The 2020 LAIC Inaugural Lecture, “Sacred Geography in the ‘Library,’” was led via Zoom by Seth Kimmel. In the lecture, Seth introduced the audience to the argument of his next book, which explores the correspondences between the library’s philosophical and physical structures and the actual representation of the world on maps and globes in the 16th century. There are two elements that I believe were central in the lecture. On the one hand, Seth highlighted from the outset the exchanges between the terms, biblia and biblioteca. Although different in their actual physical aspects, the biblia and the biblioteca have shared etymologies and related metaphorical meanings, which concern the organization and preservation of knowledge. A key character in Seth’s investigations, Benito Arias Montano, worked on multiple projects that encompassed both the Bible, with the writing of the Biblia Regia, and the library, with his participation in building the Escorial Library’s collection. On the other hand, the concept of the commonplace was a central element of Seth’s presentation. The commonplace is a transversal term to connect Arias Montano’s various projects, and, thus, to trace relations among different forms of creating knowledge: sacred books, library collections, and scientific productions. Montano’s articulation of the notion of the “logic of place” in several of his writings reveals that the commonplace functions both as a rhetorical and mnemotechnical tool, as well as a sign of a geographical place.
In the conversation that followed the lecture, Orlando Bentancor, Alessandra Russo, and I raised a series of questions and avenues for thinking. From the beginning, Alessandra emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of Seth’s investigation. Of particular interest was how at some point the conversation about different elements, such as sacred books, libraries, paintings, and maps, indicate a research agenda that dialogues with different areas of study, and offers the possibility of reconfiguring these areas’ limits and self-conceptions. In this sense, Seth’s ongoing research on Arias Montano became for us an exploration in interdisciplinary methods in addition to a history of early modern scholarship.
Seth’s project deals with spaces of knowledge, that is, theoretical and physical constructions that select and preserve knowledge, and which are located in an imperial context. Orlando thus raised the question about the ambition that lurks beneath such knowledge production at a supposedly global scale. The understanding of both the sacred books and the libraries as sanctuaries of scholarship led us into a discussion about whether this quest for knowledge could be understood as claiming a “total knowledge,” and how can this be thought in relationship to historical geopolitical interests.
I was particularly interested in the visual components that Seth examined. In relation to this, the discussion went towards the painted portraits in the Escorial library. Given the fact that Arias Montano’s mnemotechnical tool was to recall commonplaces by associating them with people, we began to discuss whether these portraits could be thought to evoke a specific type of memory, and, in turn, how the materialization of memory could be imagined through the oil paintings themselves and their location in the space of the library.
In this way, the diverse range of physical, philosophical and metaphorical structures that were discussed, and the different approaches introduced in the conversation, led to an interesting dialogue about the shaping of knowledge during the 16th and 21st centuries
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