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The New World
Tube of lead, two disks of glass: The answer, when at last it arrived, appeared to be simplicity itself. For several years lenses of the right shape had lain within reach of anyone entering a spectacle maker's shop. For three centuries spectacles themselves had been popularizing the magnifying properties of curved glass. For the past couple of millennia it had been common knowledge that if you want to eliminate distracting light and concentrate your powers of observation on a distant object, use a tube. In many ways the arrival of this latest wonder in an age of wonders seemed to have been only a matter of time. Not so the transformation it then underwent. That, nobody could have foreseen, even though the one ingredient essential for the conversion of this potential plaything into an instrument of mathematical and philosophical investigation—for its invention as the telescope, in effect—presumably had been present at the Creation: curiosity about a Creator.
On the fourth night after the new Moon that rose at the end of November 1609 over the rooftops of Padua, a town outside Venice, a professor of mathematics at the local university, Galileo Galilei, raised the new instrument toward the sky. He would have had no reason to think he was the first to exercise this impulse. For more than a year the instrument had been circulating in one form or another across the Continent. This wasn't even the first time that he observed what he witnessed that night: the Moon of old, the Moon of always, only bigger. But he returned to it now, as he often had returned to it, because under magnification the Moon yielded surprises—discrepancies between how it had appeared since the beginning of time and how it actually, apparently, was.
The line dividing the light regions of the thin crescent from the dark, for instance: It wasn't the long, smooth, graceful, perfect arc it otherwise appeared to be. Instead it was broken, serrated, almost as if it were ridged—as if the surface itself varied, as if the landscape of the Moon were interrupted by elevations and depressions. The darkness of the Moon proved equally deceptive. Within its depths Galileo located pinpoints of light. For two hours, until the Moon slipped out of sight, he watched as the pinpoints sprouted and spread, their buds of light widening, emerging out of the black and into the white of the night exactly as if they were great heights catching the morning sun. He had to struggle against the breath that clouded the glass, against the blood that shook the hand that steadied the tube. But the more he searched, the more he found. He made out mountains. He divined valleys. He saw seas.
Galileo might not have been the first to turn a spyglass on the heavens, but he had spent the past several months improving the instrument and his familiarity with what it could do, and as he did so, he had begun to entertain an intriguing interpretation of the heavenly bodies. When he had directed his spyglass at the stars that didn't move in relation to the other stars—the fixed stars—he found that their appearance didn't change under magnification. Yet when he had looked at the stars that did move across the heavens—planets, they were called, after the Greek word for "wanderers"—he found they did change. They weren't the pinpoints of light they always had appeared to be, but "globes," as he soon wrote, "perfectly rounded and definitely bounded, like little moons."
Planets looking like the Moon looking like the Earth: What Galileo had been observing wasn't simply impossible to see without the new tube of long seeing. It was impossible, period. It was inconceivable, almost. Yet there it was: a chain of logical associations leading, if not to an inescapable conclusion, at least to an unavoidable question: Were the planets in fact other Earths? More to the point, was Earth another planet—one more mere wanderer in the heavens?
In many respects this line of investigation violated common sense. What was terrestrial was terrestrial, and what was not was celestial, and to say otherwise made a mockery of the evidence of the senses and the wisdom of the ages. The greatest philosophers who ever lived had used this distinction as the basis for their beliefs, and those beliefs formed the foundation of civilization: its astronomy certainly, but its philosophy too, its religion and its physics, its understanding of the relationship between Heaven and Earth, between God and Man. Equally to the point, at least, this reasoning contradicted the evidence of the senses. Drop a rock, and it doesn't land a few miles away or even a few paces away; it lands at your feet. You didn't have to be an Aristotle to question the idea of a speeding, spinning Earth.
In other ways, however, what Galileo saw made compelling, possibly perfect sense. The preceding two centuries had produced any number of discoveries that ran counter to the wisdom of the ages: lands of which the ancients knew nothing, peoples whose salvation the Bible failed to take into account. These discoveries had expanded the common perception of the world, and with it perception itself, the very concept of common sense. If the world could learn to accommodate the addition of terrestrial lands and their mysteries—ivory and tobacco, Africans and West Indians—then why not celestial lands? If a New World, why not new worlds?
Exactly two hundred years before Galileo first raised his spyglass to the sky, the world—which is to say, that portion of the world near the center of which a scholar in Florence or Constantinople might imagine himself—was innocently living out its final year of isolation. According to the standard maps of the day, how the world of 1409 saw itself was exceedingly simple. Draw an O, then make a T inside it. The orientation, as that word suggests, is to the east. What lies on top, above the crossbar of the T, is Asia; to the bottom left of the vertical support, Europe; to the bottom right, Africa. Simple, and sufficient: With a few notable exceptions—a Marco Polo here, a Crusade there—travelers didn't journey to faraway lands. Why would they? First, there was only so far to go. If more of the world were habitable, the assumption went, then people already would have inhabited it. Africa, for instance, might in fact extend some distance south of the shores of the Mediterranean Sea—the body of water represented on the maps by the upright in the T—but to venture toward a place where the Sun was sure to pass overhead was to risk burning wood and cloth, charring hair and flesh. As if to punctuate this proscription, mapmakers traditionally encircled their three admittedly, understandably incomplete continents with the O in the so-called T and O map, an impassable body of water that engulfed the world beyond the known borders, the Ocean River.
Second, even if there were places to go, there was little point in doing so. The point of earthly endeavors, scholars and clergy agreed, and had agreed for hundreds of years, shouldn't be to investigate a world as impermanent, unstable, and ultimately unrewarding as this, but to prepare oneself for the next. Toward that end mapmakers provided not details of distance and dimension, but art—visual sustenance both secular and sacred, representations of man's place in the world and reminders of the glory of God, from the figures of the final resurrection crowding the corners of the manuscript to the natural prominence of the city of Jerusalem at the point where the T crossed itself, in the center of map, Christendom, and universe.
The next year all that changed. In 1410 a Florentine scholar published a translation of a Greek text that he had found in Constantinople. This was the Geography of Claudius Ptolemaeus, or Ptolemy, an astronomer and cartographer who lived and wrote in the second century after the birth of Jesus. The drawings that originally accompanied Ptolemy's text had disappeared, but cartographers of the early fifteenth century found that by following his written descriptions, they could reconstruct these maps. Where their knowledge of Asia ended at the Ganges, Ptolemy described a continent that extended at least fifteen degrees of longitude beyond India and included numerous islands. Where their conception of Africa ended just inside the Mediterranean coastline, Ptolemy's Africa extended at least fifteen degrees of latitude beyond the Equator, deep within the "torrid zone" where mathematicians had calculated the Sun would pass overhead (had any heads been there for it to pass over). Most important for the imaginations of the philosophers and navigators, the traders and geographers who gathered in the streets of European ports to discuss each new piece of knowledge, what Ptolemy had to say about the Ocean River wasn't forbidding. It wasn't welcoming, either. Ptolemy treated the Ocean River as if it were simply there, like any other waterway, one more potentially navigable route to facilitate the trade of riches.
The Portuguese capitalized first, and often. Under the sponsorship of Prince Henry the Navigator, Portuguese fleets reached the Canaries in 1416, Madeira in 1420, the Azores a decade after that. By 1434 Portuguese ships had passed Cape Bojador, which marked the great western bulge of the continent; by 1473, the Equator itself; and then, in 1488, the southern tip of Africa, after which the seas opened onto the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean and the promise of clear sailing to the east—a promise that in 1498 Vasco da Gama fulfilled by reaching India. In so doing, he completed the search for an overseas route between West and East that had taken the better part of a century.
But the world extended in more than one direction. While the Portuguese sought a southern route along the Ocean River, somewhere past the seemingly endless shores of Africa, some navigators wondered if there might be a more direct approach to the spice islands of the East. The world, after all, was round. It didn't feel round, of course, and taking its roundness into account required an act of will. But the fact that the Earth was a globe was readily apparent, and had been since antiquity. Eighteen hundred years earlier Aristotle had noted in his On the Heavens that the true shape of the Earth was written in the shadow that crossed the Moon during every lunar eclipse; it was inscribed on the celestial sphere by the new constellations that presented themselves to travelers who ventured to the ends of the Earth, and then beyond. "For this reason," Aristotle wrote, "those who imagine that the region around the Pillars of Hercules"—the Strait of Gibraltar—"joins on to the regions of India, and that in this way the ocean is one, are not, it would seem, suggesting anything incredible."
So seas were navigable, and the world was round. What might this suggest to a sailor looking for an excuse to journey due west from, say, Spain? Again, a new translation of an ancient manuscript provided encouragement. Strabo, a geographer from the time of Christ whose work first appeared in Latin around the middle of the fifteenth century, took Aristotle's hypothesis to its logical conclusion: "The habitable world forms a complete circle, itself meeting itself, so that, if the immensity of the Atlantic Ocean did not prevent, we could sail from Iberia to India along one and the same parallel over the remainder of the circle."
To the north lay Europe; to the south, Africa; to the east, Asia. What lay west was Asia again, eventually. How far west was another matter entirely, and Christopher Columbus, for one, spectacularly miscalculated the distance. In preparing his arguments for a westward expedition, he underestimated, then underestimated further, the circumference of the globe; he overestimated, and overestimated further, the span of Asia; until, by his optimistic calculations, a ship sailing the parallel from Spain would reach landfall right around the point where he, in fact, did. For this reason Columbus assumed he'd reached one of the islands that Ptolemy had described as belonging to the farther reaches of Cathay.
While further calculation and subsequent voyages established that Columbus hadn't reached Cathay, what this land was remained open to debate. Even the first circumnavigation of the globe, completed by the survivors of Magellan's crew in 1522, confirmed only the enormous scale of the lands that Columbus had discovered, not their nature. Some argued the new lands were an extension of Asia—a considerable extension and an undeniable advance on previous geographical knowledge, but still, no challenge to the traditional conception of a tripartite globe. Others claimed for the mainland the status of a new landmass altogether, a fourth continent to rival Asia, Africa, or Europe in size, a half world unto itself. Yet whatever the New World might turn out to be, it was undeniably new, and that alone was sufficient to distinguish it. "New islands, new lands, new seas, new peoples," wrote the Portuguese Pedro Nunes in his Treatise of the Sphere, in 1537, "and what is more, a new sky and new stars."
The very idea of newness was a novelty. The word "novelty" itself was one of several forms of the Latin verb innovare—meaning "to make new again," as in the rediscovery of ancient manuscripts—that slipped into the language, in the late 1400s and throughout the 1500s, to meet the demand for descriptions of what was new: innovation, novella, novel. For a thousand years, since the fall of Rome and the burning of the library at Alexandria, the peoples of the Mediterranean had withdrawn from knowledge and from themselves. Now, invoking the right of succeeding generations to write history, scholars recast the preceding thousand years as the Middle Ages, in the process both distancing themselves from their immediate predecessors and implying a kinship between beginning (the Golden Age, Greece) and end (now, us).
For a scholar of the fifteenth century, no calling was nobler, no aspiration higher, than to travel to Constantinople, unearth an ancient manuscript (it hardly mattered which ancient manuscript), and translate it. In those days any number of such volumes—Aristotle, Plato, Eratosthenes, Ptolemy—were reaching the light of day in new translations, and everywhere the lesson seemed the same: The ancients had done it first and done it better. This made perfect sense; these were the greatest minds who ever lived, and since the store of knowledge was finite, they had simply mined it first. But this realization placed a distinct burden on the new generation, the responsibility to rediscover the past and to learn the lessons well.
This they did. A cottage industry even developed among craftsmen who celebrated the cult of newness and who found an appreciative audience equally eager to celebrate it. Nova reperta, these works of art were called: "new discoveries." Sometimes they depicted a wonder of the age, sometimes the wonders of the ages: from ancient times, the water mill, the astrolabe, olive oil, the cultivation of sugar, the production of silk; from medieval times, the windmill, the lodestone, gunpowder, stirrups, spectacles, the process of distillation; from modern times, printing, exploration, oil colors, even copper engraving, the process employed in the manufacture of many of these same nova reperta. The implication was clear, if not entirely intentional: The accomplishments of the present age could hold their own against anything the past had to offer.
And not just hold their own: Simply knowing that the world was round hadn't gotten the ancients anywhere. What had brought modern explorers to new lands was their ability to take a flat surface upon which three continents crowded inside a circle and imagine west bending back, wrapping around, and meeting east. In time the high regard in which the moderns held their own accomplishments came to carry a further implication: not just different, not just new, but in some way better.
"Our age today," wrote the sixteenth-century French professor of medicine and court physician Jean Fernel, summarizing the sentiments of his scholarly peers, "is doing things of which antiquity did not dream." In 1539 a Paduan philosopher proclaimed, "Do not believe that there exists anything more honorable to our or the preceding age than the invention of the printing press and the discovery of the new world; two things which I always thought could be compared, not only to Antiquity, but to immortality." Gómara, in his History of the Indies, was at once more exacting and more exalting in his estimation of what would endure: "The greatest event since the creation of the world (excluding the incarnation and death of Him who created it) is the discovery of the Indies." And the French political theorist Jean Bodin, in an evaluation of his times that came to serve as a rallying cry for his contemporaries, wrote, "The age which they call golden, if it be compared with ours, would seem but iron."
The ancients, it turned out, weren't always right. "With all due respect to the renowned Ptolemy," wrote one Portuguese sea captain, "we found everything the opposite of what he said." Ptolemy might have been correct in his overall conception of broader travel, but he was mistaken in many details—for instance, in holding with ancient tradition and placing a mysterious terra incognita at the southern tip of Africa that, had it been where he said it was, would have blocked that sea route to the East.
Personal observations, it further turned out, might prove even more valuable than the word of ancient authority. "What I have said," Fernández de Oviedo remarked about his writings on the New World, "cannot be learnt in Salamanca, Bologna or Paris." It was one thing for Socrates to muse, "I believe that the earth is very large and that we who dwell between the Pillars of Hercules and the river Phasis"—in the Caucasus—"live in a small part of it about the sea, like ants or frogs about a pond, and that many other people live in many other such regions." It was quite another—and arguably quite a better—method to find those people, to explore those regions. Ne plus ultra—"No farther"—read the inscription on the mythical Pillars of Hercules, marking the ancient terminus of navigation and of knowledge. Now, Plus ultra proclaimed an Age of Discovery: "Farther yet."
As remarkable as any or all of these physical achievements were, at least equally noteworthy was an intellectual achievement that had to accompany them—a newfound ability to appreciate the accomplishments themselves, to see them not only as different, or new, or even better but as part of a historical process: to put them in perspective.