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La aventura de Jerónimo Köler. Sevilla, 1533

Luis Méndez Rodríguez. Focus-Abengoa Foundation and Marcial Pons Historia, Madrid, 2013. 285 pages + 50 white and black and colour illustrations.

Cover of the new book published by the Foundation.

This book is the outcome of extensive, painstaking research conducted by Luis Méndez, a Full Professor of Art History at the University Seville, on a manuscript conserved in the British Library in London that has only been partially published to date. This manuscript recounts the life adventures of Jerónimo Köler, a German Jewish merchant born in Nuremberg who in the waning years of his life wanted to leave written testimony of his family and journeys. This manuscript is halfway between the family chronicles that became popular in Germany during the second half of the 15th century and a travel book. It was written in the 1560s, and in addition to surveying the history of the Köler family, which dates back to 1355, it also includes the biography of Jerónimo the Elder (1507-1573) and an account of the trips through Italy, Austria, Holland, Portugal, Spain and the Americas in the 1520 and 1530s. It also includes subsequent texts by his brother John Köler, his son Jerónimo Köler the Younger and his grandson Benedicto, who followed the tradition of leaving a written account of their deeds, successes and travelling experiences in order to inform future generations about their own identity. Despite the accumulation of news from the latter, the texts by Jerónimo Köler the Elder are the most appealing and provocative in that they offer a unique view of the Spanish monarchy, the situation in Europe in his day, which was in the midst of the Reformation, which Jerónimo Köler joined, and the city of Seville back when it was the Gateway to the Indies and the destination of anyone believing in the American Dream.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that these texts were the main targets of the study by Luis Méndez. However, instead of just a simple list of dates cited by this German adventurer, he also managed to paint an extraordinary portrait of Seville immersed in trade with the Indies, with all its glories and miseries, and to assess the decisive role of foreign merchants, especially Germans, and of the networks of clients that set up shop in the city, including Köler himself. Likewise, he also very insightfully analysed the failure of the German bankers, the Welsers’ “conquest on its own account” of the territory of Venezuela, one of whose expeditions towards those lands Jerónimo Köler joined, as well as the economic might and cultural atmosphere in his city of birth, Nuremberg, stressing its role as the prime witness to the Reformation because of its relationships with Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon. The pages of the book devoted to Jerónimo Köler’s thwarted journey to America are particularly interesting; based on the German’s own story, he speaks about the terrible storms that buffeted the coast of Cádiz and prevented the fleet from setting sail. Because of the storms, the ship in which he was travelling had to seek refuge in El Puerto de Santa María, where upon arrival he decided to abandon the expedition and return to his native city without having earned the fortune that had prompted him to travel the world.

A substantial part of the study conducted by Luis Méndez is devoted to analysing all the illustrations accompanying the Kölers’ text. The watercolours in the manuscript written by Jerónimo the Elder stand out for their exceptional quality; despite their flaws and debts to woodcuts and engravings from the period, they not only offer images of different European cities, including Lisbon and Seville, but also show the American territory and its inhabitants, inspiring a reflection on the transformation that the image of the Americas and the Native Americans underwent over the course of the 16th century. A few fascinating, well-documented pages of the book are devoted to analysing this phenomenon. It also mentions Durer’s engravings of Martin Luther and Melanchthon which open and close the Liber Amicorum written by Jerónimo Köler the Younger and the drawings of antiquities, landscapes and views of cities that Benedicto, the last Köler, included in his text.

Not only does the book offer major contributions and valuable suggestions for further studies, but it also features rich, fluid prose which makes it an easy and appealing read for both experts on the subject and those interested in learning more about and better understanding the fascinating history of Europe and America in the 16th century. All of these factors explain why the study by Luis Méndez earned the 2010 2nd International Alfonso E. Pérez Sánchez Prize awarded every two years by the Focus-Abengoa Foundation, an institution that has now published this study jointly with Marcial Pons.

Alfredo J. Morales
University of Seville


Catalogue of the exhibiton Nur. Light in the Art and Science of the Islamic World

Sabiha al Khemir. Focus-Abengoa Foundation, Seville, 2013. 304 pages + 203 colour illustrations.

Cover of the exhibition catalogue.

Arab culture and the world of Islam have at times been compared to zulm, or “darkness”. Just like all civilisations, it has historical episodes with dark points, but in no way can it be reduced to those times because it has also had light-filled moments, some of which are captured in this publication. In reality, the Arab and Muslim should be fit within the history of humanity, which got its start in China, India, Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt and then continued with the classical Greco-Latin tradition. It is also part of the luminosity of the Mediterranean, and based on that a new civilising framework developed which would later travel through the Iberian Peninsula to irradiate out towards Europe, Africa and the so-called New World. The catalogue that contains the concepts and list of items in the exhibition Light/Nur is palpable proof of this process. The exhibition curator, Sabiha al Khemir, the author of the catalogue texts, examines the details throughout its pages.

The driving idea is light as a concept and the material culture artefacts depicted in the art and science of the Islamic world from the 7th century until today. Thus, the exhibition traces an arc based on the idea of light as a generator of life and culture. It offers a descriptive discourse revolving primarily around the idea of light in the world which guides religious ideas in the Mediterranean and the material culture it has produced. Later, the book focuses on the prominent place of light in metalwork, sumptuary pieces in public places and other domestic pieces, with decoration in gold and silver and gilded, glazed ceramics. Yet it also examines knowledge, the light of humanity, through a selection of specific elements: works of Arab mechanics; treatises on medicine, mathematics or astronomy; and navigation tools, ranging from astrolabes and compasses to nocturlabes. The plays of transparencies and colour and the geometry of buildings, furniture, latticework and windows complete the catalogue.

In short, the show reveals an entire “universe of light” within Islam, as demonstrated through a series of more than one hundred pieces from public institutions and private collections from all over the world. A high percentage of them are being exhibited in public for the first time, some of them hardly ever before seen, such as the Tunisian sun dial from the 17th century. Of all of them, it is difficult to pick out the most outstanding: perhaps the Coptic tile from Persia, the heir to pre-Muslim artistic expressions that still remain today; the batik shawl from Indonesia; the inkwells, oil lamps and lamps; the pages of the Koran of Kairouan with gilded Kufic script over a blue background; the pieces of rock crystal from the grating of the cathedral of Orense; the manuscript on surgery by Al-Zahrawi; or the range of surgical instruments from the Al-Sabah Collection in Kuwait. They all originally come from the vast tract of the globe spanning from the far end of Asia to the Iberian Peninsula and from both Muslim and Christian and Jewish religious settings.

The catalogue, actually a “ray of light” in itself, tries to introduce the reader to the universe of Arab-Muslim knowledge and art, a vast sea of which we are only able to display, logically, a small part. The reader can find the complement to the catalogue in the Seville headquarters of the Focus-Abengoa Foundation, which has striven to illuminate this parcel of human civilisation. It is no coincidence that this catalogue was published in Seville, the city of light in the imagination of poets and literati since even before the Middle Ages, which witnessed the emergence of the culture of Al-Andalus, until the present. And it exists in the same city, in Andalusia, in Spain as a whole and from them towards all four cardinal points. The works ultimately display the energy of a millennium-old culture that fits within the great historical movements contributed to what we were in the past and what we are now globally, at the dawn of the 21st century.

Rafael Valencia
University of Seville

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