First Light

Opuntia robusta 74671

It’s a remarkable volume, a good-sized book bound in simple, soft (limp) vellum, the size of a thick textbook and externally looking a bit shop-worn. Once opened, however, the pages are pristine, with clear, crisp type showing every stroke of the publisher’s intention to create a solid work. This is The Huntington’s copy of La Historia general de las Indias (HNT 55597), the 1535 imprint capturing observations and recollections of the New World by the versatile and well-travelled Spanish writer Oviedo (Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés), who lived from 1478 to 1547.

But it’s a rare book, especially precious because of the impact Oviedo’s observations had on European concepts of the New World, as well as its early inclusion of plant illustrations. Among those illustrations are the first published images of a pineapple and cacti, plants never before seen illustrated by anyone from the “Old World.” And it was someone from that Old World who caused several of us to check out this item. Paul Hoxey, of Cambridge, England, arrived in late August as our guest to speak at the 2019 Succulent Plant Symposium. Having studied digital versions of Oviedo’s cactus illustrations and knowing The Huntington owns an original copy of that book, Paul hoped he could examine it in person, providing an opportunity for other botanists to join in. Huntington Curator Steve Tabor cheerfully obliged, sharing the book with us in his Library office.

Paul Hoxey, Sean Lahmeyer, Steve Tabor, Alberto Areces Mallea, and Gabriella Ocampo
examining Oviedo’s book

So why the Oviedo? And why The Huntington? First – the book.* This isn’t an everyday example, it is the copy signed by the author and presented to the book’s patron Cardinal Juan García Jofre de Loaysa y Mendoza (who was, briefly, Seville’s Grand Inquisitor). And it is especially important as collateral resource for The Huntington in that the Library also holds some of Oviedo’s manuscript material (including the original pineapple drawing), on which the book is based.

The first published illustration of an Opuntia

And as I mentioned earlier, Oviedo included block prints copied from his original drawings of plants, four of which turn out to be the first images of cacti ever published.

Oviedo’s columnar cactus

So here, in the Desert Garden, we have one of the world’s outstanding collections and displays of cacti, while the Library curates precious cultural and scientific objects, such as the first published drawings of these curious plants. Oviedo presents, therefore, a working example as to the ways in which The Huntington is a cultural meeting ground for art and science.

Opuntia robusta 74671

*Mr. Huntington acquired Oviedo’s book as part of his first really major library purchase (April, 1911), that of the Elihu Dwight Church collection. The Brooklyn, NY collector passed away in 1908, and the sales catalog of his 2,133 rare holdings was prepared by G. W. Cole. In addition to the Oviedo, among Church’s materials were 12 Shakespeare folios and 37 quartos, early editions of Spenser and Milton, 22 incunables, and the Benjamin Franklin autobiography.

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