Interview with N. Kıvılcım Yavuz: Columbus’s Forgotten Library

Translation of the Interview with N. Kıvılcım Yavuz by Anders Lundt Hansen, originally published in Danish in Weekendavisen on 15 May 2019. See the original in Danish.

Columbus’s Forgotten Library

Recognised. The inventory of a legendary, destroyed book collection has been missing for centuries. Now, it turns out it is on Amager.

Ferdinand Columbus, Hernando Colón in Spanish, was the son of Christopher Columbus, who gained world fame and riches by crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1492. This connection made Hernando prosperous, and in the early years of the printing press he spent his fortune on building the world’s largest library. After his death, his chief librarian Juan Pérez wrote: “My master don Hernando, who is in heaven, […] wished to gather as many books as he could find, so he did. He collected in his library all the books that were published while he lived […].”

In the 1500s, Europe was thrown into political, economic and ideological turmoil, no less than we see today, and Hernando Colón collected the intellectual aftermath into a book collection of around 15,000 volumes. To keep track of his collection and to make it easily accessible for “virtuous scholars”, he had developed an advanced registration system, where the focal point was a huge book that was to contain summaries of every single book in the library. Juan Pérez described it as “[…] a big book with sheets in folio, bound in white vellum, written by hand, good handwriting […]. […] It is the one containing the epitomes […].” Unfortunately, Hernando Colón’s dream did not come true. When he died in 1539, only around 2,000 of his books had been summarised, even though he had twelve full time scribes on the task: “[…] excellent men, able to summarise or to promote sciences by turning them into shorter and easier compilations.” In the years after his death, the collection was dispersed; a minor part survived and is today kept in the Biblioteca Colombina in Seville, but most of the books eventually were lost. A portal to Europe’s spiritual history was closed forever. Or so we thought.

The Arnamagnæan Manuscript Collection is housed at the University of Copenhagen on Amager. The Collection was founded by the Icelandic philologist and historian Árni Magnússon, hence the name, who during the decades around the turn of the eighteenth century collected, copied and preserved numerous rare medieval manuscripts, especially from Iceland. The collection was bequeathed to the University of Copenhagen, where Árni Magnússon was a professor, and today it is a centre for international research on Nordic manuscripts.

The manuscript collection does, however, include more than just Nordic material; one of these other books is so thick that a large hand could hardly reach around its spine. It is bound in grey cardboard and has the signature AM 377 fol. according to the collection’s shelfmark system. For many years, one has been able to see it in the lower right-hand corner of the photograph the Arnamagnæan Institute uses on posters and the like. Scholars at the Institute have dutifully registered it through the years, with comments on its unusual content. After Árni Magnússon’s death in 1730, its contents was described as “On various authors and judgements on their writings.” The almost 2,000 pages are filled with summaries of books. In the 1890s, it was described as a “Comprehensive dictionary of (non-Nordic) authors, in Latin.”

Until recently, Latin was a common scholarly language in Europe, and as the volume lacks perhaps the first 100 leaves and therefore has neither a title nor an introduction, it was impossible to say what the purpose was for this large book with so many summaries or where it came from.

Manuscripts on the shelves at the Arnamagnæan Institute. The large book on the bottom right contains the summaries from Columbus’s library. Photo Suzanne Reitz, Arnamagnæan Institute, University of Copenhagen.

“As you can see, there is absolutely nothing to help identify it. There is nothing that says who the owner was or who created the manuscript,” says N. Kıvılcım Yavuz, who showed the manuscript to Weekendavisen. She is a scholar at the Arnamagnæan Institute and works with the non-Nordic manuscripts at the moment. She carefully opens the heavy book and, just as she said, it now begins in the middle of a three-page description of a late antique summary of the Iliad and Odyssey.

“The manuscript was well-known here,” says Kıvılcım Yavuz. “The scholars knew it, students who came in knew it, but no one knew where it came from. Matthew Driscoll, professor at the Arnamagnæan Institute, identified it as Spanish, but it was not until someone came in, a specialist in this very specific and niche subject –Spain in the 1500s– that we were able to figure out where it came from.”

The specialist was Associate Professor Guy Lazure from Windsor University in Canada, who during a visit to the Arnamagnæan Institute wondered if the big book numbered 377 on its spine could be the missing catalogue from Colón’s library. Detailed studies followed, also by specialists from Cambridge and Granada, before it could be verified with certainty that a part of Hernando Colón’s library had indeed survived, unbeknownst to anyone, on Amager.

Kıvılcım Yavuz has mapped the manuscript’s intricate path from southern Spain to Copenhagen. It travelled through the library of another aristocrat in seventeenth-century Spain, after it had already lost its title page, and somewhere along the way it also lost its fine white binding. Through various Danish book collecting diplomats and noblemen it made its way to Copenhagen and ended up in Árni Magnússon’s hands.

At the moment, she is going through the book, leaf by leaf, to uncover its structure, and then she will document, along with other scholars at the Institute, the almost two thousand volumes referred to in it. Important discoveries can be expected here, as Hernando Colón was also interested in printed pamphlets, which only rarely managed to survive to our day. Hopefully, some lost literature will be brought to light.

The identification of the book numbered 377 on its spine at the Arnamagnæan Institute as a catalogue from Colón’s library was solely achieved due to the international cooperation among specialists in the field, says Kıvılcım Yavuz: “There are lots of other unidentified treasures standing on the shelves. Not just here, but also in other libraries and collections. The curators at each place know their collections well, but can’t always know how they are connected to books in other collections. This job can only be done collectively.” Because of this, there are now plans to make high-resolution digital images of the entire book and make them accessible online, so scholars from all over the world can read about the books contained in Hernando Colón’s library.

N. Kıvılcım Yavuz’s article about the preliminary work on the manuscript can be found on https://manuscript.ku.dk.