Foreigners Who Served Spain

By Gil, Juan | UNESCO Courier, May 1992 | Go to article overview

Foreigners Who Served Spain


Gil, Juan, UNESCO Courier


BETWEEN the late fifteenth and the early sixteenth centuries, Spain was host to a large number of illustrious foreigners. Some of them were only passing through, but others eventually settled there permanently and in many cases their adoptive country profired from the qualities they may not have been able to use in their land of origin.

The presence of foreigners in a country may sometimes be a pointer to the existence of certain failings in it and, as happened in Spain, help to bring these failings out into the open. At the end of the Middle Ages, Spain was a country of many shortcomings and weaknesses which belied its outstanding achievements and may be seen as part of the alternating pattern of darkness and light that is a characteristic feature of Spanish history. It seems inconceivable that a country like Castile, which was capable of producing such an accomplished work of literature as Fernando de Rojas's La Celestina, should be lacking in humanists. And yet nobles and royalty alike went off to Italy in search of Latin tutors for their children. It was in this capacity that scholars like Pedro Martir de Angleria, Lucio Marineo Siculo, the Geraldini brothers, and many others came to Spain, while Antonio de Nebrija and Rodrigo de Santaella journeyed to Bologna to complete their education at the college rounded by the Spanish cardinal Albornoz. Similarly, many of Spain's printers came from Germany, the most outstanding being the Combergets of Seville, who carried on the family tradition in the New World by setting up the first printing shop of the Indies in Mexico early in the sixteenth century.

Many of Spain's shortcomings were plain to see and it was only natural that the country should have looked elsewhere in order to compensate for them. Sometimes, however, when such a course did not really seem necessary, foreigners were welcomed and accepted with an alacrity that surprises us today, given as we are to more insular ways in spite of the apparent cosmopolitanism of the modern world. In those days perhaps Spain was more flexible and accommodating than it is now. We certainly did not lack for generals in the sixteenth century, and yet the French Constable de Bourbon was summarily appointed Captain-General of the Spanish armies which took Rome in 1527 and in which German, Spanish and Italian soldiers fought side by side. Some decades later, it was the turn of the Genoese military commander Spinola to win fame fighting in Flanders in the service of Spain.

AN OUTWARD-LOOKING AGE

Indeed, one of the most striking features of the great age of the Spanish discoveries was the number of foreigners who played a decisive part in them. The list of names is impressive. The first Admiral of the Indies, Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was from Genoa. Magellan (14801521), who discovered the Straits bearing his name and gained access to the "South Sea", the ocean mistakenly called Pacific, was of Portuguese origin. The three great pilots of the Casa de la Contrataci6n de las Indias(1) were foreigners: Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512), who went by the name of Americo Vespucio in Spain, was a Florentine who acquired Castilian nationality; Juan Diaz de Solis (who died in 1516) was Portuguese; and Sebastian Cabot (1476-1557) was an Englishman whose father was Venetian.

Spain was certainly not lacking in good navigators and reputable cosmographers. Vicentianez Pinzon was as good a sailor as Solis and proved as much in 1492 and in 1499, when he discovered the mouth of the Amazon, and again in 1508, when he followed the Central American coast from Honduras to Yucatan. Juan de la Cosa was as skilful a cosmographer as Americo Vespucio. Yet the fact remains that preference was given to competitors from other countries than Spain.

Considerations other than the intrinsic qualities of the individuals concerned were clearly taken into account when the Spanish Crown chose its servants. It was not advisable to be proud or ambitious: Vicentianez Pinzon and Juan de la Cosa both made the mistake of seeking office as Governors of the Indies.

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