The Libro de los epítomes

The epitomes and Colón's cataloguing and knowledge management system 

At the time of Hernando Colón's death in 1539, his collection comprised more than 15,000 items, primarily printed books but also some manuscripts. Apart from its sheer magnitude, Colón’s library was also notable in the landscape of early-modern book collecting for the advanced system of information and knowledge management he devised to organise his vast collection. The system was centred on the production of a series of catalogues (alphabetical, topographical, bibliographical) and  indices, which made the books accessible on the basis of their contents, distinguishing between general topics and more specific subjects. The epitomes were a key element in this system, consisting of short abstracts of the texts found in the books in the library. Normally, the epitomes do not include bibliographical information about the specific editions transmitting the texts: it was the works that were being summarised, not the texts of specific editions of those works. In the case of miscellanies, therefore, each text was usually epitomised separately, and the same treatment was given to principal texts and  commentaries on them, even where these were only ever found within the same volume. There are some exceptions to this practice, however, which are currently being investigated.

The manuscript and its content 

AM 377 fol. is an imposing manuscript book of c. 1000 paper leaves produced in the first half of the 16th century in Seville, Spain. It contains epitomes or summaries of nearly 2000 works from Colón's library. 

See the contents of El libro de los epítomes (Copenhagen, Arnamagnæan Collection, AM 377 fol.)

These summaries vary in length from a few lines to dozens of pages, and subject-wise they range from theology, medicine and music to literary texts, papal bulls and grammar. The period of production of the texts epitomised is also very broad, including classical and medieval authors as well as many 15th- and 16th-century intellectuals. Altogether, works by over 1000 authors are epitomised in the Libro. Over half of these are Colón’s contemporaries, born in the mid- to late 15th century, so it is clear that Colón was buying books as they were being published. There is a corresponding lack of “classics”. There are, to be sure, works by old masters such as Homer, Ovid, Plato, Cicero, Lucretius, Horace and Lucian, but almost no patristic literature, for example. The most epitomised author in the Libro is Erasmus of Rotterdam – whom Colón had met in Leuven in 1520. There are 21 works by Erasmus epitomised in Libro, but Colón had many more works by him in the library – 185 are listed in the Abecedarium B. The purpose of the summaries is explicitly stated by Juan Pérez, Colón’s principal librarian, in a document titled Memoria de las obras y libros de don Hernando Colón, written shortly after Colón's death: "The advantage derived from the book of epitomes is clear, since it provides essential information about the contents of the books, and if somebody does not have many books to read, at least he will have one that will provide him with a glimpse of what is treated in many others. Hence, if he likes the book and its subject, he can buy it, otherwise, he will leave it, and he will not be misled into buying it, because there are many books with long and pompous titles, which do not contain what they promise. Publishers do this in order to cheat readers." 



From the Libro to the library

Together with the other indices and catalogues, the Libro can serve as a perfect entry point for exploring Colon’s extensive library. Although fewer than half of the summaries explicitly state the titles and authors of the works being epitomised, it is usually possible to identify them reading the epitomes themselves. One can then look for them in the Abecedarium B, an alphabetical index of all the texts contained in the library organised by author, if known, or by title or incipit. The Abecedarium  generally provides for each book in the library the entry numbers under which that title can be found in the various catalogues, such as the book of Materias (a thematic index) and the Registrum B. This latter is the topographical index of the editions contained in the library, and out of the more than 15,000 entries it contains, 4321 are described in some detail, typically including information about the author and title of the works included in the edition, incipits and explicits of the main textual units, size and format, as well as information on when, where and by whom the book was printed (when these are available in the book itself). This is one of the ways to find out which actual editions of the texts  epitomised Colón had in his library. Following the information on date and place of publication, these records also include information about the binding, if the book was bound, and on where, when and at what cost the book was purchased by Colón. Purchase information, Registrum B numbers and other references were usually written directly in the books themselves as well, making it generally possible to recognise books once owned by Colón with absolute certainty – even if they are no longer in the Biblioteca Colombina. 

The history of the library

A coloured engraving of Seville by Georg Braun (1541-1622), from Civitates Orbis Terrarum, c. 1576, showing “La casa de Colón”.
A coloured engraving of Seville by Georg Braun (1541-1622), from Civitates Orbis Terrarum, c. 1576, showing “La casa de Colón”.

After Colón's death in 1539, his library was kept in his house in Puerta de Goles in Seville. The first heir named by Colón was his nephew Don Luis Colón, son of Hernando's brother Diego. He failed to take charge of the library, however, and in 1544 it was officially moved to the Dominican convent of San Pablo, also in Seville. The convent had been named by Colón as the third possible repository for the books, if the first and second had failed to meet the requirements associated with the management of the collection. The second in the list, after Don Luis, was the Cathedral Chapter of Seville, which, after the books were moved,  entered into a legal dispute with the Dominicans of San Pablo. This dispute was resolved in 1552, resulting in the books being moved to the Cathedral. Today, around one third of Colón's original collection still survives as part of the Biblioteca Colombina, which, together with the Chapter library and archives and the Archbishop's library and archives, forms part of the Institución Colombina.

A portrait of the Count-Duke of Olivares by Diego Velázquez, 1624.

A portrait of the Count-Duke of Olivares by Diego Velázquez, 1624.

We do not know exactly what happened to the Libro de los epítomes following Colón's death. We do know, however, that it was listed as manuscript 'E.5' in  the 1627 inventory of the library of another famous book collector and important political figure in Spain, Gaspar de Guzmán (1587–1645), the Count-Duke of Olivares, and this shelfmark can still be seen in the upper margin of the first leaf of the manuscript. Later evidence points to ownership of the manuscript by Cornelius Pedersen Lerche (1615–1681), Danish ambassador to Spain in the central years of the 16th century, who collected a large number of books and manuscripts during his tenure in Spain. Some of Lerche’s printed books along with a portion of his manuscript collection were auctioned off the year after his death. It does not seem that the manuscript came to Árni Magnússon directly from Lerche, however; rather, it seems to have passed through the hands of another collector, Jens Rosenkrantz (1640–1695), from whose collection Árni Magnússon is known to have acquired various manuscripts and books.

Other Spanish manuscripts in the Arnamagnæan collection

AM 377 fol. is not the only Spanish manuscript in the Arnamagnæan Collection. It is, in fact, one of twenty-one volumes which are either of Spanish provenance or have Spanish-related content still preserved at the Arnamagnæan Institute at the University of Copenhagen. This interesting 'collection within the collection' includes, among other things, an autograph copy, unique, of Bartolomé Barrientos's Geographia ac cosmographia (AM 358 fol.), several manuscripts of legal content, several collections of numismatic and antiquarian content, as well as literary commentaries, translations and texts of a scholarly nature, mostly related to influential early-modern Spanish intellectuals, as well as a copy of an early 16th-century catalogue of the Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial (AM 376 fol.). A full list of these volumes, with some preliminary notes, can be found here. While they have been included in previous catalogues of the collection, these manuscripts have rarely been the object of more specific study. Alongside its work on the Libro, the "Book of Books" project is also committed to promoting further investigation into these other Spanish manuscripts, and is doing so through a series of initiatives, such as a workshop on the Spanish manuscripts in the collection held on 14-15 June 2023, which offered an update on scholarship regarding the Spanish collection and outlined future prospects for research.