Edward Wilson-Lee, professor of medieval literature at Cambridge University’s Sydney Sussex College, relates all this and more in the absorbing, adventure-packed opening section of “The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books.” But as the subtitle — “Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library” — doesn’t quite say, this is, in fact, a biography of that son, Hernando Colón. On his last voyage Columbus took along the teenager, who would eventually record most of what we know about the explorer’s life. More importantly, Hernando — whose mother Columbus never married — turns out to have been as relentless as Columbus, albeit in quite another sphere: the collecting of books and prints.
After his youthful adventures in the New World, Hernando quickly showed himself to be one of those lovable, scholarly visionaries who crop up throughout the Renaissance. He fits the mold of Girolamo Cardano, the great mathematician who regulated his activities by astrological calculations and left behind the crotchety “Book of My Life,” in which he talks about both his guardian daemon and his trouble in finding shoes that fit. John Aubrey is another, an eccentric antiquary whose “Brief Lives” mixes deliciously scandalous gossip about 16th-century courtiers with accounts of fairies and philosophers and one memorable ghost who, when addressed, disappeared “with a curious Perfume and a most melodious Twang.”
Hernando Colón (1488-1539) possessed a mind obsessed with finding order in complexity, with giving pattern to minutiae. He loved to create lists, grids, inventories, alphabets and hieroglyphs, maps, registries and shelving systems. As a collector, he was apparently the first person to arrange books vertically in bookcases instead of storing them flat. He was also the ultimate completist — he wanted everything. When book-hunting in Rome, Louvain, Basel, Venice and London, the young Spaniard didn’t simply acquire the canonical classics or a few rare manuscripts. He actively pursued what we would now call ephemera — satirical pamphlets sold by itinerant hawkers, scurrilous poems stuck on walls, street ballads, every sort of printed throwaway. In Rome he took home cheap, sleazy works such as “The Story of the Blonde and the Brunette” but also shelled out a small fortune to acquire the mystico-sexual fantasy “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,” now widely regarded as the most beautiful of all Renaissance incunables. Today the informational plenitude, range and instant access Hernando imagined for his universal library doesn’t seem at all quixotic.
As Wilson-Lee notes, Hernando’s purchases provide a map of his life: “In every book he bought, Hernando recorded the date and place of its acquisition and how much it cost, often also noting where and when he read it, if he met with the author, or from whom he received the book if it was a gift.” To make the more than 15,000 titles and 3,000 images in his collection readily accessible, Hernando worked up bibliographical guides, subject catalogues and abstracts of each book’s contents. After all, ordered knowledge bestows power, as even Hernando’s father knew. At one point on the fourth voyage, Columbus was able to cow some hostile Taino people by prophesying — courtesy of an almanac — an awe-inspiring lunar eclipse.
Wilson-Lee borrows his biography’s striking title from one of Hernando’s most touching lists: When a ship carrying treasures bought in Venice foundered, the bibliophile memorialized his losses in a “catalogue of shipwrecked books.” He then began to replace them. In later life, the Spaniard’s collecting even expanded beyond printed material. Once he’d constructed a house for himself and his books, he laid out elaborate gardens and began to gather botanical specimens from all over the world.
Because of his father’s accomplishments and the wealth they brought, Hernando always moved easily in court and artistic circles. He not only picked up Dürer prints and Luther’s heretical tracts; he also met or at least glimpsed some of the most renowned figures of the age: Michelangelo, Erasmus, Thomas More, Magellan, Henry VIII. As part of the royal entourage, Hernando even observed the coronation of Spain’s King Charles as Holy Roman Emperor.
Hernando’s life, then, was one packed with wonders, some discovered in the New World with his father, others because of the new technology of the printing press and a few quite charmingly kitsch. On a visit to Rome, he bought the “Mirabilia urbis Roma,” a guide to the relics to be found in the city. The must-see items included “Aaron’s rod, the tablets of the law given to Moses . . . the entire house in which Mary was conceived and nurtured, and a phial of her milk,” as well as “the manger in which Christ once lay” and “the rope Judas had used to hang himself.”
After Hernando’s death, his beloved collection — intended to continue growing in tandem with Spain’s global empire — was first neglected, then largely dispersed. That, too, is an old, all-too-familiar story. Still, even though his feckless half brother managed to marry the daughter of the Duke of Alba, Hernando more happily chose a different path, one summed up in the proud words of Shakespeare’s Prospero: “My library was dukedom large enough.”
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
THE CATALOGUE OF SHIPWRECKED BOOKS
Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World's Greatest Library
By Edward Wilson-Lee
Scribner. 401 pp. $30