Portrait of a Player in the Seventeenth-Century Spanish Atlantic Trade

RECENT ACQUISITION: En la Gran Ciudad de México de la Nueva España a ocho días del mes de Mayo año del nacimiento de nuestro salvador Iesu Christo de mil seiscientos y nueve años para ante don Garci López de Espinar (México). 1609.

In 2012, the John Carter Brown Library acquired a previously unknown Mexican imprint from 1609 that is absolutely fascinating in many, many ways. In its content, it is a patent of nobility for Luis Núñez Pérez de Meñaca, assayer and chief founder of the royal mint in New Spain. Núñez purchased this office for a little over 51,000 pesos, a princely sum. (The post of treasurer of the royal mint was sold in 1624 for 250,000 pesos, the largest sum paid for any office in the Americas.) The text is by and large rather formulaic, a limpieza de sangre, or genealogy, attesting to the facts that Núñez and his brothers descended from Old Christians and were “Hijos de algo” or Hidalgos—of noble birth and thus exempt from certain levies owed to the crown by commoners. Nevertheless, it is one part of a much larger story, and as an artifact, this piece holds numerous research possibilities.

The original of this text was done on vellum, and the JCB owns exemplars of such documents, often illuminated and quite beautiful. But this printed version, more austere, is nonetheless remarkable. The first thing one encounters is its Mexican plateresque binding. While the JCB holds a number of works that retain their original Mexican bindings, from the typical limp vellum to the sturdy, decorated, leather-over-boards encasing Molina’s 1555 dictionary, this one is unique and worthy of study in its own right.

Opening the front cover reveals a copperplate engraving of a coat of arms, with the legend “In Silentio. Et Spe.” (“In Silence and Hope [will be your strength]” Isaiah 30:15). This is among the earliest surviving copperplate engravings done in America. Samuel Stradanus of Antwerp engraved two plates as early as 1604, but they did not appear in print until 1623. In 1609, the same year as this imprint, he produced an engraved title page for Antonio de Morga’s Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas, which is today quite rare (the JCB copy of this work has a typographic title page). A 1611 University thesis has the next engraving, like the coat of arms here, unsigned, but sharing many of the same characteristics. Did Stradanus do this coat of arms? Only further research can tell.

No printer is named in the piece, though there are only three possibilities: Enrico Martinez, Diego López Dávalos, or Jerónimo Balli. The first page contains a letter “E” that I have never seen before, and I sent a photo of the page to a fine press printer and scholar of the early press in Mexico, Juan Pascoe, who literally wrote the book on Enrico Martinez. He got back to me immediately with an image of the “E” from a work by Martinez, and went further to say that the text was set in Martinez’s third roman typeface.

What I found particularly intriguing, once I got past the binding and engraving, were the rubrics and other marks found on each page, and the manuscript attestations to the document’s accuracy and the notary’s identity found on the last leaf. I have seen such things many times with manuscripts in the various Mexican archives where I’ve researched, but never with a printed work. These markings and attestations were accomplished when a document was intended to travel—in space or in time. In other words, Núñez had this document printed, bound and certified so he could send it to Spain or elsewhere, or leave it for his descendants to use a hundred or more years later. Only a handful of copies could have been printed, as it would have been of no utility to anyone but Núñez and his descendants; this may in fact be the only copy printed and is apparently the only copy to have survived.

In the end, however, who was Núñez Pérez de Meñaca, beyond being assayer, founder at the mint, and hidalgo? There is a long legajo in the Archive of the Indies in Seville that reveals that he was also the treasurer for the Bulls of the Holy Crusade, which essentially made him the most important banker in New Spain at the time. His brother, Diego, was a vientequatro (town councilman) of Seville, and also a banker there, and both had family and commercial ties to Antwerp. In other words, Núnez and his brother were major financial players at the height of the trans-Atlantic trade. There is no good monograph on the Royal Mint or on the Crusade Bulls, although the documentation exists to write one, and with this purchase, the JCB has acquired a crucial piece of the puzzle.

~~~~Kenneth C. Ward, Maury A. Bromsen Curator of Latin American Books