Materiality and Marginalia across the World: The Role of Things in Christopher Columbus’s Annotations on Marco Polo

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The recension of Marco Polo’s Devisament dou monde—an incunable of Francesco Pipino’s Latin translation titled De consuetudinibus et conditionibus orientalium regionum—used by Christopher Columbus is one of five annotated books known to have survived from the explorer’s library. The exemplar contains in its margins copious notes and drawings attributable to Columbus himself and other members of his immediate circle. These marginalia reveal that Columbus was a highly distinctive reader of content transmitted in the Poline textual tradition. He rarely dwelt on topographic, ethnographic or historical information. Rather, he was almost exclusively concerned with material things. His notes consist of brief references either to single objects or to lists of multiple objects associated with specific places. Cross-referencing allowed him to highlight similarities and differences between the regions of the known world, as well as to organise these regions hierarchically depending on the potential value of their manufactured and natural resources to himself and his fellow Europeans. He placed particular emphasis on mineral deposits and other substances such as gold, pearls and spices that he apparently considered to have an especially elevated intrinsic value. This article examines the revision, dissemination and especially interpretation of Polo’s late thirteenth-century work at a particular historical moment in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. In so doing, it draws attention to Columbus’s contribution to a shift in the relationship between materiality and cosmography that would prove to be of key importance to modern colonialism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)376-424
Number of pages49
JournalMedieval History Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - Nov 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History


  • Americas
  • annotations
  • Caribbean
  • Christopher Columbus
  • colonialism
  • exploitation
  • fifteenth century
  • indigeneity
  • Marco Polo
  • marginalia
  • materiality
  • sixteenth century
  • thirteenth century


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