Everything old is new again
By Claire Heath
When I walked into the library of the Recoleta Monastery, I stopped breathing. Before me was shelf after shelf of centuries-old books, sitting in the open air, some within hand’s reach.
The space, now part of a museum in Arequipa in southern Peru, smelled delightfully of rag paper, leather, wood, and wax. I’d walked through an open door into a heaven.
Among the books, filling a reading table several metres long and about a metre deep was an infographic made some time from the 16th to 18th centuries. It depicts the history of the western world starting with the Book of Genesis.
The infographic starts with the Book of Genesis
Although rather more detailed than is the current fashion for infographics, it nevertheless gives a summary of the most important points – from a colonial Spanish Catholic point of view.
It’s a wonderful piece. It has similarities to today’s infographics: it’s designed with flair and made using the technology of the day, during the golden age of hand printing. The colours are still vivid, and the writing clear, even when the text is tiny. Despite the detail, the story is easy to follow.
Unlike a contemporary infographic, though, it is impossible to scan the information in an instant. I imagine it was as instant as knowledge came in an age when it took months for printed materials to find their way from Europe to libraries in Latin America.
The library was set up in 1661, 13 years after the monastery was built. It contains more than 20,000 books, most of them published from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Less than half are religious books. The books on science include astrology. The rest cover Greek and Latin classics, philosophy, history, the arts and literature, and economics, and reflect the education students at the monastery received.
If you ever get the chance to visit, do. Make sure you arrive outside siesta time, when it’s closed.
A snippet from the history of imperial Rome