Book and manuscript shows usually frustrate everyone. Book lovers want the displayed volumes out from behind the glass and in their hands, where they can turn the pages and smell the dust. Art lovers find texts, especially those in dead languages, a yawn. For other, more casual viewers–those who may glance at book display cases while walking in the quiet, ill-lit corridors of libraries–such shows literally hold only passing interest. But with “America in 1492,” the Newberry Library does the impossible: breaking with this unhappy tradition, it has launched what deserves to be a blockbuster rare-books show.

Subtitled “American Civilization on the Eve of the Columbus Voyages,” the exhibition surveys some of the 2,000 individual societies that inhabited the New World in 1492. It combines native artifacts with a few native and many Western books and manuscripts to make up perhaps the most beautiful rare-books exhibit ever mounted in Chicago. The curators have staged the works as a kind of archival diorama, placing books and fragments among wall-sized reproductions of manuscript pages. Scholars have long dissected Western narratives to examine the philosophic and cultural prejudices of early diarists and chroniclers. “America in 1492” provides a fascinating visual perspective on the early artists who witnessed and recorded native culture. Depictions range from 16th-century European prints to studies by 19th-century American artists who mimicked native styles. Since this show also offers genuine Native American manuscripts and artifacts, one can measure just how clear or clouded the artists’ views were.

The show’s explanatory text avoids the current temptation to blame ourselves for the inequities and terrors of the past. If one leaves grieved or guilty, it’s because the story tells itself–no finger pointing necessary. One obvious conclusion is that societies in the Western Hemisphere were far from “new” in 1492. Indian records, many contemporaneous with the Spanish arrival, show that Native Americans revered long-dead cultures in a way that strongly influenced their art and society. The Columbian anniversary has brought a rash of scholarship showing that Columbus’s belief in Christian myths and mythical lands played a large part in his mission. The Newberry material shows that the cultures the Spaniards encountered were as much bound to their past as the conquistadors were to the age of Jesus.

An Aztec manuscript fragment, Mapa de Siguenza, depicts in delicate watercolors the 12th-century Aztec migration through Mexico’s central valley. It does for Aztec myths what a Greek vase does for Homer, offering identifiable figures on an intimate scale–it has none of the fearsome qualities of Aztec (or Greek) temple sculpture.

The most extraordinary and visually complex piece in the exhibition is a reproduction of the Codex Mendoza. An enormous scroll containing many drawings, it shows Aztec life in every detail–this may be as close to Aztec home movies as we’re likely to get. Men, women, and children are drawn as they appeared to the artists. A journey from youth to manhood traces a boy’s life from stage to stage with dotted lines. The drawings show a well-developed, cartoonlike visual vocabulary quite different from that of the Aztec monuments: the Codex is an exceedingly rare example of this vibrant style. Most native societies left no written records. Those who did, like the Central Americans, lost them to European bonfires. Native artistry was then put to work for the Christian church. Ironically, the Newberry’s Codex Mendoza is a reproduction commissioned in the mid 19th century by an English nobleman, who regarded the original as “scientific proof” that the Americas were home to the lost tribes of Israel.

Though Europeans rightly get the rap for destroying native cultures, this exhibit offers some glorious examples of individual efforts to preserve the images of those cultures. George Catlin, an American artist who traveled the North American plains in the 1830s, sketched and painted hundreds of portraits and ceremonial scenes. Though originally offered for sale as curiosities in London’s Piccadilly Circus, Catlin’s meticulously rendered work portrays Native Americans unromantically, in traditional garb. The exactness of his eye offers an unintentionally sadder, deeper vision of the American genocide than a more threatening or sentimental representation would. This was something real, now gone.

With the visually rich and erudite “America in 1492” the Newberry has raised the standard of book exhibitions to that of the best museum shows, and without ever sacrificing scholarship for showmanship. The show will still probably fail to satisfy hard-core bibliophiles who want to hold the books. They need not fear. When the exhibition comes down, the material may be enjoyed close-up in the Newberry’s rare-book room, where all are welcome to examine them.

Gallery hours are 8:15 to 5:30 Monday, Friday, and Saturday, and 8:15 to 7:30 Tuesday through Thursday. Admission is free. The Newberry, 60 W. Walton, is sponsoring a lecture by Alfonso Ortiz on the meaning of the quinquecentennial tomorrow at 10 AM; the exhibit will be open through April 18. Call 943-9090, extension 267, for info.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Futran.