A Behind-the-Scenes Glimpse into the Princeps Edition of Colóquios dos simples (Goa, 1563)

In: Early Science and Medicine
Teresa Nobre de Carvalho University of Lisbon

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Considered by many to be the most learned Portuguese physician who lived in Goa during the sixteenth century, Garcia de Orta (c. 1500–1568) was the author of Colóquios dos Simples, e Drogas he cousas mediçinais da India [Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs of India] (Goa, 1563). Devoted entirely to the description of Asian natural resources, very little is known about how this treatise came into existence. Published at the edges of the Portuguese empire, and a hostage to technical, structural and human constraints, the princeps edition had a limited circulation. The diffusion around Europe of the novelties described in Colóquios dos Simples owed in part to the efforts of Clusius (1526–1609), one of the leading botanists of the time. This scholar promptly published Aromatum et Simplicium (Antwerp, 1567), a Latin epitome of Colóquios dos Simples. This complete reframing of Orta’s treatise guaranteed the wide dissemination of the new knowledge about Asian plants, fruits and drugs validated by the Portuguese physician on the periphery of the empire.

In this essay I analyse the background to the publication of the Portuguese treatise and demonstrate that, especially due to structural constraints, the princeps edition had a limited circulation. I show that the wide diffusion of the novelties about the natural resources of the Indies was dependent on the technical equipment, artistic skills and editorial criteria dictated and managed by European academics, artists and printers. I propose that the appropriation of local knowledge collected and validated in the Iberian Empires by imperial agents challenged European academics and typographers to create innovative treatises about the Indies’ natural resources that assured the widespread circulation of an entirely new natural knowledge.

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