The One that Almost Got Away

RECENT ACQUISITION: Agustín Vetancurt’s Arte de lengua Mexicana. (Mexico: Francisco Rodríguez Lupércio, 1673)

In October of 2008, Sotheby’s held the 12th auction of books from Shirburn Castle, home to the Earls of Macclesfield. In that auction, as lot 4809, was a copy of Agustín Vetancurt’s Arte de lengua Mexicana. (Mexico: Francisco Rodríguez Lupércio, 1673). The John Carter Brown Library has long owned a copy of this work—perhaps since 1846—since one copy is bound in Henri Ternaux-Compans’ binding, most of whose collection was purchased in that year. We acquired another copy from Nicolás León some years later, and then a third with the bequest of Maury A. Bromsen in 2007. Why would the JCB want to acquire yet another copy?

The Sotheby’s catalog description included two photos of the book, the title page and leaves 5v-6r, and references to three bibliographies, Palau 361209; Sabin 99385; and Medina, Mexico 1103. I’m not sure why I went to Sabin over Medina as I usually do for Mexican imprints, but I’m glad I did. There I found two entries for Vetancurt’s Arte, numbers 99384 and 99385, with the only apparent difference between them being how the title page was set. Our copy of Sabin indicated we owned 99385, supposedly the edition Sotheby’s had on auction. I don’t know why I didn’t stop right there, but I went ahead and checked the photo of the title page in the catalog against Sabin’s descriptions, and sure enough, it was the title page with the other setting, 99384, not 99385 as the auction catalog stated.

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The differences are very slight, the substitution of “v”s for “u”s, the ornaments used for the border, the expansion of “S. Antonio de Padva” to “San Antonio de Padua,” for example. In the best of worlds, that would be enough for the JCB to wish to acquire it, but it gets better. Since the catalog included a photo of leaves 5v-6r, I pulled one of our copies off the shelf to make a comparison, and that’s when things got interesting. As it turns out, the Nahuatl text—the entire edition, in fact—was completely re-set, with significant changes to the orthography, particularly the diacriticals.

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For a variety of reasons, we did not bid on that lot, but I made note of the information for future reference. I also kept it to myself, since I did not want to drive up the price. Then last fall, at the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair, I visited a dealer who happened to have a very interesting copy of Vetancurt’s Arte. The title page had been damaged, and was missing about the bottom third. It had been repaired, however, with a fragment of the title page from the other edition. At that point, I decided it was time to start looking again and put this lingering acquisition to rest

I quickly located two copies on the market, one of them, of all things, the very copy we did not acquire in 2008. We agreed to bring it in, and I began contacting Nahuatl specialists to see what more they could tell me about the two different editions, only to find out that nobody knew that two editions existed.

For Nahuatlists, this acquisition represents a rare opportunity to consult the two editions side-by-side. As far as I can determine, no other library holds both. A number of researchers whom I contacted early on have expressed interest in getting a look at them, and I look forward to seeing their conclusions.

From a bibliographical perspective, the book is interesting as well. At first, I thought that perhaps one edition was a piracy of the other, produced by a competing press. After some investigation, however, I feel comfortable in saying that both were produced by Rodríguez Lupércio. For example, the two editions use different ornaments, or “tailpieces,” and I found both in use by Rodríguez Lupércio in other books. In addition, the edition we hold in three copies has an errata sheet, while the recently-acquired edition does not, and the noted errors have been corrected, suggesting that it is the later of the two.

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It remains a puzzle, however, why two editions were produced in the same year, and why they are so profoundly different. Compositors, the workers who set the type, would typically have worked from a copy of the first edition to set the second, resulting, in some instances, in nearly identical printed copies. In this case, however, something provoked significant changes between the two, and it is not clear what that something might have been.

—Kenneth C. Ward, Maury A. Bromsen Curator of Latin American Books, John Carter Brown Library