- Secret Science: Spanish Cosmography and the New World by María M. Portuondo
María Portuondo’s Secret Science represents one of the most significant contributions to the history of science in early modern Iberia in recent years, as well as a smart and imaginative contribution to the history of science as a whole. The book provides something that has been sorely lacking in the study of maps and mapping in early modern Spain: a thorough and coherent narrative covering the history of cosmography – the larger field of study in which much map-making took place – particularly as it attempted to make sense of the New World. It also engages current debates about the nature of early modern science, offering a creative intervention on the topic of science in Spain and its relation to the European scientific revolution.
Many historians, I am sure, would more readily associate the study of cosmography with other parts of Europe. In Switzerland, France, and elsewhere, we find authors such [End Page 338] as Sebastian Münster and André Thevet, who produced massive, often illustrated “universal cosmographies,” encyclopaedic descriptions of the known world that moved between geography, ethnography, history, botany, and much else. In Spain, we find no monumental texts of precisely this kind. One figure, Alonso de Santa Cruz, seems to have been working on one but never finished it. Portuondo devotes significant attention to Santa Cruz, arguing that even in the absence of a completed work of this kind, the idea of such a book haunted Spanish cosmography as a privileged example of how the field worked and what it was supposed to produce.
In the absence of a monumental text, we find in Spain a variety of people calling themselves cosmographers, working on different sorts of projects in different social and institutional settings. Portuondo finds order in the chaos, identifies themes, and generally makes sense of the somewhat fragmentary nature of the materials before her. She begins (chapter 1) by plotting two points of origin for Spanish cosmography: the ideal practice characteristic of Spanish universities and of humanists such as Antonio de Nebrija, and the applied cosmography characteristic of Seville, which involved practical people such as explorers, merchants, and crown officials. The former sought to describe the world using principles derived from Ptolemy; the latter sought to master the world through a better understanding of certain technologies, including astronomical navigation. The contrast, which recalls the contrast between bookish and practical cosmography made by Grafton (1992), serves to set the stage for everything that follows.
Subsequent chapters explore the epistemic foundations of various attempts to understand and represent the New World or to master the art of navigation. In chapter 2, Portuondo follows the development of cosmography in three different settings – the Casa de la contratación in Seville, the Council of Indies, and the court – demonstrating that the repertoire of questions posed and methods used varied from one site of knowledge production to another. Then her story’s protagonist appears on the stage. After tracing the crown’s efforts to harness cosmography to the service of the state through legislation (chapter 3), the book focuses on the figure of Juan López de Velasco, the Cosmographer-Chronicler of the Indies, appointed in 1571. Over the course of chapters 4–6, Portuondo delves into López de Velasco’s efforts to consolidate various cosmographical enterprises under his auspices, to survey the crown’s possessions in the New World, and to represent it all in word and map. But the emphasis does not fall on López de Velasco as an individual figure. Instead, Portuondo emphasizes the epistemological shift that took place during López de Velasco’s tenure. We see the Council of Indies lose faith in the sort of humanistic synthesis that Santa Cruz aspired to produce, and legislate into being a new cosmographical epistemology...