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Man of the Year

Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration 1991–January, 12, 1992

an exhibition at the National Gallery, Washington, DC, October 12,

Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration

catalog of the exhibition, edited by Jay A. Levensen
Yale University Press/National Gallery of Art, 671 pp., $59.95

The Worlds of Christopher Columbus

by William D. Phillips Jr., by Carla Rahn Phillips
Cambridge University Press

Renaissance Characters

edited by Eugenio Garin, translated by Lydia G. Cochrane
University of Chicago Press, 294 pp., $32.50

In Search of Columbus: The Sources for the First Voyage

by David Henige
University of Arizona Press, 359 pp., $24.95

The ‘Libro de las profecias’ of Christopher Columbus

by Delno C. West, by August Kling
University of Florida Press, 274 pp., $49.95


by Felipe Fernández-Armesto
Oxford University Press, 218 pp., $22.95

Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians

by Jeffrey Burton Russell
Praeger, 117 pp., $12.95


by Jacques Attali
Fayard, 367 pp., 120Fr.

Out of Italy: 1450–1650

by Fernand Braudel, translated by Sián Reynolds
Flammarion/distributed by Abbeville Press, 245 pp., $50.00

Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World

by Stephen Greenblatt
University of Chicago Press, 202 pp., $24.95

Columbus: The Great Adventure: His Life, His Times, and His Voyages

by Paolo Emilio Taviani, translated by Luciano F. Farina, by Marc A. Beckwith
Orion Books, 273 pp., $20.00

My desk has long been groaning under piles of Columbus books, many more than can be dealt with here. One refrain in them is also a lament. William and Carla Phillips, in The Worlds of Christopher Columbus, after studying 250 United States history textbooks, argue that “the United States seems to have lost, rather than gained, knowledge of Columbus since 1892.” Jeffrey Burton Russell says, in Inventing the Flat Earth, that people cling to myths about Columbus rather than face “the conceptual shock of realizing that our closest held convictions are precarious.” David Henige says that some are unwilling to question the prefabricated hero because “a serene but unexamined belief in the actuality of the recorded past is necessary to an acceptable present.” There is a positive need not to know about Columbus—including a need not to know how little there is to know.

On this latter point, David Henige’s In Search of Columbus is a virtuoso performance, showing how hard if not impossible it is to extract the original of Columbus’s log from the later paraphrase, with partial transcriptions, made by Bartolomé de las Casas. Las Casas was using a lost (and therefore unassessable) copy made from Columbus’s original; he began working on it about forty years after Columbus wrote the log; he never finished the book for print (it was found, in a private library, 224 years after his death). His extracts may have been made for use in the History of the Indies which he worked on for over three decades. The many later additions, corrections, and deletions in the text seem to reflect use of that sort, as las Casas found new material or changed his mind about what he had copied or how he had paraphrased it; he apparently drew on other sources to “correct” Columbus; and his own preoccupations (especially with the mistreatment of Americans) affected what he chose to transcribe, or the way he paraphrased the four fifths of the log not offered as transcription. Henige says it is a misnomer to call the resulting work Columbus’s diary or log or record book. It is a work of las Casas, called by its author The Book of the First Navigation, not the Diaries or Log, as some “translations” put it. Trying to find the original text of Columbus in the work of las Casas can be as hard, at times, as reconstructing the historical Jesus from a single copy of a single gospel.

That comparison is not amiss if we remember that such exiguous materials have been used, in the past, as if Columbus “was raised in Nazareth rather than Genoa” (as Henige puts it). When Columbus claimed to see a light before his crewman spotted land on the first voyage, this was made a mystical revelation of “the new world.” More recently, las Casas has been read with fundamentalist literal-mindedness to make particular points—by Samuel Eliot Morison, for instance, to establish Columbus’s navigating skills, or by Robert Fuson to establish the site of Columbus’s original landfall. The very title of Fuson’s 1987 book, The Log of Christopher Columbus, begs several questions, and Henige destroys any claim it could make for scholarship.1

Now the critics of Columbus are using the record in a fundamentalist way to attack him. The spotting of the light before landfall is made a proof of his greed and arrogance (it deprived the crewman of his reward). But Henige shows that multiple problems in the las Casas account make such an interpretation no more certain than the favorable ones were. (This is a place where las Casas paraphrases, and he tells the story out of its chronological order.) Some critics of Columbus, like Kirkpatrick Sale, make the slipperiness of the evidence reflect something devious in the man—surely he had something to hide.2 This Genoese who never seems to use Italian was evasive about his background. But the comparative lack of information about Columbus—about his appearance, his family, his early days—is more a function of social structure than of personal character. Status and birth were the things celebrated even in this time of Renaissance “individualism.” The lowborn had nothing to commemorate.

In an age when one candidate for pope was rejected because he was “born of humble parents,” and when a powerful Borgia pope, Alexander VI, could not marry his son, César, into Neapolitan royalty because of his illegitimacy (though the Pope had rigged a claim that César was born in wedlock of another father), the odd thing would have been for anyone of low social standing to blazon his background or personality.

Take the case of that very César, usually called Cesare Borgia now, though his contemporaries knew him as Valentino. Famous as he has become because of Machiavelli’s symbolic use of him, he is as elusive as Columbus. With him, too, there is no surviving portrait, little self-revelation, contradictory reports by contemporaries (Machiavelli himself gives three different versions of the man), and reburials of his body that make his end as cloaked in mystery as his beginning. He was accused of being a secret Jew—a charge as common, then, as touchings with “the tarbrush” in the American Old South. César has his own “black legend,” made of materials much like those used to condemn Columbus—he was a ruthless conqueror, avid for titles, fame, money, and a realm of his own.

Those of low or questionable birth had to push hard at their few ways up into the world of Renaissance publicity—to a point where one’s portrait was painted and one’s family celebrated; where patronage of the Church ensured memorial chapels, or patronage of humanists led to celebratory poems and book dedications. This was the age of Castiglione, who reduced the courtier’s gifts to a science. Columbus was a courtier before he became a conqueror, as César was a clergyman before he became a condottiere. Felipe Fernández-Armesto studies Columbus’s courtier skills in his chapter subtitled “The Quest for Patronage,” and concludes that the myth of an amorous tie between Columbus and Isabella was fashioned by people who do not understand the courtly language Columbus used to and of his Queen—the same kind of language publicly addressed to Queen Elizabeth in England by dozens of poets.

Those who treat Columbus apart from his time have marveled at the nerve, arrogance, and greed that made him set such a high price on his services—a created title, a portion of the spoils, an estate in perpetuity for his heirs. Yet that is precisely the way people without status of their own bargained their way by contract into a world of solider patents. War, exploration, or finance—or all three—were the services one could offer for such high stakes. The terms Columbus extracted from his monarchs resemble the condotta (terms of service or “conduct”) wrested from cities by the mercenary soldiers who were called, after these contracts, condottieri. César set out to make himself Duke of Romagna much as Columbus would be Admiral of the Ocean Sea. We are used to thinking of Spanish conquistadores as the New World’s condottieri. We do not often enough rank their sea-borne brothers with those upwardly mobile mercenaries; but the discovery-minded King John II of Portugal had to recruit his explorers with ever higher portions of the booty they turned up. Queen Elizabeth would have a similar experience with her mercenary sea captains. John Hawkins was performing for his monarch the same kind of service the English condottiere John Hawkwood had provided his patrons in Italy during the fourteenth century.

These climbing entrepreneurs of glory tried to “marry up” and provide for their heirs—Columbus did not jeopardize his illegitimate son’s future by wedding the boy’s mother. He was hoping to marry well after he established all his claims. Many condottieri spent their last years quibbling with their employers over payment for their services. Others, of course, ended up in the lavish chapels they had provided for themselves.

Benefactions to the church were bids toward proving that newcomers were as solid members of society as the royalty or landed nobles. This should be kept in mind when we consider Columbus’s ambition to finance a new crusade with gold from his expeditions. There is no doubt that Columbus was sincerely religious; but when we read his Book of the Prophecies, in a new translation by the late August Kling, it is easy to make of him a mystic in some private sense, rather than a man who was responding to forces manifest in comparable acts of conquering piety.

It should be evident, by now, that what little we can know of Columbus will come not only from the slender body of writings by and about him in the Renaissance, but from a study of his whole social background. Some have treated the approach to “the world of Columbus” rather than “Columbus the man” as a capitulation to multicultural or anti-elitist pressures of the moment. On the contrary, putting Columbus back in his full historical context is a scholarly labor too long delayed.

One of the quickest ways to get a sense of the Europe Columbus inhabited is to read the brilliant set of essays edited by Eugenio Garin in Renaissance Characters. The singling out of particular types—cardinals, courtiers, condottieri, etc.—may suggest a reversion to Burkhardt’s celebration of Renaissance individualism; but in each essay we find a recognition of continuing social restraints on even the most enterprising types of the period. Renaissance artists, for instance, were still at the service of church and nobles; still subject to guild discipline; still working on contract, with clauses for nonpayment and other penalties. Michelangelo was released from his guild by the Pope—an act that was startling because so unusual. It did not hurt that Michelangelo, like Leonardo, was one of the few “artisans” (as they were called at the time) who came from a respectable family (though Leonardo was illegitimate). Absent that patent, even they could not have given some patrons such highhanded treatment. As Paul Barolsky argues, Vasari’s history of Renaissance “design” is animated by an urge to create new social standing for the artists. Like the condottieri and the explorers, they wanted up into the world of cardinals and courts they embellished. They, too, sought religious certification, not only through their guilds, but by public claims of piety. Even that famous rake Benvenuto Cellini had a prison vision far more startling than Columbus’s shipboard vision on his last voyage. God sent divine consolation to both men, and Columbus’s sanity or veracity has been questioned on this basis. But Cellini was not only comforted and inspired—he was given a halo that clung to him ever after. Like the good technician he was, he noted the relative visibility of this emanation in different atmospheres.3

The late André Chastel, who wrote the chapter in Garin’s book on artists, notes how masters of the larger workshops (botteghe) tried to imitate noble households by keeping musicians and jesters—something that lends support to Vasari’s tale that Leonardo made his Mona Lisa live up to her husband’s jocund name (Giocondo) by having his musical jesters play merry tunes and pranks (giuochi) to make her smile.4

  1. 1

    Henige is happier with the “diplomatic” English edition (facing an exact transcription of the original) published in 1989 by Oliver Dunn and James E. Kelley, Jr., though he thinks even that edition’s title begs serious questions: The “Diaries” of Christopher Columbus’s First Voyage to America, 1492–1493, abstracted by Bartolomé de las Casas (University of Oklahoma). He notes that the English on the right side does not reproduce the deletions, or translate all the marginalia, of the text transcribed on the left. The impression given by the clean right side is of a finished product, while the left side shows us a messy and ongoing process. Nonetheless, the Dunn–Kelley text, with its useful concordance (done with the help of a computer), is the best available edition of las Casas.

  2. 2

    For a review of Sale’s book, see The New York Review, November 22, 1990.

  3. 3

    For Cellini’s piety and belief in his vision, see John Pope-Hennessey, Cellini (Abbeville Press, 1985), p. 255.

  4. 4

    Musicians were so desirable in the successful bottega that Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, in 1515, supplied the “first painter,” Saint Luke, with a band of angel-musicians as well as with an apprentice (Saint Luke Painting the Virgin in London’s National Gallery).

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