The Book: Facsimile and Context

Unlike the other editions of Columbus's first letter, which were printed in stand-alone editions, the Basel 1494 edition placed the letter in conjunction with another work, specifically a history of then recent conquest of Granada. This setting added significantly to the letter's cultural import.

Digital facsimile of the book
Two documents printed as one

The book comprises thirty-six unnumbered leaves (or folios), in four parts.

     fol. 1r ~ the title page
     folios 1v-29r ~ the play about the Spanish conquest of Granada
     folio 29r ~ the imprint
     folios 29v-36v ~ the Columbus letter.

This layout clearly indicates that the book was not formed simply by putting the two documents in one binding, but that the two documents were intended to be read in concert.

Folio 1r bears a portrait of King Ferdinand and a title that refers to both documents:

     In laudem Serenissi
     mi Ferdinandi Hispaniaerum regis, Bethi-
     cae et regni Granatæ, obsidio, victoria, &
     triûphus, Et de Insulis in mari Indico nuper inuentis

Or, "In praise of the most serene Ferdinand, king of the Spains*, Baetica**, and the kingdom of Granada; besieger, victor, and triumphant; And concerning the islands recently discovered in the Indian sea."

Moreover, fol. 29 marks the end of the first documents and the start of the second. The imprint, located at the foot of folio 29r, states that the book was produced in the year of salvation 1494, on the eleventh day of the kalends of May, which is to say April 21st. 'I. B.' are the initials of Johann Bergmann de Olpe, an early printer in Basel.

Note that the binding itself is quite recent. When this copy of the letter was auctioned in Hamburg in 1995, it was still in worn and broken, nineteenth-century boards; the book was rebound before OML acquired it. ***


* Spain is given in the plural, to indicate the joint crowns of Castile and Aragon.

** Baetica was one of the three Roman provinces of Iberia, corresponding roughly to modern Andalusia.

*** This information was kindly provided (27 March 2013) by Jay Dillon, of Jay Dillon Rare Books + Manuscripts, who is currently undertaking a detailed census of surviving copies of the Columbus Letter.

Verardus's dramatic history of the conquest of Granada

The account of the conquest of Granada was written by one Carolus Verardus and was in the form of a drama to be performed on stage. Most of the text was in prose, but some portions were written in verse. It was indeed performed in Rome in 1492 and copies of it were printed in Rome in both 1492 and 1493 (Hain, nos.15940 and *15941).

Verardus's subject matter was the Spanish conquest in 1492 of the last Moorish territories in the Iberian peninsula. Islamic rulers had conquered almost all of what is now Spain and Portugal in 711-12. The three Christian monarchies of Portugal, Castile, and Aragon had begun to reconquer the peninsula in the ninth century. The kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were united in 1479 by the marriage of Ferdinand (Castile) and Isabella (Aragon); in 1482, the new kingdom of Spain launched the conquest of the Islamic state of Granada, succeeding in 1492.

As a great victory over the heathen by "their catholic majesties," it was natural for the conquest of Granada to be celebrated in Rome, home of the Catholic Church.

The conjunction of Verardus's panegyric with Columbus's first letter can perhaps be explained by reference to the epigram added at the end of the letter in its Latin translation by the bishop of Monte Peloso. The crisis facing the Spanish monarchy was evident. The reconquista was over. Spanish society, which had evolved to support many substantial militant christian orders, was in danger of collapsing unless a new release could be found for the military. And, by chance, just after Granada was conquered, Columbus returned with news of a rich and fertile land filled with heathans who were ripe for conversion and who lacked the attributes of civilization. Placed together, the two works constitute a proselytizing text. They are a call to religious arms under the leadership of the Catholic King of Spain.