First account of the discovery of the Americas in excellent condition
46 Christophorus Columbus, De insulis nuper in mari Indico inventis.Preceded by: Carolus Verardus, Historia Baetica [Basel:] J[ohann] B[ergmann von Olpe], 1494. Second Basel edition.
4°, 190 x 140 mm. 36 leaves: aa-cc8, dd-ee6; 2 front- and 3 back flyleaves. – 6 woodcuts by the Haintz Narr Master. – In excellent condition, two old underlinings in brown ink on fol. aa5 and aa6. – 16th-century binding, typical from the collection of Benôit le Court (see below): brown calf over wooden boards on five raised bands. Both covers with double frame and flowers stamped in gold decorating the corners, in-filled with blind-tooled arches, centre bearing the coat of arms in oxidized silver, set within a roundel and framed by a wreath. Spine restored, endpapers renewed. Modern light brown morocco box.
PROVENANCE: 1. Benôit le Court, great bibliophile collector of Lyon (see below). 2. Bulletin de la Librairie Damascène Morgand, 1900, no. 39676. 3. Jacques Renout, Rio de Janeiro, important collection on travel literature. 4. Pierre Berès, Paris.
TEXT: The Columbus letter is the first account of the discovery of the New World. On his return from the newly discovered “Indian” isles in March 1493, Columbus addressed several letters to the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille, who had financed his expedition, and sent a report to the “escriuano deraciõ”, his patron, Luis de Santàngel, in which he confirmed that the land met all the hopes and expectations attached to this expensive and risky expedition.Translated into Latin by Aliander (or Leander) de Cosco, the letter was first printed in Barcelona on April 29, 1493, its addressee identified as Raphael Sanxis, the royal treasurer.Aliander’s translation also appeared in print later the same year in Rome,Antwerp, Paris and Basel. In the present, second, Basel edition of 1494, the letter is bound with a historical drama in Latin prose by Carolus Verardus, celebrating the conquest by Ferdinand and Isabella of Granada, the last bastion of the Moors on the Iberian Peninsula. The play was performed in April 1492, three months after the re-conquest of the former capital of the Roman province of Baetica, in Cardinal Raffaele Riario’s palace in Rome.The enormous contemporary enthusiasm for this double triumph of the Spanish monarchy is further documented by Sebastian Brant’s congratulatory poem praising King Ferdinand as leader of the Christian world, which precedes our edition. Sebastian Brant (1457-1521) was working as an editor and proof reader and may well have been involved in this edition.The letter was joined to Verardus’ play because the contract between the Spanish Crown and Columbus had been signed at Granada.
ILLUSTRATION: The Basel edition of 1493 is the first to contain illustrations, four of which were re-used in the present edition. The woodcuts are executed by the so-called ‘Master of Haintz Narr’, who received his name from the portrait of ‘Haintz Narr’ he cut for Olpe’s 1494 edition of Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools.While the woodcuts provide a rather schematic idea of the Caribbean isles and their inhabitants, they remain spectacularly important as the first European depictions of the New World. They show the arrival of the Spanish at the insula hyspana, present a kind of a map of the Antilles with a ship approaching the islands of Fernanda,Ysabella, Hyspana, Saluatorie and Conceptionis Marie; and depict the construction of the fort La Navidad on the island of Hispaniola and Columbus’ caravel under full sail. The ships are undoubtedly copied from those of the Jerusalem pilgrims as seen in Breidenbach. In addition to these re-used cuts there is a portrait of Ferdinand of Aragon holding the shields of Castile and Leon, which forms the title woodcut of this edition, and a coat of arms.
PRINTER: Johann Bergmann von Olpe was a priest as well as a printer and publisher. He is believed to have studied in Basel and pursued his vocation as a priest and chaplain in the diocese. He was very well connected with humanists in the Upper Rhine, such as Sebastian Brant, Jakob Locher, Johannes Reuchlin and Jacob Wimpfeling, whose works he edited. Today, he is well known for his editions of the Ritter vom Turn by Marquard vom Steins in 1493, based on the French Livre du chevalier by Geoffroy de La Tour Landry, and his 1494 edition of Brant’s Ship of Fools.
BINDING: The book was bound for an outstanding bibliophile of the time, the Lyon jurist Benoît Le Court (1500- 1565), whose silver-tooled coat of arms adorns the covers.As in the case of his contemporary Jean Grolier, a particular type of binding is connected to the name Le Court who consistently had his books bound in light coloured calf and embossed with his coat of arms; very often he made notes of the purchase price of the book. Presumably, the Columbus letter had once been part of a Sammelband. Having been separated from the other texts, it was put back into the original binding.This is implied by the fact that the letter was offered for 8000 Francs in 1900 (see above), the catalogue description paying full tribute to its significance. As Benoît Le Court bindings were not known at the time, the Bulletin does not mention a provenance; however it would not have made sense to put this rarity into a tinkered binding when one could have had one made by a Parisian master binder to reflect its significance. It may hence be assumed that the present book is the only existing copy in a contemporary binding – and one with stunning provenance.
RARITY: All editions of the Columbus letter are extremely rare; of several only one or two copies survive. Although in 1493 eleven editions appeared in print, followed by six further editions between 1494 and 1497, only about eighty copies survive in total.
LITERATURE: Sabin 1868, no. 98923; Hain/Copinger 1895, 15942; BMC III, p. 794; Schramm 1920, XXII, 1043- 1047, 1259; Church/8; Goff 1964,V-125; Hieronymus 1972, no. 142; Harrisse (BAV) 15; BSB-Ink V-77; GW M49579.