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Rediscovering an Early Humanist

Hernán Pérez de Oliva (1494?-1531) – a true Renaissance man – was a well-traveled humanist, philosopher, educator, artist, architect, and writer whose books were posthumously censored by the Inquisition. In fact, his greatest book, Historia de la invención de las Indias (History of the Invention [Discovery] of the Indies), was lost for 425 years from the time it was written in the 1520s until 1943.

The only extant copy of the manuscript is in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. It was edited for the first time in 1965 by Yale professor José Juan Arrom, but since the 1990s, the book and its author have been somewhat neglected.

Elena Pellús Pérez (Spanish) intends to change that by restoring Pérez de Oliva to his rightful place as a key figure in 16th-century Europe. Oliva wrote in Castilian at a time when Latin was the universal language of learning. Furthermore, he criticized the greed of his countrymen when virtually everyone else was praising the exploits of Hernán Cortés, the conquistador whose expedition to the New World brought about the fall of the Aztec empire and the beginning of Spain's colonization of the Americas. He is one of the first Renaissance humanists to reflect in writing about the New World.

“By reconstructing his biography, I connect Oliva's dramatic works, treatises, and historical works, aiming to better comprehend his contribution to the early literary production regarding America in the crucial period 1492-1530 between the four voyages of Columbus and the explorations that would lead to the conquest of Peru,” Elena says.

The Historia is “one of the first interpretive accounts of the Columbian encounter with the New World written in Castilian that belongs to the intellectual context of early 16th-century Spanish humanism. I consider the Historia to be the culmination of Pérez de Oliva's literary production, since in the description of a new reality it incorporates all academic disciplines that shape his other works – moral and Christian philosophy, drama, language, art, and history.”

Spanish manuscripts

Elena, a native of Spain, recalls that she has long loved literature “because it allowed me to visit different places and times without the limitations of real life.” Her initial intention was to study classics at the University of Salamanca, but financial constraints led her to enroll instead at the local university in Alicante and study Spanish language and literature. In her first year of college, she took a course on pre-Columbian cultures that changed her life. She recalls, “When I saw the images of the Maya calendar and a display of the Codex Florentinus (a late 16th-century compilation that gathers Aztec culture from different perspectives, combining original Nahuatl texts and images with their translation into Spanish), the Greek and Roman cultures suddenly seemed dull to me. I guess I fell in love with it because of how different it was from all I had seen before.” And so, she specialized in Spanish American literature, with a minor in Latin.

The 16th and 17th centuries especially fascinate Elena because that was a period when many cultural forces co-existed: the revival of Greek and Roman literature, the Muslim influence, the Reformation and Counter Reformation, and the encounter with new lands and peoples in the Americas. She explains, “There is the explosion of culture and religious zeal, there is the real and the imagined, there is a whole New World at least as complex as the old one, and there are, too, all the consequences – demographic, political, economic, philosophical, cultural, social, and environmental – of the contact between those two worlds. Modern thought is shaped during this amazing period that tells us so much about who we are today, and the literature it generated includes all these elements and reflects the complexity of its time.”

Pérez de Oliva understood that he lived in an extraordinary time. “We used to occupy the ends of the earth, and now we find ourselves in the middle of it, thanks to a twist of fortune such as has never before been seen,” he wrote. He traveled and interacted with key figures of his day. He studied at the Sorbonne and served Giovanni di Medici (Pope Leo X) in Rome, his time there overlapping with that of Da Vinci’s, Michelangelo’s, and Rafael’s, all of whom were in the papal court. After twelve years abroad, he returned to Spain to teach in Salamanca, and in 1529 he became president of the university.

Elena’s dissertation, directed by Rolena Adorno, will connect Pérez de Oliva’s literary works, art, and life to the tumultuous period in which he lived, and restore Oliva to his rightful place in history.