How Christopher Columbus’s son built ‘the world’s first search engine’
In the 16th century, Hernando Colón amassed a library of unprecedented size and range. The author of a new biography tells its startlingly modern story.
‘Changing the model of what knowledge is’ … detail from portrait of Hernando Colón. Photograph: Biblioteca Colombina (Seville)
For 30 years, Hernando Colón, the illegitimate son of Christopher Columbus, travelled the world with a quest, albeit one very different to that of his coloniser father: to build the biggest library the world had ever seen. Between 1509 and his death in 1539, Colón travelled all over Europe – in 1530 alone he visited Rome, Bologna, Modena, Parma, Turin, Milan, Venice, Padua, Innsbruck, Augsburg, Constance, Basle, Fribourg, Cologne, Maastricht, Antwerp, Paris, Poitiers and Burgos – buying books everywhere he went and eventually amassing the greatest private library in Europe.
Colón’s aim, to create a universal library containing “all books, in all languages and on all subjects, that can be found both within Christendom and without”, has been charted for the first time in English in a forthcoming biography.
“He had somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 books,” says Cambridge academic Dr Edward Wilson-Lee. “That maybe doesn’t sound that big nowadays, but it was at least an order of magnitude bigger than the biggest libraries of the day. Most other people, even very bookish people, would have had a couple of hundred books. Other big collections of the day were around 3,000 – this was at least five times as big.”
Wilson-Lee, whose biography of Colón, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, is published this month by William Collins, finds it astonishing that the bibliomaniac’s story has not previously been told in English.
“This is a story that was known about, but largely only to a small group of Spanish book historians,” he says. “But this was a project that was very much the reciprocal of his father’s ideas about circling the world – it was another millenarian grand project, to build this universal library.”
Unlike most collectors of the day, who according to Wilson-Lee “were trawling around Swiss monasteries looking for ancient Greek manuscripts”, Colón was interested in print – and collected everything he could lay his hands on. Manuscripts, pamphlets, tavern posters – all made their way into his library. Over Christmas 1521, he bought 700 books in Nuremberg, and 1,000 more a month later.
“This was someone who was, in a way, changing the model of what knowledge is. Instead of saying ‘knowledge is august, authoritative things by some venerable old Roman and Greek people’, he’s doing it inductively: taking everything that everyone knows and distilling it upwards from there,” says Wilson-Lee. “It’s much more resonant with today, with big data and Wikipedia and crowdsourced information. This is a model of knowledge that says, ‘We’re going to take the breadth of print – ballads and pornography and newsletters – and not exclude that from the world of information.’”
Writing the book, Wilson-Lee has been charting the sheer breadth of Colón’s acquisitions – on Twitter. On 9 May 1531, Colón “bought a pamphlet on the 1529 Peace of Cambrai; his is the only surviving copy”; on 6 May, he acquired Capodilista’s 1475 guidebook to the Holy Land; in April he “paid 24 pfenins for a 1487 tract on priesthood at Augsburg”.
Colón’s ambition echoed that of his father, who believed that Spain would one day control the whole world, the head of a universal empire. Colón considered his library to be “the brain”: housing all the information he could find across the world so that, as Wilson-Lee describes it, “any question that needed to be answered could be answered, and no information was lost”.
Colón would record where and when he bought every book, what it cost and the rate of currency exchange that day, sometimes noting where he was when he read it, and what he thought of it. Clear that his collection had to be ordered – he referred to unmapped collections as “dead” – Colón had a team working to distil the thousands of volumes into summaries, called the Libro de Epitomes, and created a blueprint of the library using 10,000 scraps of paper bearing hieroglyphic symbols. “Each of the myriad ways they could be put together suggested a different path through the library, just as a different set of search terms on the internet will bring up different information. In some respects, the Biblioteca Hernandina, as it was then called, was the world’s first search engine,” according to Wilson-Lee.
‘Any question that needed to be answered could be’ … the entrance to the Institución Colombina in Seville, the current home to Colón’s library. Photograph: José Luis Filpo Cabana
Known today as the Biblioteca Colombina, only around a quarter of Colón’s books remain together, after being held since 1552 in Seville Cathedral.
Colón, who was also the first biographer of Columbus and a mapmaker, left his library to his nephew – “a wastrel with no interest in books” in Wilson-Lee’s view – and the books ended up locked in the cathedral’s attic for centuries. There are stories of children in the 18th century bounding up to the attic to play with Colón’s beautiful collection and look at the pictures. The collection gradually dwindled down to fewer than 4,000 books, due to the long years of neglect, theft and the occasional flood.
But even with most of the library gone, Colón’s story still has great resonance today, according to Wilson-Lee. “It’s … particularly poignant and important for now. We’re similarly navigating and having to make massive choices about how we organise information – like Hernando was doing in his library,” he said.