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Secret Science

Spanish Cosmography and the New World

Secret Science

Spanish Cosmography and the New World

The discovery of the New World raised many questions for early modern scientists: What did these lands contain? Where did they lie in relation to Europe? Who lived there, and what were their inhabitants like? Imperial expansion necessitated changes in the way scientific knowledge was gathered, and Spanish cosmographers in particular were charged with turning their observations of the New World into a body of knowledge that could be used for governing the largest empire the world had ever known.

As María M. Portuondo here shows, this cosmographic knowledge had considerable strategic, defensive, and monetary value that royal scientists were charged with safeguarding from foreign and internal enemies. Cosmography was thus a secret science, but despite the limited dissemination of this body of knowledge, royal cosmographers applied alternative epistemologies and new methodologies that changed the discipline, and, in the process, how Europeans understood the natural world.

352 pages | 10 color plates, 14 halftones, 5 line drawings, 5 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2009

Geography: Cartography

History: European History, Latin American History


“A work of meticulous scholarship, Secret Science is must reading for anyone interested in the history of early modern science, the history of cosmography, and the intellectual challenges posed by the discovery of the New World. Of key importance is Portuondo’s understanding of science as an administrative practice that privileged the collection of empirical data as opposed to philosophical speculation into the secrets of nature. The book also questions traditional assumptions concerning Spain’s supposed lack of participation in the early modern revolution in science, and in doing so, forces us to rethink what this revolution was about.”

Richard L. Kagan, Johns Hopkins University

“This impressive and original book finally brings Spain—long neglected by historians of science—into the picture of the Scientific Revolution.  Secret Science takes us on a fascinating voyage through the scientific institutions that King Philip II created in order to build a body of confidential scientific information about his vast empire. María Portuondo creates a vivid portrait of the Spanish royal cosmographers at work, as they devised instruments, drew maps, and described in meticulous detail the physical features of the empire. Besides detailing the achievements of the cosmographers, Portuondo demonstrates that Philip II, far from being a hidebound reactionary, as the Black Legend portrays him, was a pragmatic, modernizing prince who used science and technology to build the first empire in world history over which the sun never set, and in the process created a vast inventory of real, tangible knowledge about the New World. This is cultural history of science at its best:  learned, original, and compelling. Vivid, engrossing, and full of fascinating details, the book will completely change the way we think about the origins of science. It’s a must read for historians of science and cultural historians alike.”

William Eamon, New Mexico State University

"Impeccably researched. . . . Portuondo’s study reveals valuable evidence with which scholars can refashion their images of the Renaissance world and the achievements of Spanish science at the dawn of modernity."

Neil Safier | Nature

“This is an important book about an extremely important subject. . . . [Portuondo’s] elegant prose and meticulous apparatus deftly guide the reader through the wealth of archival, printed and secondary sources that underpin her careful analysis.”

Adam Mosley | Journal for the History of Astronomy

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Tables
List of Abbreviations
A Note on Translations
Introduction: Spanish Science and the New World
Chapter 1   Renaissance Cosmography in the Era of Discovery
                        Humanists Adopt Ptolemy: European Practitioners Create a New Discipline
                        Ideal Practice: Cosmography at the University
                        Cosmography and the Sea: Mathematical Rationalism and Navigation Books
Chapter 2   Cosmographical Styles at the Casa, Consejo and Corte
                        “Like Scattered Pieces of a Puzzle”: Compiling Knowledge of the New World
                        The Tordesillas Question
                        Alonso de Santa Cruz and His Cosmographical Opus
                        The Islario general
                        Experts to Explain the World: Juan de Herrera and the Expert Explorers
                        Cosmography at the Casa: Pilots and Maps
Chapter 3   Cosmography Codified
                        Cosmography as State Secret
                        Santa Cruz’s Guidelines
                        A Law to Define Cosmographical Practice: The Ordinances of Indies
                        Legal Culture and Cosmographical Methodology
Chapter 4   The Cosmographer-Chronicler of the Council of Indies
                        The Empire, Patronage, and the Humanist: Juan López de Velasco, 1571–90
                        The Reluctant Historian
                        The Cosmographer as Censor
Chapter 5   The Cosmographer at Work
                        Writing the Geografía y descripción de las Indias
                        The Censor Censored: Juan Bautista Gesio
                        The Sumario
Chapter 6   Constructing a Cosmographical Epistemology
                        Questionnaires and the relaciones geográficas de Indias
                        Eclipses and Longitude
                        A Global Project
                        The Lunar Eclipse Observations
Chapter 7   Cosmography Dissolves
                        A New Patronage Equation
                        Mathematical Practitioners Take Over
                        Mathematics and Cosmographical Epistemology
                        Chroniclers and Historians


American Historical Association: AHA-John E. Fagg Prize

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