Executio in effigie

Destroyers of books and blind executors of barbarous orders there were always. The damnatio memoriae of Erasmus in the 16th-century Indices librorum prohibitorum has reminded us of the fury of the unknown – but certainly Spanish – hand that left its trace in a copy of the Cosmographiae universalis (Basle, Heinrich Petri, 1550) of the Spanish Royal Library, now preserved in the Biblioteca Nacional of Madrid (R/33638).

The editio princeps of this work of the geographer and Hebraist Sebastian Münster was published in German in 1544, dedicated to Emperor Charles V. It was the first modern geographic overview of the world, illustrated with views and descriptions of several cities. It had two more editions before this Latin one of 1550 in which the portraits of Erasmus were so abused. Then between 1550 and 1628 over twenty further editions appeared in six different languages. It was one of the bestsellers of the Renaissance. With a good sense of popularization, it offered a mix of historical, astronomical, cartographic, natural historical, folkloristic and every kind of other information in the description of the cities of the world. This edition of 1550 is very corpulent, of more than four hundred pages and nine hundred woodcuts, including the panoramic views of seventy-four cities.

The book was a collective work of a large number of authors and artists. These two portraits of Erasmus are attributed to Hans Rudolf Manuel Deutsch who followed faithfully the models set by Hans Holbein the Younger.

If in the earlier example of the censure of Erasmus we saw the deletion of his name for the posterity, here we see that of his face, a complete erasure of both the text and the image (it is impressive how his eyes were picked out and his mouth stitched up). We do not know when the destruction was committed, but probably not much after the promulgation of the infamous first Roman Index librorum prohibitorum romano of 1559.

Erasmus was not the only target of the attack in this copy of the work. All references to the Reformation, including the cities where it developed first, as well as some hints to the “superstitious” religiosity of the Spaniards (p. 61) or the persecution of the heretics by the Inquisition (p. 477) were cancelled in the same way, in order to do no harm to the Spanish readers.

However, similar attempts almost always fail. The book was read, and greedily at that, and the readers’ imagination healed all the wounds hit by the censure. Extremely mysterious and deeply suggestive is for example the comment left by a later hand (certainly after 1605, the publication of the Don Quijote) on the two sides of Erasmus’ portrait: “Sancho Panza” to the right and “and his friend d. Quijote” to the left.

Marcell Bataillon, the great scholar of Spain and the Renaissance appears to also have known this inscriptions, and he wrote about it in his fundamental work Érasme en Espagne (1937):

We cannot reconstruct the reflections that guided his pen when he wrote these enigmatic words. Was it an orthodox hand wishing the harsh hand of censure for the dialogues of Sancho Panza with his friend Don Quijote? Or rather a liberal spirit who enjoyed their tasty talks as a substitution for the prohibited Colloquia of Erasmus? It is impossible to know, and it is not even that much important to us. The mere association of ideas evoking the memory of the Don Quijote at the sight of a mutilated portrait of Erasmus is enough prove that the unknown reader perceived between Cervantes and Erasmus the same secret kinship presented here by us. (Erasmo y España, 1983, p. 799).