The Diffusion of Columbus’s Letter through Europe, 1493-1497


Christopher Columbus’s 1493 announcement of the success of his voyage westward across the Atlantic Ocean quickly became one of the earliest ‘best sellers’ of European publishing. No less than eleven editions were published in 1493! They were issued across western Europe, in Spain, Italy, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. Six more editions were published in 1494-97. They are however all quite rare today; several of the editions survive in only a single copy; in total there are no more than 80 extant copies of all the editions.

This document traces the extremely rapid dissemination of the letter through its first 17 published editions. It is impossible to date all the editions precisely, but we can discern the basic pattern of the diffusion of this new knowledge to the major urban centers of western Europe. (Update with apologies: the map is no longer clickable.)

map of diffusion of Columbus letter

The result is a genealogy of the letter’s publication (click on thumbnail for full image):

thumb - genealogy

Columbus’s Manuscript Letters

We do not know precisely when Columbus first composed a letter announcing the success of his voyage to what he presumed were the islands in the ‘Indian Sea’ off the eastern coast of Asia. He certainly composed letters during his return voyage. However, his personal log, in which he might have recorded his literary efforts, has survived only in an abstract by Bartolomé de Las Casas (author of the Historia de las Indias).

The first mention of any letter in the Las Casas abstract occurs on February 14th, 1493, the third day of a severe storm that threatened to sink the ships. The log entry states:

“in order that, if he [i.e., Columbus] were lost in that tempest, the Sovereigns [i.e., Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain] might have news of his voyage, he took a parchment and wrote upon it all that he could of everything that he had found, earnestly requesting whoever might find it to carry it to the Sovereigns. This parchment he enclosed in a waxed cloth, very well secured, and ordered a great wooden barrel to be brought and placed it inside … and so he ordered it to be cast into the sea.” (Morison, 165)

That this letter has never been found has only encouraged the numerous fake letters which have been produced since the mid-nineteenth century!

Perhaps these events made Columbus think about a more formal announcement, because the letter which has survived (through being printed) is dated the following day, February 15th. Columbus’s log reveals that the storm had blown itself out and had left the expedition within sight of the Azores.

Columbus sailed into Lisbon on March 4th, driven before another storm. From there he sent letters to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, who were then holding Court in Barcelona. Enclosed in the packet was a letter to the “escriuano deraciõ” (modern Spanish: ‘escribano de Racion’), the secretary of the royal treasury. This post was then held by Luis de Santángel, who was one of Columbus’s prominent supporters at court. None of the original manuscripts of Columbus’s letters have survived; all we have today are printed copies derived from the enclosure for de Santángel.

The general level of uncertainty and conjecture which surrounds Columbus’s letters is exemplified by the confusion over the date on which Columbus sent his letters from Lisbon. The printed version of the letter to the “escriuano deraciõ,” Luis de Santángel, gives a date of March 14th for the postscript. However, Columbus had presumably sent the letters overland to Barcelona: the winter storms that year were far worse than usual so only land delivery could guarantee the letters’ arrival. This would mean that Columbus would have had to have sent the letters before he sailed out of Lisbon on March 13th. Moreover, the postscript explicitly states that “today I was driven into this port of Lisbon,” which would date the postscript to March 4th. An immediate letter would also seem to more in keeping with the magnitude of Columbus’s news. It seems safest to agree with Morison, 180, that the letter should be dated the 4th; in that case the printed date can be ascribed to a typographic error by the printer.

Barcelona, 1493: The First Printed Letter

Columbus’s letter to the “escriuano deraciõ” was soon passed on to a Barcelona printer, Pedro Posa. The time elapsed between the receipt of the letter by Luis de Santángel, the secretary to the treasury, and Posa’s publication of the letter (in April?) could only have been one or two weeks.

Posa’s edition was in Spanish, printed on two leaves of folio-sized paper. It bears neither title — it simply starts “Sir, …” — nor a printer’s imprint. That it was published by Posa has been established by the similarity of its design and layout to the works known to have been printed by Posa. (Indeed, this has been the procedure for several of the early editions of the letter.) As for its date, that too is conjectural, but its text is clearly copied directly from Columbus’s manuscript.

Today, the only known copy of this letter is housed in the New York Public Library.

The Translation to Latin

A copy of Columbus’s letter to Luis de Santángel — whether the original manuscript, a copy thereof, or one of Pedro Posa’s printed letters — was taken to Rome. There (probably) it was translated into Latin by one Aliander (or Leander) de Cosco. Aliander’s introductory statement states that he finished the translation on “the third of the kalends of May,” which is to say April 29th, 1493. That the translation was undertaken in Rome is implied by the further specification of the year as being the first of the reign of Pope Alexander VI; furthermore, a colophon — a final statement — was added to the translation by an Italian bishop, “R. L. de Corbaria” (or Berardus/Leonard of Carninis), bishop of Monte Peloso (1491-98).

If the letter was translated into Latin in Rome, by April 29th, then there could not have been much slack time between the letter’s appearance in Barcelona and its being shipped off across the Mediterranean. There was clearly a great interest in disseminating the news.

Aliander’s added introduction identifies the recipient of the original manuscript to have been Raphael Sanxis, the king’s treasurer, rather than Luis de Santángel. This difference has led many to suppose that it was a second manuscript letter from Columbus which had been sent to Rome (e.g., Harrisse, 6). It is now accepted, however, that the new name was a mistake on Aliander’s part, and that only one manuscript ended up in print (Obregón, 4).

Rome, 1493: The Second Printed Letter

Aliander de Cosco’s Latin translation of Columbus’s Spanish letter was printed by Stephen Plannck, probably in early May, 1493. The format was of four leaves, each quarto-size (much like the size of most hard-bound books today).

Like Posa before him, Plannck did not give the letter a formal title. Most bibliographers and historians have however assigned the third phrase of Aliander’s introduction statement as a title:

Epistola Christofori Colom: cui [a]etas nostra multu[m] debet: de Insulis Indi[a]e supra Gangem nuper inuentis.

Letter of Christopher Columbus, to whom our age owes much, concerning the recent discovery of the islands of India beyond the Ganges.

This phrase is very similar to the many book titles of the period which began “De …”

Although this edition survives today in only a handful of copies, we know that it was widely disseminated throughout Europe because this was the source edition for almost all of the subsequent versions of the letter. Of key significance here is the fact that Aliander’s introduction cites only Ferdinand of Spain as being Columbus’s patron, ignoring Isabella’s role in the voyage. Two more editions of the letter were published in Rome in 1493: another by Plannck and one by Eucharius Silber (or Argentius). Both of these later editions added Isabella to the introduction; they also changed the name of the addressee to Gabriel Sanchez, and changed Aliander de Cosco to Leander di Cosco.

It is unclear which of the two editions were produced first, although it is certain that they were printed in 1493 as ‘corrections.’

Also certain is that neither of the two extra Rome editions were the source of the several other Latin editions that were soon to be published in France, Switzerland, and the low Countries. In those editions, the introduction refers only to Ferdinand and makes no mention of Isabella.

Basel, 1493: The Cartographically Illustrated Letters

A copy of Stephen Plannck’s first Latin edition reached Basel, then a principal city in the Swiss Confederation, with easy access to Germany and the Netherlands. The letter was republished there before the end of 1493. This edition was given a formal title: De Insulis inuentis, “Concerning the Discovered Islands.”

As with the other editions, the text was reset and in the process some small changes and errors were introduced. It is by examining these variations in the text that we can reconstruct the pattern of dissemination. In the case of the Basel letter, for example, we see an immediate difference in the introduction. Whereas the Plannck edition, and other editions derived therefrom, all describe the location of the islands that Columbus had reached as being “of India beyond the Ganges” (the Greek name for southeast and eastern Asia), the Basel edition changed this to be “islands in the Indian sea.”

The really obvious features which identify the Basel 1493 edition are however its woodcut images. These are schematic images which show Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean. One commentator in the late-nineteenth century indicates a once common belief:

“The curious woodcuts with which [the Basel editions are] illustrated are supposed by some to have been copied from drawings made originally by Columbus himself. They give remarkable representations of the admiral’s own caravel, of his first landing on Hayti and meeting with the natives, and of the different islands which he visited.” (Lenox, v)

The wonderfully detailed image of “the admiral’s own caravel” is however now known to be a direct copy of a woodcut of a caravel from Bernhard von Breydenbach’s Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam (“Voyage to the Holy Land”), published in Mainz in 1486. The other illustrations are schematic in nature and all were almost certainly created by a Swiss artist. That is, the images are representations of Columbus’s arrival among the islands of the Caribbean and are not representations of the islands themselves. In this respect, while they resemble maps and while they have often been referred to as the first cartographic images made by Europeans of the Old World, a more appropriate description of them would be as ‘map-like’ images.

Basel, 1494: The Osher Map Library’s Edition

The edition of Columbus’s letter entitled De Insulis inuentis did not bear an imprint. Historians have suggested several potential printers for the work, but they all agree that it was produced in Basel because of its similarities to another edition of the letter that was definitively published in Basel. This edition bears the explicit imprint of Johann Bergmann and is dated April 21st, 1494.

This is the edition of the letter now possessed by the Osher Map Library and is described in the rest of this web site.

Unlike all the other published editions of Columbus’s letter, this edition was printed in conjunction with a second text, specifically a ‘prose drama’ that praised Ferdinand of Spain for the conquest of Granada in 1492. The drama is known to have been performed in Rome in 1492, and copies of it were printed in Rome in both 1492 and 1493 (Hain, nos.15940 and *15941).

The 1494 Basel edition of Columbus’s letter used most of the same woodcut images as the 1493 edition, except that the title image (of Ferdinand) was recut. The images were inserted in different locations within the text. The text itself is reset without many of the numerous contractions which characterize the earlier Latin editions.

Paris, 1493: Three More Editions

Another copy of Stephen Plannck’s first Latin edition reached Paris, the capital of France. Guyot Marchant, a printer based in the Champs-Gailliard, quickly copied this work and soon produced no less than three editions, all before the end of 1493. The changes between the editions are subtle. The implication is that Marchant churned out many copies to meet the intellectual curiosity of the French.

Marchant’s three editions are easily identified from their inclusion of a woodcut image of an angel appearing to the shepherds, announcing Christ’s birth. Although this image had obviously been made for a religious publication, and was now being reused by Marchant, it has clear allegorical overtones: Columbus becomes the angel of God bringing the new faith to the uncivilized heathens of Asia (as it was presumed). Marchant’s third edition also carried his woodcut “printer’s device,” a large image similar to a personal bookplate.

Antwerp, 1493: Yet Another Edition!

Stephen Plannck’s first Latin edition of Columbus’s Letter had also reached Antwerp, a major trading center in the Low Countries, and been taken up by another printer before the end of 1493. This is today known in only one copy, in the Royal Library, Brussels.

Rome, 1493: Dati’s Translation into Italian Verse

The popularity of Columbus’s Letter and of his whole adventure is perhaps most clearly shown by the publication history of a translation of the letter — probably the first Plannck edition — in Italian verse. The translation was made by one Leonardo Dati, at the request of Giovanni Filippo dal Legname (Delignamine), private secretary to Ferdinand of Spain. The verse rendition was published in Rome in June, 1493.

Like the Basel editions of 1493 and 1494, the verse edition also contained, on its title page, a highly stylized woodcut image. It depicts King Ferdinand looking out over the ocean at Columbus’s small flotilla making the actual first landing on a distant island. The image’s highly decorative border is in keeping with the verse-letter’s appeal as an aesthetic and decorative product. It has been reproduced by Hirsch, 539.

A copy of the Roman verse edition reached Florence, where it was copied in several more editions. The first Florentine edition was dated October 26th, 1493. The printers copied the Rome edition’s woodcut. The theme is the same — Ferdinand watching Columbus’s landing — but the composition was changed. The original copy had Ferdinand enthroned in the background of the image, with Europe in the foreground, the two separated by water (i.e., the Atlantic). In the new version, Ferdinand was moved to the foreground.

This Florentine edition was reprinted in 1495; indeed, the impression gives the same day, October 26th. The title image is from the same woodcut. Sometime later, another edition was printed, with a third version of the image of Ferdinand watching Columbus land.

There was also a fourth Florentine edition, a copy of the first, that we cannot date for certain. It lacks the woodcut image on the title page.

1497: Late editions in Spanish and German

Subsequent to the main period of publication, which is to say 1493, and a second period of copies, between 1494 and 1495, two more editions of Columbus’s first letter were published in 1497.

A rather late edition was printed, in German, in Strasbourg on September 30th, 1497. Its introduction implies that the translation was made in Ulm from both the Spanish and the Latin, although there is no indication when it was done. This has given rise to speculation that there was an early, German edition published in Ulm, but there is no known copy of such a printing. The Strasbourg edition contains a titlepage woodcut, of Christ addressing Ferdinand and his followers, that was also used in the same printer’s edition of Johann Lichtenberger’s Prognosticatio zu teutsch, printed in October 1497.

Finally, a second Spanish-language edition was printed in Valladolid, in norther Spain, some time after Posa’s edition appeared in Barcelona. Lacking an imprint, we cannot say precisely when it appeared, although most authorities believe it to have been published in 1497. That is, it was not part of the initial diffusion of the letter through Europe.