Sunday, February 21, 2016

Manacor's Renaissance Man

The Manacor History Museum is one of the best museums outside Palma and it has recently launched an exhibition dedicated to one of the town's illustrious sons but someone who will be largely unknown. Perhaps this isn't surprising, as his most famous work failed to be published.

Joan Binimelis lived from 1539 to 1616. The exhibition refers to him as a "manacorí" (person from Manacor) of the Renaissance. Yet this Renaissance man had to contend with influences that were contrary to new ways, such as the Inquisition. He was, among other things, a doctor, a man of the cloth, a geographer, map maker, astronomer, mathematician and humanist. Such a range of interests and professions should arguably - and long ago - have placed him in the limited pantheon of all-time Mallorcan greats, such as another polymath, Ramon Llull, with whom he shares linguistic achievement that was of a somewhat groundbreaking nature. Llull is widely attributed with having popularised Catalan through his novel, "Blanquerna". Binimelis put together a work that was not in Catalan but in Mallorquín, a language (or dialect if one prefers), of which it is usually said that there was not a written tradition: it was a spoken language and only spoken.

Binimelis, however, destroys that perception. Moreover, what he wrote in Mallorquín was a work of absolute importance. He was the author of the first ever history of Mallorca, its title, "Història General del Regne de Mallorca", the general history of the kingdom of Mallorca.

He commended this work to the justices who governed Mallorca (indeed it was intended to have been his legacy to them), noting that there were two versions: one in Castellano and the other in "nostre llengua mallorquina", our Mallorcan language. The Mallorcan version was in fact finished first, in 1595. However, he was to die in 1616 a bitter man who had been largely discredited and who had not seen any interest in the work actually being published.

These justices were men who formed what was essentially like a town hall today, except that they presided over the whole island. They were important people, but though Binimelis was hopeful of their patronage, something went wrong. And there are different theories as to what. One has to do with the fact that, although the book was a history of Mallorca from the time of Jaume I's invasion of 1229, it referred to things that were distinctly non-Mallorcan, such as the story of Noah and the Ark. This, it has been suggested, led to a conclusion that the Renaissance man wasn't quite as modern as he might have appeared. However, it is also said that allusions to mythology or the Bible weren't entirely uncommon for the time, even if Noah had somehow managed to appear in Mallorca's past.

A more simple explanation is that the justices who were the civil authorities on the island didn't have the money to commit to publication. This may indeed have been the reason, were it not for a third possibility: the Inquisition. It would appear that Binimelis was accused of having been more than merely friendly with a nun. He denied this but eventually confessed: the Inquisition did have a habit (so to speak) of getting their man. The stigma of such an apparent dalliance, it has been argued, was enough to make the justices go cool on any formal agreement with Binimelis.

Whatever the reason, the work lay little known and unpublished until it was to appear in Castellano in 1927. Even then, however, it wasn't known who the original author had been. It was to take a further fifty years, through a study of documents pertaining to the Inquisition, to confirm that it had been Binimelis. Some ten years after this confirmation, he finally received recognition and was named an illustrious son of Manacor.

Despite the occasional odd references to Noah, the Binimelis work was of major importance. It was a history but also encyclopedic in that it chronicled things such as food, produce, animals, fish, even the winds of Mallorca. But on the history itself, here was stuff, for example, about the creation of the new settlements that were established in Mallorca after the Catalan conquest. And there was also a charting of Moorish invasions - the famed ones of Pollensa in 1550 and Soller in 1561 - but others too: Alcudia in 1551 and 1558; Andratx in 1553 and 1578.

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