The Renaissance Letter and the Encounter with the "New" World

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Laurence N de Looze


Renaissance scholars such as Jacob Burkhardt, Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and José Antonio Maravall have amply demonstrated that a program of letters (studia humanitatis) led, in the Renaissance, to a meditation on humanity. This article looks at the import of Renaissance letters in the more prosaic sense of alphabetic letters.

The printing press is of course the most obvious emblem of a new approach to alphabetic letters, and it is doubly important because it underscores the deep bonds between the philological program that reformed the study of Classical letters and a new means of textual transmission. This last has been the object of much good work by Elizabeth Eisenstein, Henri-Jean Martin, and Roger Chartier, among others. My concern here is more narrow.

I pose the question of how European attitudes toward the alphabetic letter related to the Renaissance meditation on humanity in the 15th and 16th centuries and I speculate on the implications the European conceptualization of the letter had for the confrontation with, and assimilation of, New World culture, particularly as it was found in Mexico. In this article, I move to a consideration of what resulted when the Spanish encountered a textuality -- the textuality of Meso-America -- that was not based on the letter.

Renaissance reformations of letter types reacted against the animated (to borrow Laura Kendricks' term) and corporeal medieval letter that stretched human and animal forms into letters (Giovanno de Grassi's alphabet is a representative instance). Against the monstrous medieval manuscript letter was pitted the Roman letter that, as 16th-century treatises proposed, deserved to become a model of rational order and symmetry. Fra Luca Pacioli (1497-1509) and Sigismondo de' Fanti (1514), for example, promulgated treatises on letter types, though Geoffroy Tory's great theoretical work Champ fleury (1529) stands out as the most sustained attempt to harmonize letter forms with the idealized human body as well as with Classical culture. For Tory, all letters are based on the form of the human body, as he demonstrates one by one from A to Z, using -- in typical Renaissance fashion -- a perfect, nude male form as his model. All of the letters are also simultaneously mapped onto a 10x10 grid, giving them a mathematical perfection. And all letters are combinations of the perfectly symmetrical "I" and "O", the "I" containing (for reasons Tory explains) the nine muses and Apollo while the "O" houses the seven liberal arts.

Tory's treatise therefore makes Roman letter types a key link between dignitas hominis and the program of studia humanitatis. In a similar manner, Thomas More, when he meditates on a utopian society, conceives it as having a more perfect set of alphabetic letters than European ones, the letters being set out at the beginning of the first two editions of his Utopia (1516) along with an example of Utopian literature written in the script. More's alphabet is even more perfectly ordered than Tory's Roman alphabet, as all of More's utopenses litterae are formed from the perfect geometrical forms of the circle and the square. A superior humanity corresponds to a superior alphabet (the equation can also be run in reverse).

What, then, are the implications of the European encounter with the New World, and, in particular, with the non-alphabetic culture of Meso-America? Meso-America, after all, was neither a culture without writing - a kind of "blank slate" Europeans could overwrite with letters - nor a lettered culture. Rather, it had a highly-developed pictogrammic system of writing that allowed it to produce texts that recorded, at one and the same time, historical accounts, tribute accounts, legends and calendars. The answer, to which I work, is that, for the Europeans, the textuality of the Meso-American empire needed to be brought under the reins of lettered European textuality just as their political territory needed to be conquered. The result was the creation of the mestizo codices that reproduced many elements of Pre-Columbian pictographic texts but organized them according to the exigencies of the European paginated book. In examining this phenomenon I argue that what was radically "other" was reduced to, and imported into Europe as, the radically "new," and I examine the relationship between alphabetic/non-alphabetic textualities and the European debate regarding the humanity of the Amerindians.

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DE LOOZE, Laurence N. The Renaissance Letter and the Encounter with the "New" World. AmeriQuests, [S.l.], v. 5, n. 1, feb. 2008. ISSN 1553-4316. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 22 oct. 2017. doi: