The magnificent English translation by Jeremy Moyle of this landmark study (1975) is a most welcome event. The thesis proposed is that knowledge about the New World before Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo’s work was “absolutely different” from what that author presented in his works on South America, the Sumario and the Historia general y natural de las Indias.
Gerbi discusses 11 writers in part one of his book entitled “From Columbus to Verazzano.” Included are Álvarez Chanca (flora), Nicolo Scillacio (second-hand information), Michele Cuneo (first systematization of nature), Cortés, and Pigafetta. Gerbi shows how their descriptions of the New World proceeded from a great variety of ideas and particular interests and intentions. This considerable corpus of information was published in a variety of languages which left the nature of South America largely “atomized.”
The remaining two-thirds of Gerbi’s book concerns Oviedo (1478-1557). Born in Madrid, he lived for years in the court circles of Spain and Italy, and traveled in other parts of the Hapsburg Empire. Gerbi (1904-76), a Florentine man of letters and business, lived in exile in Peru from 1938 to 1948. Their experience, centuries apart, made for a comprehensive European consciousness reflecting New World fact. In Oviedo’s case, the South American experience was put fully in context with European thought for the first time.
Oviedo’s texts are used as telescope, mirror, microscope, and probe of the Renaissance mind. He himself, as observer, was totally rooted in the Italian Renaissance. Endowed with the biological capacities and limitations of the human condition, his evidence was circumstantial, but he was systematic in his reporting, including, for instance, the earliest experiences of smell, taste, and touch in the New World. His consultation of the natives concerning their societies, the nature of the environment, and their use of it, was not prejudiced by European equivalence or custom, while it faithfully reflected Renaissance sensibilities.
Oviedo held various administrative posts, among them veedor de las fundaciones (inspector of gold mines) under Pedrarias on the Isthmus, and captain general of Cartagena. He returned to Spain six times, and he died as alcalde of the fort of Santo Domingo and royal chronicler of the Indies (appointed 1535). His great Historia general y natural de las Indias was left unfinished. Only the first part was published in his lifetime (1547) and rapidly translated into French (1555) and Italian (Ramusio, 1550-56). In contrast, he said in 1544 of the Sumario (1526), which contained less a record of events and more a totally new descriptive material, that it existed in Tuscan, French, German, Latin, Greek, Turkish, and Arabic, “although I wrote it in Castillian” (p. 131).
Oviedo was a naturalist regarding history. Neither advocate nor chronologist, he is considered a valuable eyewitness by virtue of his presence at many important events. He was a “historian of nature,” because of his descriptive approach to scene and life. Oviedo worked from equivalence with respect to particulars, toward identity of strange phenomena by approximation, introducing new names and terms.
Jeremy Moyle and Gerbi’s son Sandro, in checking the enormous apparatus of references, refrained from any updating of the text. The temptation must have been great because, while Gerbi’s earlier The Dispute of the New World: The History of a Polemic, 1750-1900, has become the seedbed for studies in many fields, his Nature in the New World will be the seed bank for research on the history of discovery in years to come.