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Geoffrey Symcox, Repertorium Columbianum

  • By Meg Sullivan, Reed Hutchinson
  • Published Oct 10, 2004 8:00 AM

In the late 1980s, UCLA historian Geoffrey Symcox chose the Italian city of Turin as a focus for his research. Known today chiefly as the headquarters of Fiat, the city, Symcox believed, deserved recognition as a masterpiece of civic planning.

Then he did a good turn, or — depending on whom you talk to — took a wrong one. He back-burnered his history of Turin to take the helm of a massive UCLA-based project centered on the life and times of Christopher Columbus.

“I’m sure he’s lost a book or so on Turin over this,” said Symcox’s wife, Linda. “He’s the kind of person who never complains, but it was a tremendous sacrifice.”

Scholars of the period such as UCLA history chair Teofilo Ruiz see Symcox’s decision as the best thing to happen to the Spanish Renaissance since Ferdinand and Isabella bankrolled an Italian navigator with wild ideas about reaching China by sailing west from Europe.

“Anybody who wants to do work on the encounter between the Old and New World has to come to this (collection),” said Ruiz. “It’s exquisitely done, and only Geoffrey could have done it.”

In time for Symcox's retirement, the 13th and final volume of the Repertorium Columbianum — a biography of Columbus purportedly written by his son — has rolled off the presses. The Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, a project sponsor from the beginning, marked the occasion Oct. 15 with a daylong conference on the latest in Columbus scholarship.

At 5,343 pages, the Repertorium puts in one place what Symcox describes as “the most significant contemporary sources bearing on Columbus,” including Columbus family legal records, the explorer’s initial contracts with the Spanish Crown and accounts of all four of his voyages by Columbus contemporaries, especially Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Dominican friar critical of Columbus’ treatment of indigenous people.

As conceived by late Italian Renaissance scholar Fredi Chiappelli, who died as his project got under way, the Repertorium was to be a successor to the Raccolta Colombiana, the last major compendium of Columbus primary material, published in Italian in 1892.

But the cosmopolitan Symcox — an Englishman who has taught both French and Italian history and was one of the first professors to teach world history at UCLA — cast a wider net, including not just Italian, Spanish and Latin primary materials but also documents in French, English and even Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec peoples conquered by Spanish forces. The documents appear both in their original languages and in English translations, with analyses by leading scholars in the field.

“Originally, it was bent toward an Italian project,” Ruiz said. “Geoffrey made it Mediterranean and worldwide.”

Now Symcox, who earned his Ph.D. in history at UCLA in 1967 and has taught here for 37 years, plans on turning his attention back to his beloved Turin.

“It’s a very beautiful city, nobody knows about it, and it’s got beautiful baroque architecture,” he said. “But don’t tell anybody.”

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