The Fragility Of Historical Knowledge: The Case Of Lorenzo Boturini In Mexico

In the modern era we like to think of knowledge as something indelibly fixed and permanent.  We take it for granted that it will always be here, like the Great Pyramid, and are apt to overlook the bitter struggles that our ancestors may have endured to acquire such knowledge.  Information has not always been as easy to obtain as it is now.  As we read about the adventures of scholars of the past, we get the distinct impression that the learned men who came before us had a hardiness and tenacity that is lacking in the modern era.  I will let the reader judge for himself.

Lorenzo Boturini Benaducci was born of aristocratic lineage in Como, Italy, in 1702.  He could supposedly trace his noble ancestry back over 900 years.  After receiving an education in Milan and later in Vienna, he moved to Madrid to escape the political instability that plagued Austria at the time.  In Madrid his natural charm and good graces endeared him to a female descendant of the last Aztec emperor, Moctezuma.  This lady, whose name was Doña Manuela de Oca Silva y Moctezuma, asked Boturini to go to Mexico and assist in efforts to educate the native population.  To fund this educational project, she would use the pension she received from the Spanish crown as a direct descendant of the Aztec royal family.  She must have recognized the spark of genius in the idealistic young Italian.  Behind many successful adventurers is often a shrewd woman.

So off went Boturnini to New Spain (Mexico) in 1736.  He must have been a man of considerable religious sentiment also, for he allowed himself to become sidetracked by a desire to research the spiritual phenomenon of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  Yet this apparent derailment had a hidden blessing:  while he traveled all over the Mexican countryside, he would have frequent contact with native Nahuatl chiefs and notables.  Everywhere around him, Boturini saw evidence of Mexico’s fascinating and strange pre-Columbian art, writing, and inscriptions.  In those days Mexican antiquarianism was vastly underappreciated; so the headstrong Italian took it upon himself to collect every scrap of Aztec art and writing he could obtain by purchase or otherwise.

Unfortunately, learned men are not always wise in the ways of worldly power.  Boturini’s efforts soon attracted the attention–or envy–of the local authorities, who did not appreciate an Italian nobleman sent by a descendant of Moctezuma to poke around in Spanish colonial territory.  The so-called “Council of the Indies” had administrative authority over New Spain at the time, and word of Boturini’s researches soon reached them.  Word also reached the viceroy of New Spain, the Count of Fuenclara.  With these political realities in the air, it was only a matter of time before some suitable pretext was found to take Boturini into custody and confiscate his extensive collection of Aztec artifacts and writings.  In February, 1743, he was arrested and tossed in jail on the pretext of failing to obtain the necessary permits from the Council of the Indies to conduct his researches in Mexico.

As often happened in those days, he languished in jail for months.  In August 1743, viceroy Fuenclara ordered Boturini to assist Spanish authorities in conducting an inventory of his Aztec antiquities.  But the Italian, proud to the point of suicide, refused the order, demanding that he be permitted a suit of clothing (and a sword!) worthy of his rank and station.  This of course turned out to be the wrong thing to do; he was immediately lodged in even worse accommodations–essentially thrown into a dungeon with common criminals.  Boturini wrote a stream of letters to any official who would listen, complaining that he was:

[S]tripped of his archives and his Historical Museum of the Indies, without there existing any indebtedness or criminal act to justify such seizure and…regarding the inventory, it is futile for His Excellency the Viceroy to bother requesting it, because he, Lorenzo Boturini, knows far better than anyone its value for the Catholic monarchy, and for a long time has intended to dedicate it to his majesty, may God protect him…

Boturini eventually relented and accepted the demand of the authorities to help with the inventory.  He was then ordered to board the ship La Concordia, bound for Spain, and summarily expelled from Mexico.  It was a bitter pill for the proud scholar to swallow, having spent a huge amount of money and labor in collecting his historical treasures.  But Fate was not yet through with Boturini.  On the way back to Spain, his ship was seized by English pirates, who promptly stole what little Boturini still had left to his name.  They even took his clothes; he was forced to don the garb of the common sailor.  His only possession was a manuscript draft of a history of New Spain he planned to write.

But Boturini was more in his element back in the halls of power in Europe.  He was able to vindicate himself and his activities.  He petitioned the board of the Council of the Indies in Spain, and it graciously ordered that he be compensated for all damages incurred in his ordeal.  The Council even gave him permission to found an academy in Mexico to conduct research on the country and its history.  His collections were ordered to be restored to him on his return to Mexico.  King Philip V even awarded him an annual stipend of 1000 pesetas.

Yet for some reason, Boturini never returned to New Spain.  It is not clear why.  Perhaps his experience had been so traumatic that he did not wish to risk a repetition of it.  His collection of Aztec artifacts, art, and writings lay neglected in the hands of uncomprehending government bureaucrats, who did little or nothing to maintain it.  Bit by bit, the collection began to waste away.  According to one writer, one precious illuminated Mexican manuscript suffered a loss of 242 pages out of an original total of 330.  Other original documents–maps, drawings, and pictographic books–were similarly neglected.  With every inventory that was taken (1743, 1745, 1804, and 1823), the size of the collection diminished.  The materials simply were not appreciated or properly understood.  So Mexican history suffered a grievous injury to its written record.  Some of the collection was scattered back to Europe; some of it was ruined through neglect; and some was undoubtedly stolen for the amusement of its custodians.  We do not know.

What we do know is that knowledge is highly perishable, and that it takes scholars of courage, diligence, and wiliness to preserve it.  At every step of the way, their efforts may be impeded by venomous bureaucrats, ignorant peers, ideological revisionists, jealous colleagues, an uninterested public, or any number of other tricks of Fortune.  Humanistic knowledge is fragile and must be fought for again and again.  Once won, knowledge does not remain won; every generation must do its part to prevent the historical record and artistic treasures from slipping into oblivion.  We must give the utmost respect to those who labor–often in unrecognized and unappreciated silence–to preserve the legacy of mankind from the twin ravages of Ignorance and Neglect.


Learn more about achievement and struggle in my book Pantheon: