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  • Secret Science: Spanish Cosmography and the New World by María M. Portuondo
  • Elena del río parra
Secret Science: Spanish Cosmography and the New World. By María M. Portuondo. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. 360 pp. $45.00 (cloth); $36.00 (e-book).

Cosmographers, world sketchers by origin, were in vogue during the early sixteenth century. As humanism sought a new wave of specialization, European patronage for geographical exploration, near and far, became a steady investment for what is currently known as geostrategic purposes. María M. Portuondo’s Secret Science comes to explain the importance of such posts within the largest empire and best organized [End Page 970] bureaucracy: that of the Spanish Habsburgs. The rule of this dynasty during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries cannot be explained without the fundamental milestones pointed out by Portuondo: that the discovery of America changed ways in which the science of cosmography was taught and practiced, that cosmography was a key discipline to address the lack of information in the imperial territories overseas, that it changed the bureaucratic structure although being highly secretive and censored, and that it became a fundamental practice for the exploitation of natural and human resources. Eighteen figures of calculation tools, maps, and observation drawings, ten high-quality color map plates, six explanatory tables, and an index of names and terms enhance the text of Secret Science, an almost clean one with few typos.

In the case of America, much has been written on explorers’ chronicles, historians’ endeavors, and conquerors’ political and physical strategies. Some of these abundant accounts were spontaneous while others were commissioned for a purpose, but whereas many carry a map within, cosmographies are composed of both: the map and the text. Secret Science points to a central change undertaken by this discipline, especially in the work of Andrés García de Céspedes studied in chapter 6. As the author explains: “A cosmography consisted of both maps and descriptive texts. These required distinct skills of the cosmographer, the one mathematical and graphic, the other descriptive and textual [. . .] Spanish cosmographers found themselves struggling to reconcile the mode of representation of typical Renaissance cosmographies with an imperial context that demanded accuracy, timeliness, and the production of useful works” (p. 9). It seems as if the cosmographer is the forgotten soul in the picture: not an explorer or sailor per se, working under commission of the king with no personal endeavor or entrepreneurship in mind, descriptive, accurate in words and measurements, able to keep information secret, and timely. With these coordinates, Portuondo’s main argument is that “cosmographer” comes back to its etymological roots after the discovery of the new World, as mathematicians and cartographers take over narratives to become empirical in nature, leaving narration in the pens of historians and chroniclers.

It seems like scholarly monographs on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish sciences have to routinely devote several pages to justify their own existence, and Secret Science is in compliance with this protocol. Portuondo, blaming once more the impact of the Black Legend, is apologetic when explaining the lack of archival studies on Spanish scientific achievements and approaches within the English-speaking community of scholars. Indeed, historical perception has traditionally framed Spain, even imperial Spain, as one where no science [End Page 971] of any kind took place due to the Spaniard’s natural ineptitude. Nevertheless, the Black Legend probably no longer cuts it: now well into the twenty-first century, with increasing database accessibility, the more than evident absence of Spanish archival material in recent history books analyzing early modernity in Europe can no longer be attributed to oversight, but rather to the everlasting language barrier. Electronic translators do not work, human ones are expensive, few native Spanish-speaking Hispanists take a leap to write in English, and few English-speaking scholars can deal with the nuisances of medieval and early modern Spanish, after scientists progressively abandoned Latin as lingua franca. Also symptomatic is the subspecialization within the academia, a much currently debated subject, which prevents stepping into other bibliographical lines for fear of losing focus. Portuondo has achieved both: coming from a scientific background, she has stepped into...


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