Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Alexander and the Geographer's Eye: Allegories of Knowledge in Martín Fernández De Enciso's Suma De Geographía (1519)

Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Alexander and the Geographer's Eye: Allegories of Knowledge in Martín Fernández De Enciso's Suma De Geographía (1519)

Article excerpt

Martín Fernández de Enciso's Suma de geographía is one of the cornerstones of Spanish cartographic and navigational literature in the first half of the sixteenth century, appearing in three editions (1519, 1530, and 1546). Although the Suma de geographía is known today mainly for being the first description of America printed in Spanish, most of the book is in fact devoted to a description of the Old World. Fernández de Enciso, a lawyer and former conquistador of Darien, wrote his book with two intended audiences: it was to serve, on the one hand, as a guide for pilots and navigators and, on the other, to instruct the young Charles V - to whom it was dedicated - in matters of geography. The Suma starts with a treatise on the sphere that describes the Ptolemaic universe and explains the application to cartography of the geometrical principles enunciated by Joannes Sacro Bosco in the thirteenth century. This explanation is followed by tables specifying the solar declination for every day of the year, and a brief explanation on the use of the astrolabe to calculate latitude using both the North Star and the sun (Fernández de Enciso 31-62). Only after this technical section, Fernández de Enciso turns to a narrative description of the whole world, starting with Spain and moving eastward through Europe, Asia, and Africa until finally reaching the western American coast. For every place described in the book, Enciso gives its latitude and briefly discusses its topography, climate, and peoples, dismissing in many cases the most fabulous accounts of monstrous varieties of humanity as mere legends.' It is for these reasons that the Suma de geographta has been hailed by modern commentators as the first scientific description of the geography of the New World (Melón 815), the first work in Spain to have attempted a systematic description of America (Wey Gómez 161), and as a modern narrative cartography that, unlike medieval itineraries, "rationalizes the space geometrically, only to then draw its reader into that space" (Padrón, Spacious Word 87). Overall, modern critics have underscored its general systematic and rationalistic approach to geographical description.

In the middle of this blend of early modern developments of geometrical cartography and traditional descriptive geography, there is a brief account of the travel made by two lieutenants of Alexander the Great to find the sources of the Ganges River. According to this account, the two men come back carrying a present - a ring marvelously set with a living, human eye that has been sent to Alexander by an old man living in a castle at the sources of the Ganges. Alexander, puzzled by the ring, is about to dispose of it when Aristotle steps in to explain the jewel's magical properties and its moral meaning (Fernández de Enciso 101-04). This story is taken directly from one of the most popular and intriguing tales about Alexander that circulated during the Middle Ages, the account of his journey to the Earthly Paradise. Variations of the story can be found in Latin and vernacular manuscripts throughout Europe dating from 1100, at the earliest, to the fifteenth century, when the ancient Alexander historians - Curtius, Plutarch, and Arrian, among oth- ers - were rediscovered. From then on, the legendary exploits attributed to the Macedonian king tended to give way to more historical renditions of the king and his deeds (Mosse 189). The apparent victory of history over legend, however, was not definitive. While for the most part Enciso presents the reader with an Alexander that conforms more closely to the historical charac- ter as presented by the historians of antiquity rather than with the fictional hero of the Alexander romances, medieval vestiges remain. These legendary traces can be difficult to find because Enciso does not simply leave out the more fantastical accounts - such as Alexander's descent to the bottom of the sea, his travel through the skies, or his visit to the prophetic trees of the Sun and the Moon - he goes as far as to plainly state that Alexander never advanced as far as the Ganges. …

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