Exhibition: The print collection of Ferdinand Columbus (1488-1539). Collecting in the Age of Discovery
Madrid, 10 June 2004
Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492. This fact would become a symbol for the European exploration of other lands that would change the collective mindset and imagination of the Old Continent. Running parallel to this, the technological revolution that had taken place in bookmaking and printmaking satisfied the intellectual cravings of a growing cultural elite. All of this gave rise to a new type of collecting. Located in this cultural and intellectual context is a personage that has been overlooked by history, namely, the illegitimate son of the explorer Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand, who was the foremost bibliophile and print collector of his day. Upon his death, his library contained more than 15,000 volumes and over 3,200 prints.
The purpose of the exhibition The print collection of Ferdinand Columbus (1488-1539). Collecting in the Age of Discovery is to partially reconstruct the print collection of this humanist, since lost and which we know about from the inventory conserved at the Columbian Library of Seville.
The better part of the more than 100 prints on display and which belong to the same period as those acquired by Ferdinand Columbus are on loan from the British Museum. Also making a contribution with loans are the British Library, the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford, the Columbian Library of Seville, the National Library of Madrid and the Kupferstichkabinett of Berlin. The exhibition is made up of pieces designed by the leading European printmakers from the late 15th and early 16th centuries such as Albrecht Dürer, Lucas van Leyden, Antonio Pollaiuolo and Marcantonio Raimondi.
The exhibition, which can be visited from June 11th to July 25th, 2004, in ”la Caixa” Foundation’s Exhibition Hall in Madrid (C/ Serrano, 60), has been curated by Mark McDonald, commissioner of the British Museum, an institution that has worked closely with the Foundation in putting this exhibition together.
Conserved in the Columbian Library of Seville is a manuscript that describes the 3,204 prints in the collection of Ferdinand Columbus (1488-1539), the son of Christopher Columbus. Nevertheless, Ferdinand Columbus is better known today for his biography of his father, The Life of the Admiral, which he wrote at the end of his life, and also for his exceptional library, which was possibly the largest privately owned collection at that time in Europe. The print holdings formed a part of that library, but the majority of the prints and books have been lost; what has survived to the present day is a series of inventories that have been carefully designed and filled out, constituting the first systematic classification of books and prints. The manuscript that describes the prints is the only inventory known to exist for a print collection from the first half of the 16th century, a period in which the production and collecting of prints was still in its fledgling stages.
Engraving during the Renaissance
During the Renaissance, engraving grew into an art able to create highly complex images within sophisticated pictorial schemes and with a high degree of detail. The rise of engraving coincided with the new approaches developed in the rest of the visual arts: the concern for technical virtuosity and the new ways of representing the world. As part of the 15th-century European Renaissance movement, engraving achieved considerable popularity among the leading artists of the day, who above all saw its potential for reproducing their drawings. Likewise, the development of printing techniques and the increasing importance of printed books had an enormous impact on what could be read and seen at the same time throughout Europe.
During the 16th century, the art of engraving was dominated by two masters: Albrecht Dürer, in the north, and Marcantonio Raimondi, in Italy. Dürer not only perfected this technique and broadened its thematic range, but he also transformed it into an independent art form. Marcantonio Raimondi is regarded as the first “reproduction engraver” and achieved prominence for his collaboration with Rafael, engraving his drawings, frescoes and oil paintings, which helped to make Rafael’s style known both in Italy and abroad.
The acquisition of prints
As an advisor and companion of Charles V, Ferdinand Columbus was at ease in the circles of power and intellectual discussion of his time; especially noteworthy was his contact with the humanist Erasmus. His trips throughout Europe in the emperor’s entourage helped him to amass his extraordinary collection. Standing in contrast to his father, who led and organised the farthest-reaching expeditions of his epoch, Ferdinand Columbus, another type of Renaissance man, dedicated his life to books and prints, and to amassing and storing them in the library he set up in Seville.
As a collector, Ferdinand Columbus seemed to adhere to the model of Italian humanists. During the years he spent in Rome, after 1512, humanism was in full swing and the publishing industry brought out hundreds of new titles each year on all types of subjects. Columbus’ humanist calling led him to acquire a large number of manuscripts and books by classical authors. The great development of the engraving industry in Italy during the opening decades of the 16th century had no equal. It seems as though no distinction was made between a well-rendered painting and an equally artful print. The high standing that engravers were afforded in Italy while Columbus was there, and the fact that this was a creative industry in full bloom with public prestige, undoubtedly served as a stimulus that motivated him to form his own print collection.
Ferdinand Columbus was concerned with finding a system that would let him gradually add to his library, and towards this end he established a network of contacts with booksellers all over Europewith whom he had an open accountso that they could supply him with books. His will makes mention of these booksellers who usually filled his orders on a regular basis. They were located in Rome, Venice, Nuremberg, Antwerp, Lyon and Paris.
Insofar as the origin of the prints in the collection is concerned, the percentages indicate a sharp contrast, with prints from the German school (among which the Swiss prints are included) representing nearly 70% of the total, whereas Italian and Dutch prints accounted for 20% and 10%, respectively. Overall, 60% depicted religious themes. There were also many portraits, with the majority of either members of the royalty or important aristocrats. Despite the upsurge of prints with classical motifs, it is surprising to note how few of these are described in the inventory of the collection.
The inventory of Ferdinand Columbus’ collection
Another one of the peculiarities of the collection of Ferdinand Columbus is the series of carefully filled-out inventories. The rules of classification were conceived by Columbus in response to his cataloguing needs. Nevertheless, they were an outgrowth of the cultural and intellectual systems that the society of his time had at its disposal for arranging and measuring the universe.
The key to understanding the underlying strategies in his inventory is to be found in the humanistic training of Ferdinand Columbus. His education, which got underway in the court of Isabel and Ferdinand, was subsequently rounded out in Rome and the Netherlands. The classification systems that Columbus designed to catalogue and access his collections are unique and are the forerunner of all other attempts at systematically classifying a collection with a certain amount of rigour. The common denominator of all of his inventories is the purpose of arranging the collections and making their contents accessible. In the case of the book inventories, identifying works is relatively easy since the title and author’s name are provided, and there are other copies in different libraries around the world. But the print inventory rarely states the engraver’s name, and its classification is based entirely on print size, the rough theme and the number of figures or elements in the image.
Although this classification system may appear to be outmoded, the fact that not one single image is repeated attests to its usefulness. In the inventory, prints are described in utilitarian fashion. First they are distinguished in terms of their format and then according to the theme. The third category is the number of elements or persons that are depicted in the scene, e.g., “6 saints” or “3 dogs”. For numbers greater than fifteen, the notation used was “many”. The fourth criterion was whether the figures were clothed or nude. A complete heading taken from the inventory would resemble the following: “Sheet of 8 clothed saints”. After this heading would be a list of the prints matching this description.
The print collection of Ferdinand Columbus (1488-1539).
Collecting in the Age of Discovery
Inauguration: Thursday, 10 June 2004 at 8:00 p.m.
Place: ”la Caixa” Foundation Exhibition Hall
C/ Serrano, 60 (Madrid)
Phone: 902 22 30 40
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday, from 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.; Sundays and holidays, from 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.; closed on Tuesday