Geography and Empire in the Late Renaissance. Botero's Assignment, Western Universalism, and the Civilizing Process [*]

By Headley, John M. | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Geography and Empire in the Late Renaissance. Botero's Assignment, Western Universalism, and the Civilizing Process [*]


Headley, John M., Renaissance Quarterly


The article seeks to relate the emerging, new discipline of geography to the European and specifically the Iberian, Catholic experience of expansion, power, and empire in those decades of Spain's alignment with Portugal and their respective colonial enterprises. The case of Giovanni Botero, the preeminent Italian interpreter of America for the later sixteenth century, is examined in terms of Catholic expansion, world geography, hut more immediately in terms of the European civilizing process on the indigenous peoples of America as that process pertains to the pre-Columbian civilizations, Christian conversion and the concurrent practice of the reducciones.

The present essay attempts to draw out and explicate the case for that complex of forces constituting within the Western tradition a comprehensive, unifying, universalizing process released upon the globe by Renaissance Europe, and now peculiarly reinforced by an incipient geographical culture. The inherent imperialism of Europe's geographical knowledge, best known in the work of the Royal Geographical Society during the nineteenth century, [1] had its earliest manifestations in the new trajectory upon which England embarked after 1575 [2] and, as will be argued here, in the practices and attitudes of the Catholic world of Spain and of Rome in America, Asia, and Africa -- in short, wherever new lands and non-European peoples appeared and even where they did not. But in contrast to the better known English example with its distinctively emergent national character, the Iberian, reflecting a Mediterranean culture with pronounced classical roots and antecedents, will evince a more universalizing character in its commitment to a civilizing process.

For such a broad inquiry a few preliminary definitions are in order. From the very beginning of their currency in Europe, the terms geography and cosmography and their connotations would be intertwined, expressive of their common source in Claudius Ptolemy's own Geographia, which in its first Latin translation by Jacopo Angeli da Scarperia would be entided Cosmographia. The same Ptolemy of the better known astronomical Almagest defines at the outset of his Geographia the decisive term "as the pictorial representation of the entire known earth and with what it is generally associated"; chorography, from which it is distinguished, treats the individual local parts. [3] Most simply stated, the geography inherited from classical antiquity included three branches: the mathematical, the chorographic, and the descriptive, the first best evinced by Ptolemy, the last by Strabo. [4] Cosmography figures only as another name, derived from Pliny and imported by Angeli, in keeping with the understanding of the Latins and their respect for the authority of Pliny the Elder. [5] Ptolemy mathematized geography, by treating the celestial and terrestrial globes as equivalent, applying the same grid system to each, and reaffirming the parallel belts or climates. [6] Indeed the charting of the heavens and of the earth would remain so enmeshed that it is possible Ptolemy's crucial third projection for the earth's surface, presented in book 7, was actually constructed through the use of an armillary, the traditional sphere for the construction of the heavens. [7] The gradual detachment of these terms and their substantive connotations would in the course of the sixteenth century lead to the displacement of cosmographia in flavor of geographia, although the former name would linger on until the end of the eighteenth century.

Secondly, as used in this study, the term universal connotes that principle inherited from classical antiquity expressing a potentially comprehensive integration or inclusion of all peoples into a broad community together with the theoretical, legal, and constitutional issues entailed. [8] The expanding oikoumene of the Greek world, informed by the Stoic notion of cosmopolis, found its practical realization in the Roman Empire and Roman Law. …

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Geography and Empire in the Late Renaissance. Botero's Assignment, Western Universalism, and the Civilizing Process [*]
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