Conquistador letter found
One of the oldest missives to the New World, sent by Charles V to Hernán Cortés, had been missing for more than a century
By Carlo Avvisati and Ermanno Rivetti. News, Issue 246, May 2013
Published online: 21 May 2013
One of the oldest letters sent to the New World, dated 15 October 1522, has been found in the State Archive in Naples after disappearing for more than a century. The document carries the “Yo el Rey” signature belonging to Charles V, the head of the Holy Roman Empire and the Spanish Empire, who also presided over the Spanish colonies in Central and South America. The letter recognises the famous conquistador Hernán Cortés as the gobernador (governor) of Mexico. Cortés conquered the country and its inhabitants, the Aztecs, along with their last emperor, Montezuma.
The letter—the latest in a series of discoveries made in the archive—was found by Imma Ascione, the archive’s director, buried among the 500 folders that contain half of the Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano archive. The Cortés archive, another recent discovery, had been hidden in a larger archive belonging to the Pignatelli Aragona Cortés family—the Italian descendants of the conquistador.
The letter was known to exist more than a century ago; the historian Francisco Fernández del Castillo found it in the Cortés archive when that collection was kept (albeit disordered) in Mexico City at the start of the 20th century. At the time, the Mexican president, Ortiz Rubio, placed restrictions on its export and transferred it to the Archivo de la Nación after finding out that one of Cortés’s Italian descendants, Antonio Pignatelli, was trying to sell some of the best documents to a US dealer in antique books. The courts, however, recognised the claims of the Pignatelli Aragona Cortés family, and so the archive was split in half. One half, containing the treasure trove of documents that had belonged to the conquistador, was taken to Italy and ended up in the family’s extensive archive, which was donated to the Italian state in the first half of the 20th century.
Researchers also discovered other letters, documents, drawings and deeds in the Cortés archive, including the conquistador’s correspondence with nobles and royals across the world. Highlights include instructions for Francisco de Garay, the Basque conquistador who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second journey to the New World; a letter to Diego Velázquez, the governor of the island of Fernandina (now Haiti), instructing him not to oppose Cortés’s military expedition; deeds for land and properties throughout Mexico; and a sketch of the oldest hospital in Central and South America, the Hospital de la Purísima Concepción (Hospital of the purest conception) in Mexico City, now known as the Hospital de Jésus.
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