Science in the Spanish and Portuguese Empires, 1500-1800

By Daniela Bleichmar; Paula De Vos et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
Cosmography at the Casa, Consejo, and
Corte During the Century of Discovery

MARÍA M. PORTUONDO

How do you describe a new world? Europeans who attempted to describe America, from the sailor to the most learned scholar, faced this monumental challenge during the century after its discovery. What did this world contain? Where did these lands lie in relation to Europe? Who lived there? Were they like us? One group of scientific practitioners— cosmographers—recognized in these questions one of the greatest challenges of its time and made it their mission to explain these new lands and people. Nowhere were the efforts to answer these questions more steadfast than among Spanish royal cosmographers who worked during the sixteenth century for an imperial administration driven by an insatiable need to know the New World. This essay explores how the discovery forced Spanish royal cosmographers to address some epistemological and methodological problems at the very heart of scientific practice and history of science, and develop novel cosmographical practices in response.

Renaissance cosmography, defined broadly as it was at the time, encompassed aspects of the modern disciplines of geography, cartography, ethnography, natural history, history, and certain elements of astronomy. Although cosmographical production occupied some university scholars,1 by the late sixteenth century cosmographical production in Spain shifted to the Casa de la Contratación (House of Trade, established in 1503 to regulate all commerce and navigation to the Indies) and the Consejo de Indias (Council of Indies, established in 1524 to govern the Spanish territories in the New World), as well as the Real Corte (royal court of the Habsburg monarchy). Most of the cosmographers working in these institutions had royal appointments and enjoyed the prestige—if not always the monetary rewards—that came with being in the king’s service. They were

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