Reframing the Renaissance: Visual Culture in Europe and Latin America, 1450-1650
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.