Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Recent Acquisition: Rare Early Work by Native American Author

Post by Emiko Hastings, Curator of Books

The Book Division is pleased to announce a significant new acquisition, Diego de Valadés' Rhetorica Christiana (1579).  This purchase, courtesy of Liber Antiquus, Early Books & Manuscripts, fills an important gap in our holdings of early printed Americana. It is "almost certainly the first book written by a native of Mexico to be printed in Europe." The book itself is in excellent condition, bound in contemporary limp vellum and with all illustrations intact.

Mexica city with Aztec temple at center.

Valadés, the son of a native Tlaxcalan woman and a Conquistador, was educated by the Franciscans and later admitted to the Order. A native speaker of Nahuatl, he also learned other indigenous languages such as Otomí and Tarascan and used his language skills to proselytize among Native Americans for twenty years. In 1571, he was invited to Europe, and in 1575 named procurator general of the Franciscan Order at Rome. He wrote this work in order to teach missionary preachers the rhetorical skills necessary to compose and deliver sermons specifically to an Amerindian audience. It includes biographical information about Valadés, descriptions of Amerindian culture, a brief history of Mesoamerica, and an account of Franciscan missionary activities in the New World.

Depiction of the Franciscan method of evangelization in the New World. Within a stylized "memory palace," the Franciscans are shown preaching to, educating, and ministering to the Amerindians. 

The book contains twenty-seven remarkable engravings, designed by Valadés himself, which illustrate and expand upon his rhetorical teaching method. They include depictions of the Franciscans preaching to and educating the Native Americans, two mnemonic alphabets to aid in memorization, an Aztec calendar wheel superimposed with the Julian calendar, and a striking bird's-eye view of a Mexica city.

Franciscan preaching to an Amerindian audience with the aid of illustrated screens.

Valadés' theory of memory emphasized the use of images to communicate across cultural barriers. Visual images could be used as mnemonic keys to aid memorization and recall of various ideas. Preachers could employ large, illustrated screens as backdrops to their sermons, as shown above. Valadés encouraged the use of oratorical skills to provide more lively, compelling sermons, and recommended that preachers use descriptions of New World culture and environment to help connect the Native American audience to new concepts. For example, his first mnemonic alphabet shows correspondences between letterforms and the shapes of common objects, while the second alphabet shows the connections between letters and sounds. Many of the objects and symbols he employed refer to indigenous objects and concepts.

Mnemonic alphabet using New World imagery.

This acquisition is a significant addition to our rare book collection, and one that will provide multiple research opportunities for the campus community. Its text and images may be useful for the study of Native American history, Franciscan missionary activities in the Americas, the development of rhetorical and visual teaching methods, and much more. We hope that faculty and students will be able to make use of this material in any related courses or research projects. 

Images and catalogue description courtesy of Paul Dowling, Liber Antiquus, Early Books & Manuscripts.

Further Reading:

  • Linda Báez Rubí, Mnemosine Novohispánica: Retórica e Imágenes en el Siglo XVI (México: Univ. Nacional Autónoma de México, 2005). 
  • Francisco de la Maza, "Fray Diego Valadés, escritor y grabador franciscano del siglo XVI," Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, 13 (1945): p. 15-44. 

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