Hernando Colón (1488-1539), the illegitimate son of Christopher Columbus, spent much of his life traveling around Europe — and later America — amassing what was then the largest private library in the world.
His goal was to collect all of the knowledge of the world into one place (Seville, Spain, as it turned out) because he believed Spain would one day rule the world. It needed an extraordinary base of knowledge to do so, and Colón was determined to make that happen. Colón was wrong about that, but the error does not detract from the man’s amazing achievements.
Those, indeed, were numerous.
- He created Europe’s first botanical garden, gathering specimens from many of the places where he traveled.
- He wrote a dictionary.
- He helped created the first modern maps of the world.
- He seemed to know everyone who was anyone during his age, including Albrecht Durer, Thomas More, and Erasmus.
- He gathered the largest collection of printed images in the world.
- He had the largest collection of musical scores in the world.
And with so many books, where do you put them? How do you put them? According to Edward Wilson-Lee, author of a recently published biography of Colón titled The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Young Columbus and the Quest for a Universal Library:
“In essence, he invents the modern bookshelf: row upon row of books standing upright on their spines, stacked in specially designed wooden cases.”
In its description of Wilson-Lee’s book, University of Cambridge writes:
“Colón had an extraordinary memory and an obsession with lists,” says Wilson-Lee, whose research on Colón was funded by the British Academy. “Each time he bought a book, he would meticulously record where and when he bought it, how much it cost and the rate of currency exchange that day. Sometimes he noted where he was when he read it, what he thought of the book and if he’d met the author. As pieces of material culture, each is a fascinating account of how one man related to, used and was changed by books.”
So why have we not heard more about this extraordinary man?
Much of the fault for that lies with Colón himself. He wrote a biography of his father that did much toward creating the legend of Christopher Columbus — a legend so large and wide-ranging that it obscured his brilliant son.
Another reason for his relative obscurity is that when he died he left his holdings to his nephew, a wastrel who care nothing for what his uncle had accomplished. The books were locked in the attic of the Seville cathedral for many years, and those who did have access to them did not care for them. Today less than a quarter of them remain together. Knowledge of Colón’s collection faded from memory.
Because we face a new information revolution today, interest in what Colón did and how he did it has been renewed.
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