from Europe. In fact, Greenblatt invents a little psychodrama for Bernal Díaz, who accompanied Cortés’s 1519 expedition. According to Greenblatt, Díaz had to repress the acknowledgment of resemblance between Aztec sacrifice and the Christian Mass, since “for a Spanish Catholic to recognize such a connection might have seemed to acknowledge the force of the heretical Protestant attack on the mass as cannibalism.” The proof that Díaz is practicing “blockage” is that some awareness of similarities between Christian and Aztec worship nonetheless slips through the Díaz account.

Greenblatt proposes a clever if chronologically improbable theory for matters more obviously explained.8 Spaniards would have expected a similarity between “pagan” rites and Christian ones, since the devil is the ape of God. The ferocity with which Christians burned the religious books and exorcized the temples, replacing them with cathedrals, came from the belief that all “infidel” rites were devil-worship, not only wrong but dangerous, since the devil gives intelligence to his devotees for the struggle against the gospel. Early students of Aztec culture could only prevent the further burning of native records (which were all religious) by convincing the conquerors that human sacrifice was not necessarily a form of devil worship—a heroic labor of explanation finally undertaken by las Casas.

  1. 5

    Saint Albert the Great, Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics 1.2. Greenblatt used this quote, as a touchstone for the “new historicism” he champions, in an earlier essay: “Resonance and Wonder,” in Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (Routledge, 1990), p. 181.

  2. 6

    Saint Augustine, The Trinity 9:12. (Catholic University Press, 1963). Greenblatt found the Albert quote in J.V. Cunningham’s book on Shakespeare, Woe or Wonder (University of Denver Press, 1951). Cunningham uses a parallel passage from Saint Thomas Aquinas, which also has verbal echoes of Saint Augustine, though Cunningham seems unaware of this.

  3. 7

    The Gallerani portrait, which gives a visual pun on the ermine (galée) she holds, can be compared with the National Gallery’s own portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, which puns on her name by the inclusion of a juniper bush (ginepro)—suggesting that the only other Leonardo portrait of a woman, the Mona Lisa, also puns visually on Signor Giocondo’s name, as Vasari claimed. The exquisite treatment of the ermine’s fur by Leonardo takes on more point if we remember that ermine was customarily used in painters’ brushes.

  4. 8

    A Protestant view of the Mass as cannibalism had not been developed when Díaz accompanied Cortés. Luther had posted his theses in Wittenberg only two years earlier, and was in the early stages of reform proposals. Greenblatt might reply that Díaz wrote up his adventure years later, but Greenblatt purports to describe what went through his mind during the encounter with the “wonderful.”

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