José de Acosta did not mind confronting problems. A brilliant speaker and efficient administrator, he dominated the Jesuits’ mission in Peru in the 1570s. Acosta taught, preached, organized church councils, rewrote the liturgy, and went on expeditions into the interior of the country, even though he suffered grievously from melancholy, which, many believed at the time, afflicted men of high talent. Later, back in Spain, he wrote one of the most influential historical works of the later sixteenth century, a Natural and Moral History of the Indies, which appeared in 1590. Translated into Italian, French, English, Dutch, and Latin, it found a public everywhere in Europe.

Acosta’s historical theories were as bold as his missionary practices. When he realized that the Torrid Zone, declared uninhabitable by Aristotle, had a large population and in many areas a temperate climate, he declared without hesitation that “the philosopher” had been wrong. Aristotle had followed the historians and cosmographers of his time, whose knowledge was limited. Though he was and remained a good Aristotelian, Acosta had the courage to admit that the thinker he most admired, and whose methods he used, did not know everything—still a rare virtue in an age when doctors trained at the greatest medical school in Europe, Padua, had to swear an oath to defend Aristotle’s authority.1

Acosta produced the first full-scale effort to describe for a wide European public the societies, religions, and cultures of the New World. But even he could not solve all the intellectual problems that his huge tasks of research and writing posed. In particular, he worried about whether he himself really could reconstruct in solid detail the history and cultures of lands that lacked a written tradition like the Western one. Would he, like Aristotle, wind up a laughingstock, the helpless victim of unreliable informants?

Acosta’s fellow Jesuit Juan de Tovar had sent him an illustrated history of Mexico to use in his own work. Turning to Tovar for advice, Acosta wrote him in 1586 to ask a series of pointed questions. “What certainty or authority,” he wanted to know, “does this narrative or history have?” How could the native inhabitants of New Spain, who did not have a system of alphabetic writing, preserve the memory of events over a long period? And how could they preserve the precise wording of the speeches of their “ancient rhetoricians”? Tovar answered in detail and encouragingly. The Mexicas, he admitted, had used images rather than alphabetic script to record their tradition, and images were less precise than words. But their symbols had enabled them to record “all the events and memorable occurrences that they had in their histories”—that is, in their calendar wheels, and Tovar enclosed a copy of one of them. At the same time, their highly trained memories preserved their ancestors’ eloquent speeches without any deviation, metaphor by metaphor and word by word. Tovar assured Acosta that native sources would yield a proper history.2 Acosta evidently agreed, since he incorporated parts of Tovar’s letter directly into his book.

A generation ago, this exchange seemed to embody one of the great intellectual events of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: Europeans’ long, slow, painful realization that the world contained civilizations not mentioned in the Bible or the histories of the Greeks and Romans. J.H. Elliott treated the discussion between Acosta and Tovar as one of the more dramatic episodes in this eventful story, which began in the mid-sixteenth century. Apologists for modern tendencies insisted that the invention of gunpowder, the compass, and the printing press had made the modern world more cosmopolitan and more powerful than the ancient one. Early Europeans, more and more scholars reflected, must have resembled not the robed sages of Raphael’s School of Athens but the naked inhabitants of pre-Conquest Virginia and Mexico: they had been not the masters of a universally valid Great Tradition but the prisoners of a little one, not venerable philosophers but blue-painted worshippers of savage gods. Francis Bacon, as always, put the common wisdom with uncommon brilliance: antiquity, he said, was not the old age but the youth of the human race, and had no special claim on the respect of later times. The myth of the ancients’ omniscience—the traditional belief that the arts and sciences had existed in their purest imaginable form at the beginning of time—melted, very slowly, into air.

Some observers of keen sensibility, like Bartolomé de las Casas and Michel de Montaigne, came to believe that the discoveries challenged not only ancient Europe’s intellectual reputation, but also modern Europe’s moral standing. Some of the nations the Europeans had conquered had developed sophisticated arts and crafts, systems of roads, and forms of poetry, even though they had had no access to the intellectual and cultural treasures of the West. Christian colonists had come, moreover, not as missionaries and teachers but as predators. The atrocities such invaders had committed against peaceful Caribbean islanders and Incas suggested that Europeans, not Indians, were the real barbarians.3 Antiquity lost authority; modern life lost luster; true civilization suddenly proved hard to locate—and might turn out to inhabit Paraguayan forests or Peruvian mountains rather than European cities. Tovar’s letter—with its demonstration that a tradition radically different from the Western idea of narrative history could still preserve the basic facts—fitted naturally into this larger story.


First published in 1970, Elliott’s book—which remains by far the best introduction to the problems posed by discoveries such as Tovar’s—was only one of several bold efforts since the 1920s to reconsider the history of Europe’s relation to the rest of the world. Scholars broke open new veins in the seemingly exhausted mines of European intellectual history. Sergio Landucci showed that efforts to describe and understand primitive societies occupied dozens of early modern jurists and philosophers—and did so long before Lahontan and Lafitau, the Enlightenment thinkers traditionally singled out, for good or ill, as anthropology’s founding fathers, were born or thought of.4 The late Giuliano Gliozzi combined the erudition of a traditional humanist with the indignation of a Sixties radical. Mounting an extensive enquiry into Renaissance efforts to find biblical or classical passages that identified the New World’s inhabitants and explained how they reached their homes, he emerged with a fierce denunciation of humanists, historians, and theologians. Gliozzi argued that these intellectuals had prostituted their erudition to the service of their states, tearing passages from ancient texts and twisting them to justify modern empires.5

More recently still, younger scholars have scrutinized the documents of European colonizers with equal intensity, but from a different angle of vision. Sabine MacCormack and Fernando Cervantes—to name only two—have concentrated not on scholarly libraries and collections in Europe but on churches, convents, and plazas in the Americas. They have shown in detail how European intellectuals, coming as missionaries, brought with them historical and theological scripts which they tried to make the inhabitants of the New World conform to. And they made clear that many natives rejected these, or insisted on performing them in ways distinctly their own—like those inhabitants of New Spain who drove the Dominican Diego Durán wild with frustration by coming to church only for those feasts that corresponded with sacred dates in their pre-Christian religious calendar, until he shrugged in despair, picked up a feathered staff of his own, and joined their procession.6 Few fields of cultural history, in short, can rival this one for consistent fertility and compulsive interest.

During the last five years or so, however, the herds of scholars who have browsed in tranquility for so long among the records of missionaries and inquisitors have been startled to hear repeated critical rumbles. Many of these began as noises off, originating in quite different fields of study. Edward Said’s study Orientalism, for example, filled many Western scholars with disquiet about the ways in which they and their predecessors had spoken for, rather than listened to, those they referred to as inhabitants of “the Orient.” The precise and original monographs of historians in the Indian Subaltern Studies school showed that the categories and certainties of Empire looked quite different when viewed not from the top of a heap of archival documents preserved in a cast-iron Victorian panopticon in one of Europe’s capitals, but from the colonial perspective of the towns where “riots” and “revolutions” took place.

The theorists who dominated so many humanities departments challenged all conventional ways of writing history. And the large numbers of students identifying themselves as Hispanic, Asian, and Native American who entered elite universities demanded courses and textbooks that did not identify with Europeans and conquerors. Specialists in many disciplines began to recast in radically new terms the discussion of the cultural collision between the West and the Rest. The rumbles have begun to sound like thunder—especially during and after the quincentennial celebrations of 1992, when revisionists and their critics, caught up in equal and opposite fits of moral indignation, denounced one another from every pulpit they could reach.

The atmosphere in which these discussions take place is heavily charged. Even the subtlest historians and social scientists tread the bloody crossroads where cultures meet with the breathless caution of soldiers in a minefield. Many seem almost paralyzed with fear at the possibility of exploiting the colonized or colluding with the colonizers. But even the most careful precautions do not ensure safe passage. Grave scholars make comic appearances, belaboring one another with bladders and slapsticks, each accusing the other of speaking for the native instead of hearing the native’s voice, of making the native too radically Other or too imperialistically the Same.7 Others disappear into an almost mystical state of self-scrutiny, indulging to extremes that truly ineffable scholarly pleasure, the public revelation of their own bad faith. The historiography of the discoveries sometimes seems likely to turn from a real library into an imaginary but gruesome butcher shop—rather like the curiously Goyaesque cannibal slaughterhouses, hung and strewn with smoked human limbs, that early sixteenth-century artists and pamphleteers conjured up to adorn a Caribbean of the mind.


Most of the revisionists agree on certain cardinal points. All exchanges of ideas and images, they argue, are conditioned by the situations—the resources and problems, strengths and weaknesses—of their protagonists. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, European intellectuals spoke from a position of power, native inhabitants of the Americas from one of weakness. European intellectuals, enjoying the support of powerful states and the conquering Christian church, wrote in the languages and genres that would reach worldwide audiences. Native Americans, by contrast, used languages not designed to be printed or accessible to readers outside their own regions. Inevitably, Western voices drowned non-Western ones in public discussions of society and history.

And all too many modern scholars have forgotten that Europe’s intellectual projects won out less for intellectual than for political and military reasons. Often they have ignored texts and images that served the immediate needs of smaller, less powerful publics in the New World itself. Where their predecessors detected the clean, cool odor of ethnographic saintliness in the letters exchanged by Tovar and Acosta, in short, the revisionists detect the putrescence of bad faith. The missionaries’ effort to write a new kind of history formed part of an effort to colonize minds as well as lands. Their creation of an anthropological approach to inquiry served to justify a spiritual and political conquest.

At its worst, revisionist work takes the form of Big Red Books: compilations of today’s politically acceptable value judgments, compressed to the size of large pills meant to be forced down the throats of fuddy-duddies. More than one of the studies published in the last five years will look as quaint, in a generation or two, as the Social Darwinist beatitudes of the late nineteenth century or the Popular Front verities of the Thirties do now. At its best, however, the new scholarship opens windows into lost worlds of thought and experience and restores voices to those long deprived of them. These revisionists, like many others, tend to exaggerate, and sometimes show a complacent ignorance of the older literature they attack. But the new wave of their scholarship now cresting in books and journals deserves serious attention from anyone interested in the problems and prospects of cultural history.


Walter Mignolo, an Argentinian scholar who has taught for many years in the United States, has fired a fierce broadside against what he sees as the clichés of a Eurocentric history of cultural contact in The Darker Side of the Renaissance.8 At once a bold theorist and a meticulous philologist, Mignolo attacks older scholarship both implicitly and explicitly. He deliberately refuses to present his material in chronological order, cutting back and forth among periods, places, and peoples, and juxtaposing texts and writers rarely studied together. Instead of telling one story with a neat, dramatic ending—for example, that of how European intellectuals filed those they called Indians neatly away in a drawer marked “Primitives”—he weaves several story lines together. The whole form and tenor of his book strongly suggest that events—as opposed to written histories—rarely have neat climaxes and resolutions.

The suggestion becomes explicit when Mignolo calls for the creation of a “pluritopic hermeneutics.” Mignolo’s formative intellectual experiences as a young student in Argentina clearly impressed him deeply. He and his friends felt themselves caught for years, like flies in amber, at the margins of modern political life and up-to-date scholarly research. Their sensibilities were sharpened by local and international repression, their minds opened by Gramsci and other radical thinkers whose work circulated widely in their highly sophisticated milieu. (Paradoxically, in view of Mignolo’s present position, the Argentina of his youth impressed many observers as very European.)

They also benefited from the work of local scholars like Rodolfo Kusch and José Cruz, to whom Mignolo pays moving tribute. Kusch, for example, developed an ambitious and sophisticated comparative analysis of Argentinian culture—one that went “beyond a surface of dichotomous oppositions” to “find the seminal pattern that connects the hidden underground of Western thought with explicit Amerindian attitudes, which have resisted the assimilation to causal thinking.” Mignolo shows that Kusch and his contemporaries could draw on rich intellectual resources for understanding the hybrid cultures of former colonies long before Said and the Subaltern School began to have an impact on the historiography of the Americas. But they found that their acute powers of observation earned little credit at home or abroad. To take part in the high talk of the republic of letters, they would have to move their site of operations, mentally or physically (in Mignolo’s case, even to abandon Spanish for English). Exile was a high price of entrance, and Mignolo has no interest in forgetting that he paid it. Instead, he tries to use his experiences as a source of empathy: to work his way backward from the position he knows in his flesh and bone, that of the modern colonial intellectual, to the position of those he seeks to know, the native wise men and mixed-breed historians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He pursues a scholarship, as well as a politics, of identity.

The historian, Mignolo argues, must listen as hard to losing narratives as to those that won out. No modern scholar will fully succeed in gaining empathetic understanding of the pre-Columbian civilizations. But it should be possible to master more fully the tales and images, ideas and methods, that came into existence after the Conquests. Many texts and maps fused native and European ideas and techniques, imperfectly but richly. Paying close attention to the richness of such hybrid artifacts is a form of moral as well as intellectual discipline. The scholar who does so can learn to push the European books and maps that have always formed the chief objects of scholarly discussion from their unearned position of privilege. All versions of Mexican space and time, society and history—native, European, and hybrid—were produced in situations of inequality and served particular needs. None of them, accordingly, deserves a central, canonical status attained at the expense of the rest. The currently fashionable terminology in which Mignolo casts his argument serves a serious intellectual purpose. It gives him a language in which he can emphasize that the historian needs a new place to stand. Inquiry must begin from the assumption that documents are not organic, ordered parts of a natural hierarchy in which literary works in European languages occupy the pinnacle, but parts of a dialogue, both sides of which deserve close attention.

Mignolo makes good on a number of his theoretical claims, since he shows that they enable him to reframe the precise investigation of the sources. He undertakes precise study of the terms used in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, for books and those who wrote them, and offers a vivid and fascinating account of Inca quipus, the knotted cords whose textures provided Peruvians with records of public events and even, after the Conquest, private sins. By doing so—and then by comparing these sophisticated technologies of the word with the first European descriptions of them—he demonstrates that even the shrewdest Spanish observers never fully understood Americans’ radically different experiences of such basic activities as reading and writing. They neither grasped the distance between the specialized work of a Christian letrado and that of a Mexican wise man nor accorded the latter equal standing with the former.

When movement from Nahuatl to Spanish is involved, Mignolo turns the sharp eye of a detective on slippages of meaning and implication. Even the supremely well-informed Bernardino de Sahagún, he argues, failed to render precisely the terms in which representatives of the Mexica nobility spoke of their tradition. When they described themselves as literally “unfolding” their texts, which were depicted on a series of hinged screens, Sahagun spoke merely of “reading”—the decoding of a Western book, not the physical opening up and traditional, oral exposition of a Mexica codex in which images served to jog richly stored memories.

Mignolo’s interpretations of hybrid texts—texts by authors, some of mixed parentage, who employed mixed genres—deftly explore the ways in which older styles of tale-telling infected and altered formal narratives. His close reading of the relaciones of Francisco de San Antón Muñón Chimalpaín, written in Nahuatl but in Latin script, uncovers the lasting presence in Chimalpaín’s writing of “the repetitive structure of the oral.” Like Serge Gruzinski, a highly innovative scholar on whose work he draws, Mignolo follows the passage from the pre-Columbian form of schooling, “in which a part of learning was to look at and to interpret the books” of images, to “the new one, in which Chimalpaín himself was educated and learned to replace the pinturas by alphabetic writing, and to move speech toward written prose.”9

Any reader who perseveres through Mignolo’s sinuous arguments, precise interpretations, and theoretical discussions will emerge with rewards. He provides not only new perspectives, but also fresh encounters with such little-known and fascinating persons as Lorenzo Boturini Benaduci, a peripatetic Italian intellectual who drew on Giambattista Vico’s New Science to explain the hieroglyphs and other historical records that he avidly bought up in Mexico.10

A rich collection of articles edited by the art historian Claire Farago complements Mignolo’s work in strategic ways. Like Mignolo, Farago insists that the categories of Western scholarship require critical study. In particular, she argues, the interpretative categories of modern art history, as given influential formulation by Jacob Burckhardt, Erwin Panofsky, and others, rest on assumptions about the nature of nations and peoples that no contemporary scholar could accept. Art historians have traditionally drawn a firm distinction, for example, between artifacts, which reveal the nature of lower, alien cultures, and works of art, which give material form to the aesthetic values of high cultures like our own. But this distinction turns out, on inspection, to be itself a historical artifact, and one that embodies questionable assumptions and prejudices.

Farago sees no reason to accept—as many modern scholars have without much reflection—the judgment of Vasari and other sixteenth-century scholars that the northern Europeans who came to Italy to gain culture were barbarians. By contrast, she sees every reason to connect the Renaissance, as a cultural event, with the vast movement of European images to the non-European world and the accompanying movement of non-European images to Europe: she wants to make “exchange,” rather than “revival,” the central issue. Neither Farago nor most of her collaborators would deny that some objects are more beautiful or more powerful than others. But many of them attack, with erudite and eloquent arguments, the well-established ways of sorting the history of art into neat pigeonholes that such traditional categories imply.

Anthony Cutler, who surveys European views of Byzantine art, and Thomas Cummins, who dissects in a series of critical case studies European ways of dealing with American records in pictorial form, reveal the size and weight of the conceptual baggage that early modern intellectual travelers dragged behind them. Both scholars show how it hampered efforts to confront and understand foreign visual documents, and ensured that even the images that Europeans most respected—like Mesoamerican calendars—were understood and explained in European terms. Claudia Lazzaro, who analyzes the stone menagerie that the Medici set up in their great garden at Castello, and Pauline Moffitt Watts, who studies the role of gesture in sixteenth-century religious plays in Mexico, delicately trace the interplay, in the Old World and the New, between classical traditions and new social and natural phenomena. Both replace one-dimensional accounts with dialectical analyses, doing justice to both sides in a long and complex cultural exchange.

Thomas Kaufmann’s erudite essay on Italian art in Central Europe, though dealing with a different part of the world, shows a similar sensitivity to the complex ways in which ideas, images, and techniques are transformed when applied in a new context. He challenges traditional ways of discussing the movement of artistic forms—as well as traditional notions about the “vernacular” arts of Central Europe, and draws on Marshall Sahlins for a more complex and elaborate model of cultural relations.

Most stimulating of all, perhaps, are the essays of Martin Kemp and Cecilia Klein, both of whom criticize contemporary orthodoxies in complementary ways. Kemp shows how the manifold uses of natural objects in the decorative arts of the Renaissance challenge distinctions between “Gothic and Renaissance, classical and non-classical, western and non-western, single style and plural styles, mechanical and intellectual, applied arts and fine arts.” The “magical creations” of Renaissance craftsmen incorporated and imitated such marvels of nature as ostrich eggs, wart hog tusks, and coral branches. Kemp rejects the idea that these spectacularly rebarbative objects only served to confirm the prejudices of collectors, who tried to arrange them in neat, orderly systems that mirrored the structure of the whole universe. On the contrary, the objects, in effect, insisted on their own status as exceptions—neither purely natural nor purely artistic, neither purely European nor non-European. And they thereby sapped the foundations of vast structures of traditional natural philosophy. Klein shows that the image of a sharp-toothed, flesh-eating Wild Woman which appears in post-Conquest codices may reflect European traditions and beliefs about cannibals and witches—but it also certainly derives from documented pre-Columbian beliefs and rituals.

Kemp undermines the currently popular but anachronistic thesis that all Europeans were and thought alike—a belief that grossly distorts the divergent local dialects and warring religious beliefs of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Klein powerfully attacks the widespread suspicion that modern scholars cannot know anything of substance about non-European cultures. These noncomformist defenses of tradition do much to make Reframing the Renaissance into a real debate.


Questions arise nonetheless. Revisionism, as currently practiced, often brings rewards but sometimes exacts a price, a price paid in failures to take account of contexts, to discriminate, to accord to European witnesses the full attention now accorded to non-Europeans. The exchange between Acosta and Tovar—which figures in both Mignolo’s book and in Farago’s—may provide a small case in point of the pains that accompany revisionism’s pleasures.

For Mignolo—as he argued at greater length in an influential earlier article—the Jesuits’ letters serve above all as documents of prejudice and Eurocentrism.11 When Acosta asked whether one could write the history of a people without history, he revealed his sense of superiority to his subjects. And even Tovar, for all the direct knowledge of Mexican life and tradition manifest in his detailed study of the Aztec calendar, condemned Aztec hieroglyphs as inferior to the Latin alphabet. Thomas Cummins, in Claire Farago’s book, advances a different, but to some extent a parallel, argument. He shows, most elegantly, how images can serve as a medium of communication between cultures—but that many forms of intellectual and visual static limit their effectiveness. Tovar, he claims, ascribed as much authority to the illustrated work of an earlier Western observer, the Spanish Dominican friar Diego Durán, as he did to the native illustrator whose images Durán had copied—even though he must have perceived the enormous differences between the Westernized reproductions Durán provided and their models. Both Tovar and his source, in other words, failed to take scholarly account of the visual slippages that inevitably occurred when texts and images underwent Westernization.12

Both Mignolo and Cummins direct attention to significant features of the documents, but both of their discussions are also flawed. They suffer from an inattention to the European context of what are, after all, European historical texts. In raising questions about the veracity of indigenous American accounts of history, the Jesuits did something that any well-trained scholar of their time was expected to do—and that had little connection with their position of power or their belief in the superiority of Western to non-Western cultures. At the end of the fifteenth century, the Dominican theologian Giovanni Nanni da Viterbo published a series of works ascribed to ancient historians, such as the Egyptian priest Manetho and the Persian Metasthenes. Both these texts and his commentaries on them denounced Greek historians, like Herodotus, as fantasists, and insisted that only the priests of ancient Near Eastern lands like Chaldea had preserved a full and accurate written record of the past.

Nanni’s texts were forgeries, of course, but they attracted a wide and sometimes appreciative readership in the Iberian world.13 Bartolomé de las Casas, the brave and independent defender of the Indians, began his history of the discoveries with quotations from Nanni’s attacks on Greek historians. Melchior Cano, a bitter persecutor of the Jewish converts called New Christians, persecuted new forgeries with equal zeal. But he paid tribute to the widespread interest in Nanni’s work when he discussed it at length in his own elaborate work on historians and their credibility.14 By the middle of the sixteenth century, in other words, any alert scholar knew that the early histories of many nations were open to a great many questions, and that the quality of Greek and Roman records had been sharply attacked by writers who seemed to enjoy some authority.

Many humanists scrutinized the preserved records of Greek and Roman history with as much attention and ingenuity as Nanni had devoted to forging replacements for them. Roman historians knew perfectly well that the early history narrated by Livy swarmed with minor and major contradictions and errors. Worse still, the entire tradition rested on the weakest of foundations. It could not have been transmitted in writing over the centuries, since the Gauls had sacked the city of Rome and destroyed its records.15 By the 1580s and 1590s, some scholars suspected that the whole story of Roman origins—all those fabulae faciles about Romulus and Remus, Numa and Egeria, Horatius and the bridge—owed their origins to the imaginations of late Roman historians. Others, who tried to defend the core of the tradition as historical, argued early in the seventeenth century that Roman banquet songs could have preserved real events. The early history of the greatest of ancient states, the source of a thousand florid paintings of disciplined Horatii, writhing Sabine women, and virtuous Lucretias, owed its survival to memory and performance.16 When Tovar and Acosta discussed what would constitute a “historia bien cumplida” of the New World, in short, they showed their awareness not of their own ethnic superiority but of their contemporaries’ methodological debates—an awareness that their recent critics seldom take account of.

Tovar, moreover, did not dismiss the Mexicas’ pictorial records so brusquely as Mignolo and Cummins suggest. Cummins complains that Tovar gave Diego Durán’s work the status of a preferred native document. In fact, however, Tovar explained that he had had to use the derivative work, his own earlier compilation, the result of direct study of Mexica codices and instruction from their “sabios,” having been out of reach. Durán’s work seemed to him “the closest to the ancient sources that I have seen.”17 Tovar’s use of a surrogate source seems reasonable enough in the circumstances. Even his lack of sensitivity to the visual details of native drawings should occasion no surprise. Recent studies of antiquaries working in Europe who copied and interpreted Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiquities have stressed that very few of them ever managed to reproduce the precise details of an ancient or a foreign style without importing elements of their own style and sensibility.18 Put into context, what looks like Eurocentrism may turn out to be the natural deficiencies of a set of historical disciplines still in formation.

The Jesuits’ judgments of the Mexicas’ records also provoke objections from Mignolo. He writes that, according to Tovar, “their figures and characters are not as sufficient as our writing.” Here he accurately reproduces what Acosta wrote in his history, summarizing Tovar’s letter.19 Tovar, however, actually said something different: that the Mexicas’ hieroglyphs “were not sufficiently like our writing, so that everyone would report what was written, without any variation, in the same words. They only agreed on the general ideas.”20 That explained why the Mexica wise men who traditionally had the task of explaining the codices had to commit ancient speeches and other traditional materials to memory. Only by doing so could they explicate and comment on the pictographic codices that alluded to them. Tovar, in short, tried not to demonstrate the inferiority of Mexica images but to show that they had formed only part of the Mexica way of preserving the past.

Acosta, to be sure, took a more negative view of Mexica pictographs: but his views were put forward against a larger intellectual background, of which Mignolo does not take account. Pamela Jones contributes to Claire Farago’s collection a discussion of the artistic theory of the sixteenth-century Bolognese prelate Gabriele Paleotti. She points out that he regarded most viewers of sacred art as illiterate, sensual and unable to tease out the higher senses of images. Paleotti defended an orthodox position: Christian art should provide the illiterate with a vivid, accessible Bible. But he also feared—with reason—that images could easily convey wrong messages. Jones wondered whether Paleotti’s views might have had an impact in the New World, but found no evidence bearing on the point.

In fact, however, the Italian scholar Gianfranco Cantelli argued some time ago that the Counter-Reformation theories of art espoused by Paleotti reshaped late Renaissance views of non-alphabetic writing. Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century scholars avidly collected information about Egyptian hieroglyphs. Following a well-established ancient tradition, they interpreted these as superior to alphabetic writing: as a symbolic language, created by ancient philosophers, which rested on direct insight into the structure of the universe. Their enthusiasm knew few bounds. Early in the sixteenth century, the intellectuals of the Roman Curia amused themselves by trying to decode the hieroglyphs they saw on ruins as they picnicked among Rome’s deserted temples and colonnades. So did the very different intellectuals of the contemporary Holy Roman Empire. The Nuremberg patrician Willibald Pirckheimer, for example, wrote out a mock-hieroglyphic praise of the emperor Maximilian I; his close friend Albrecht Dürer gave it visual embodiment in his magnificent woodcut, The Triumphal Arch. Maximilian himself found the idea that hieroglyphs were the earliest form of writing very attractive, as he did the notion that his own family tree could be traced back to ancient Egypt. Hieroglyphs—and the mysterious land of their origin—were in.21

Paleotti’s doubts about the transparency of images, however, led him to dismiss pictorial writing as primitive, as a crude way of recording facts and ideas, which the alphabet naturally displaced. Acosta followed Paleotti’s authoritative lead when he treated hieroglyphs as primitive in his History—and when he argued, in the same work, that even the pictographic writing of the Chinese and Japanese was less adaptable and sophisticated than Western alphabets. Aztecs and Egyptians soon brushed shoulders in other locales. Michele Mercati’s detailed and fascinating study of the obelisks of Rome, for example, mentioned the Mexican hieroglyphs already known to habitués of the Vatican library as well as Egyptian hieroglyphs, treating both as relatively primitive forms of pictorial writing. Counter-Reformation prejudices thus helped to bring about a minor revolution in Western thought: the demolition of the belief in the symbolic wisdom of the ancient barbarian sages, a belief that Vico and others carried to a conclusion in the early eighteenth century.22

Any full account of Europeans’ efforts to assess, describe, and analyze Mexican codices will have to set them in the wider context Cantelli has laid out—and compare them with the same intellectuals’ efforts to deal with the traditions of other “barbarian” nations, like the ancient Egyptians and Chaldeans. This story may provide some intriguing parallels to Mignolo’s. It may partly confirm his thesis—one that he develops in what amounts to a dialogue with Jacques Derrida—that Western intellectuals, from the Renaissance to the present, have characteristically seen alphabetic writing as the only true form, and codices as the only true books. But the story will have a complexity his lacks, and will suggest a new range of historical questions in its own right: for example, why the early modern intellectuals who knew something from Greek descriptions about the forms of Egyptian language and scribal culture seem not to have used these as a model for thinking about Indian images and wise men.

Mignolo denies any desire to criticize his European protagonists for failing to live up to modern scholarly standards (though he sometimes seems to do exactly that). Several of Farago’s authors go further, telling the reader that they do not share the prejudices of Cortés or Paleotti—as if they fear that studying the European conquest of the New World might prove contagious, infecting scholars with Renaissance ideas about religion, race, and rights. Such practices and declarations may worry some readers, who will perceive—rightly or wrongly—a connection between them and the occasional forced readings of European sources that accompany them.

Like other revisionist historiographies, this one will have to evolve further before its full value—and its full compatibility with more traditional forms—becomes clear. The presence of discordant voices in the choir and the high quality of individual results give reason for optimism. So does the appearance on historians’ all-too-old-fashioned radar screens of a wide range of new witnesses, new objects, and new problems.

At the moment, however, the more traditional methods of interpretation applied by Elliott and Landucci, MacCormack and Cervantes still afford the best guidance into the minds of the early modern Europeans who tried to understand the societies that had fallen victim to the great inhumanity of conquest. These scholars, for all their differences in method and motive, all separate with a surgeon’s delicate care the layers of classical, biblical and later ideas and of purely local experiences of rites and mores that seem inextricably fused in the finished form of Acosta’s work and its competitors. They all concentrate on varieties of religious and practical experience—the varieties that enabled some Europeans to recognize the richness and complexity of certain non-European societies, but allowed others to dismiss them as barbarian creations of the devil. And they insist not only on the prejudices and presuppositions European observers brought with them to their field of work, but also on their remarkable ability to look and record.

Early observers of societies—like early students of physics and biology—could not, as they created the humanities we have inherited, avoid committing many errors that now seem obvious. Surely their occasional successes deserve at least as much attention as their frequent failures. Many revisionists do not willingly concede that much to the European devil, and in failing to do so, they reveal the screen of prejudices that separates them, too, from the objects of their study. It remains to be seen how—or if—another generation will succeed in fusing the methods of traditional craftsmanship with the flamboyant hybrid forms of the new scholarship, to produce wonders which, like Kemp’s marvels of nature, can challenge prejudices instead of reinforcing them.23

This Issue

April 10, 1997