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How Columbus discovered the American continent before he even found it

Portrait of Columbus, probably painted by Ghirlandaio
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Portrait of Columbus, probably painted by Ghirlandaio


Tonight's lesson will focus on the discovery of America. Or, better yet, it will revolve a bit around the discovery of America since I will try to delve deeper into some themes, chosen by the person speaking to you with absolutely questionable criteria, relating to the before and after of this event. An event that - to put it mildly - separates the medieval era from the modern one like the blow of an axe.

The end of the Middle Ages was not only marked by Columbus's feat but also by a large series of European exploration voyages to other continents. At the basis of these journeys was the need to more easily draw on the goods of the Eastern world. The encounter with the unknown world of the Americas arose from the need for more frequent and secure contacts with the peoples of Asia, as well as from the spread of travel beyond the established limits.


Starting from the 1st century BC, the era in which the Romans discovered silk from the East, we find the first commercial exchanges between East and West recorded.

The Romans never had a direct relationship with the Chinese. In fact their only contact was represented by the powerful Parthian empire based in Mesopotamia which ensured but also controlled the caravan trade with Central Asia. This does not mean that the Romans had not tried to come into contact with the mysterious country of Serica (as silk was called) or vice versa that the Chinese emperors had not tried to send embassies to the kingdom of Great Qin (as they called the Roman empire ) but the Parthians, to maintain control over the Chinese silk trade, discouraged or created such obstacles that direct relations could not be established. The only reported case is given by an embassy of Marcus Aurelius which, it is said, managed to reach the Chinese court in 166 AD and the Chinese chronicles still preserve the name of the philosopher emperor, An-tun[from the name of the dynasty of Antonini, to which Marcus Aurelius belonged].

These trades always had a characteristic aspect: they were reserved for rare or valuable goods (silk, ceramics, spices such as pepper, camphor, cinnamon, sugar, etc.) partly for their manufacture but above all for their transport: the dangers of the journey, merchant's earnings, taxes and duties for transit cities or ports.

The itineraries of the "Silk Road"

Initially the "Silk Road" - [Dre 92] a term coined in recent times by a German geographer of the last century [Ferdinand von Richtofen] indicated the routes that connected China to the West - proceeded through the great caravan routes which start from Syria, proceed to Mesopotamia, Persia up to Afghanistan (then called the land of Bactria), skirt the Himalayas to the south and lead to India. Alternatively the journey started from Constantinople continuing through Anatolia, the Caucasus, passing north over the Caspian Sea, followed by crossing the Gobi desert to finally reach Cathay.

However, the Silk Road also included sea routes. Arab navigators soon learn how to take advantage of the seasonal winds (the Monsoons) and their itinerary starts from the ports of the Persian Gulf or the Red Sea, flows into the Indian Ocean, touches some ports on the southern Indian coast or various islands such as the Maldives or Ceylon, goes down the Strait of Malacca (Indonesia, Java island, etc.) and then goes up to Canton, the largest Chinese port. For the return journey we had to wait for adverse monsoons and the journey took a total of almost two years (always less than the four required for caravan routes).

Historical developments in the Near East

From the 3rd century AD the Sassanid dynasty followed in Persia, and this was followed by other Arab and Turkish dynasties who gave the Romans a hard time first, and the Byzantines later, with an aggressive policy that inevitably obstructed the access routes to the East.

Historical developments, however, did not play against these commercial and cultural relations. For example, the Crusades stimulated a renewal of caravan routes. The paradox of the Crusades was that the mission of liberating the Holy Land from the Arabs was soon replaced by that of the annexation of territories and commercial expansion at the expense of the Byzantine Christians more than at the expense of the pagan Arabs. A striking case was the Fourth Crusade: the Crusaders, in fact, not having enough to pay for transport on Venetian ships, accepted the proposal to pay for the journey by providing military aid to Venice. Thus it was that Christian Constantinople fell to the crusaders in 1207 (1) and the maritime republic took advantage of this to consolidate its mercantile monopoly between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

Marco Polo

In Constantinople, the Venetian Polo family owned a company that traded with the East and Marco Polo left from Constantinople on a journey that kept him in Asia for twenty-five years. It is interesting to observe that Marco Polo's description of Cathay in the Wonders of the World - or Book of Wonders, Book of Millions, the Million, whatever you want to call it, written by the Pisan Rusticillo during his Genoese imprisonment - appeared so admired that it was difficult to accept it as truthful, even though it enjoyed enormous success throughout Europe.

The charm of the East

The nature of these trades had magnified the image of Asia in the imagination of Europeans, making it all the more extraordinary the less it was known. Asia was the boundless country from which the ancient magi, the ancient wisdom, the spices and the expensive and mysteriously manufactured goods come. Medieval culture was enriched by a new literary genre, that of Tartarica where deformed themes of clear oriental origin converged such as that of the danse macabre [dance of skeletons], of death conversing or playing chess with the monk/bonze [Des 82, p. 557]. The poems of the medieval age place boundless or completely imaginary realms in the East (such as that of the legendary Christian prince Prester John, descendant of the Magi, whose kingdom was sought in vain by all medieval travellers) [Dre 92, p.45 ], an assorted bestiary (mermaids, cannibals, dog men, cyclopses and cyclopeds of which travelers such as Marco Polo, Giovanni Pian del Carpine, Odorico da Pordenone etc. reported), extraordinary cities and women of unparalleled beauty (for example Angelica, princess of Cathay, whose infidelity will make the paladin Orlando lose his mind).

The search for new routes to the East

[Des, p. 541] However, the increasingly frequent relations that were intertwined with the Far East, as well as exciting the fantasies of princes and scholars, posed the problem of the shortest route to reach India and China, with the aim of opening up to Europe trade routes to Asia in competition with those of the monopoly of the Venetians or Arabs possibly with fewer intermediaries, and at the same time allowing the connection with the Christians of the East whose existence was longed for, not entirely wrongly. [ References to the Nestorian heresy?] It was precisely after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 by the Turks of Mohammed II and therefore with the almost total interruption of these trades that the search for an alternative route that would lead to the country of spices accelerated. So let's see what solutions the Europeans came up with to solve this thorny problem.

The travels of the Portuguese

The first solution that arose was the circumnavigation of Africa [Leq 92, p.35]. For half a century, since the times of Henry known as the "Navigator", the coasts of West Africa had been systematically explored and colonized by the Portuguese. These voyages allowed the discovery, or rediscovery, of the Azores, the Canary Islands and the Cape Verde Islands which, due to their geographical position, would become the most important maritime ports in the Atlantic. The Portuguese trade involved gold, timber, spices such as pepper and cinnamon and obviously slaves.

Mappa mundi by Enrico Martello (1490, two years before Columbus' discovery) SST 2001, p. 134
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Mappa mundi by Enrico Martello (1490, two years before Columbus' discovery) SST 2001, p. 134

In 1471 the Portuguese crossed the equator and entered the Gulf of Guinea, under the illusion that the coast continued eastwards. Around 1480, however, exploration showed that the African coast bent southwards and therefore circumnavigation no longer seemed like a good idea. The then King of Portugal John II appointed a commission of mathematicians, astronomers and cartographers to examine the problem. And the problem was: how narrow is the ocean?

Conjectures are put forward, for example already in 1474 the Florentine cartographer Paolo Toscanelli assured that the Western route was the shortest to reach the Indies. In Portugal around 1480 there was just the fever of the imminent discovery of the solution and in this climate lived Christopher Columbus, an Italian pilot of foreign ships and cartographer in his spare time, recently married to a Portuguese girl. Columbus travels north to Iceland and south to the Gulf of Guinea.

In these journeys, in addition to practicing the Atlantic routes, he makes assessments on the Earth's circumference which he finds confirmed in the studies of Arab cosmographers (Averroes, Al Farnaghi), mistakenly convincing himself that the globe was smaller than it actually is. He also carries out studies on the regime of the Atlantic winds by observing pieces of wood transported by the current, neither African nor European. He also relies, so to speak, on the classics. E.g. according to the prophet Ezra, only one sixth of the earth is covered by water: the Ocean can therefore be crossed.

But there is more, writes Colombo:

The Holy Scripture attests that Our Lord created the earthly Paradise, then placed the tree of life there, and from this flows a spring from which four main rivers in the world flow: the Ganges in India, the Tigris and the Euphrates in Mesopotamia which flow into Persia, and the Nile which rises in Ethiopia and flows into the Sea of ​​Alexandria. I do not find and have never found a Latin or Greek writer who definitely defines the position of the Earthly Paradise in the world, nor have I ever seen it fixed in any world map except with authority based on theories. Some place it in the place where the sources of the Nile flow in Ethiopia [...], other pagans maintained that the earthly Paradise was located in the Fortunate Islands, while Saint Isidore and the Venerable Bede and Strabo, and the master of Scholastic History and Saint Ambrose and Scotus and all the learned theologians say that the earthly Paradise is in the East.

From Letters to the Royal Family of Spain [Col 92, p. 59]

To be clear, Columbus relies on the tradition that imagines the balance of the continents and which suggests the existence of an unknown continent, south of Asia, and that paradise on earth must be found right here.

Columbus's interesting arguments, however, did not convince the sovereign of Portugal to finance the expedition. John II of Portugal, wary of a route towards the west never attempted before, looked with more foresight towards the south-east where, for decades, explorations along the African coast had become incessant. In fact, in 1487 Bartolomeo Diaz reached the southern tip of Africa (the well-known Cape of Storms, renamed the Cape of Good Hope by the superstitious ruler). This journey was very important for Europe because it demonstrated, compared to the Silk Road, the existence of an alternative route to the Silk Road, inaugurated in 1498 by Vasco de Gama. This was the first major upheaval in Renaissance geography. The extraordinary terrestrial globe created in 1492 by Martin Behaim, after Diaz's feat but before that of Columbus, shows the island of Cipango (i.e. Japan) with an almost rectangular shape, surrounded by a cloud of islands placed at random by cartographers, separated by the ocean from Africa... an ocean where a few months later the same cartographers will place a new continent (Photo of the globe by Behaim in SST 2001, p. 194).


In this lesson, as anticipated, I would not talk about the discovery of America but only about the before and after. However, I wanted to remind you, in order to historically frame the events, that Columbus made four voyages to the "Indies" from 1492 to 1503. The first lasted 36 days but Columbus got away with only 17 days on the third and fourth voyages.

Columbus voyages
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Columbus voyages

Just one clarification: the ships of the first expeditionary force were called Nina, Pinta and... Gallega (or Maria Galante), not Santa Maria! This name was coined by posterity, not even by Columbus, to give more sacredness to an event so full of glory. Incidentally, this ship never returned to Europe because, during the return from the 1st voyage, it sank miserably on the Haitian coast.

Another gem is the following: the third expedition, during which Columbus ended up touching the American continent (see the map above) was organized with Italian money. The fitting out of the ships, on behalf of the Berardi bankers, was entrusted to Amerigo Vespucci. Precisely this man, having fallen into disgrace after having dashed the hopes of the Spanish sovereigns with the second and third voyages, obtained authorization to set sail towards the Indies (Col 92, p. 114)


The discovery of America or rather of the Americans is the most extraordinary meeting in our history. In the discovery of other continents and other men there was no real feeling of radical extraneousness: Europeans had never completely ignored the existence of Africa, India or China; the memory of them was always present from the origins.

At the beginning of the 16th century, everything about the Indian Americans was unknown although images and ideas relating to other distant populations were projected onto the newly discovered beings. Tzvetan Todorov [p. 6-7, Tod 92] states that it is precisely the conquest of America that announces and establishes our identity. Although any date by which one attempts to separate the two eras is arbitrary, none is more suitable to mark the beginning of the modern era than the year 1492, the year in which Columbus crossed the Atlantic Ocean. With 1492 we entered - as Las Casas, a contemporary of Columbus, wrote - "into this time of ours which is so new and so different from any other" [Cas 52].

From that date the world is closed, "the world is small" as Columbus himself declared in the report of the fourth voyage made in 1503. This deserves to be observed (3) [page 79 Relations to the Royal Family]. Columbus knows how to give weight to his arguments by resorting both to his extraordinary experience as a navigator through technicalities and to his religious fervor with quotations from the biblical or classical tradition approved by the Church [read and comment on the passage]. The theses of Columbus, a medieval man by conception (as I will explain in light of the reasons he gave for his voyages) are extraordinarily modern: "the world is small, experience has already demonstrated it" and further on he writes "the world is not as big as the common people pretend." Men discover the totality of which they are part while - until that moment - they were a part without the whole. We could almost dare to say that the dismantling of Aristotelian-Ptolemaic geocentrism began with Columbus, almost a century before Giordano Bruno [The Supper of Ashes dates back to 1583 ].

Medieval man

I said before that Columbus is a medieval man by conception and this can easily be understood from the motives of his travels. Apparently the essential motive is the desire to get rich. For example, Columbus demands from the Spanish crown, in the event of success of the enterprise, 10% of all revenues from the new lands as well as numerous noble titles [patent of nobility, the title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea, the title of governor and viceroy of the islands and mainlands that he will discover]. In reality, Columbus knows the bait value that riches, and gold in particular, can represent. It is with the promise of gold that reassures others in difficult times. The instigators of the expedition themselves, the Spanish sovereigns, would not have undertaken the expedition without the promise of a profit. Since the diaries he keeps are intended precisely for them, the clues to the presence of gold must multiply on each page while the gold is actually missing. If wealth interests him it is because it represents the recognition of his role as discoverer. At the end of his report on the fourth voyage he writes… (4) [read page 97]

Christopher Columbus arrives in America. Engraving by Theodore de Bry (1594)
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Christopher Columbus arrives in America. Engraving by Theodore de Bry (1594)

What were these good intentions or intentions? In the diary of the first voyage Columbus often indicates them: he would like to meet the Great Khan, the emperor of Marco Polo's China, because according to Marco Polo "for a long time the emperor of Cathay has asked to have wise men that they instruct him in the faith of Christ". In practice, Columbus, as a deeply religious man that he is (so much so that he never travels on Sundays) has the expansion of Christianity at heart. Moreover, the need for money and the desire to impose the name of Christ and his gospel are not mutually exclusive. Columbus has a more precise project in mind that is not limited to the sole exaltation of the gospel in the universe: he would like to undertake a crusade and liberate Jerusalem and he hopes to find the gold to finance such a noble undertaking in the Indies, where Marco Polo and others medieval authors had stated that gold was "in abundance".

It is certainly a bizarre idea and a few centuries late but it is revealing of his medieval mentality (the fantastic image of the East) if not archaic (since no one takes Columbus seriously). Paradoxically, it is precisely Columbus's medieval mentality that pushes him into an undertaking that will inaugurate the modern age.

Columbus the hermeneut

Columbus's medieval-archaic attitude is the basis of all the interpretative misunderstandings of his voyages. Todorov reports numerous examples of how Columbus interprets the signs of nature alien to him to convince himself that he has arrived in Cathay or how he interprets the unknown language of the natives to convince himself that the lands he found are full of the riches he was looking for. I would like to limit myself to the sole misunderstanding of the continent that he believes he glimpses on the island of Cuba, a misunderstanding that will cost him the credit for the discovery of a real continent a few years later. He becomes convinced that the island of Cuba is part of the Asian continent and decides to delete any information that could prove the opposite, in fact he writes about the Indians who told him that it was an island:

... and because they are bestial men, who think that the whole world is an island and do not even know what the mainland is, and are without letters and without memories of the past, and find no other pleasure than in eating and in being with women [as if this constituted a fault!], they said that that land was an island.

from Diary of the second journey (reported in Tod 92, p. 26)

The oath on Cuba

What is certain is that at the end of the second expedition we witness a famous and grotesque scene, during which Columbus definitively renounces verifying on the basis of experience whether Cuba is an island and makes all his companions swear an oath of authority. Men, under penalty of paying a heavy fine as well as of course having their tongue cut out, which

...that was undoubtedly a mainland and not an island and by continuing to sail along the coast one would have reached a country inhabited by civilized people who knew the world.

from the Oath on Cuba, June 1494 (reported in Tod 92, p. 26 -27)

Surprising oath in which one swears that civilized people will be found! If these people are actually found by others (Aztecs, Maya and Incas) it is completely accidental. In practice, Columbus does not "discover" America but "finds" it where he knew it should be, that is, 'where' he thought the eastern coast of Asia was [p. 27, Tod 92].

The discovery of the continent

I was talking before about the tradition - reported in the text Imago Mundi by Pierre D'Ally, one of Columbus' main sources - which imagines the balance of the continents and which suggests the existence of an unknown continent, south of Asia where it should be found the earthly paradise. In search of the Earthly Paradise, Columbus embarked on the most spectacular of his expeditions: the third voyage of 1497. Columbus, having reached the Canary Islands, divided the fleet into two expeditionary forces, one sent directly to the Indies and the other, led by him, which descends south to the Cape Verde islands, almost at the mouth of the Gulf of Guinea, used as a springboard for the Indies by exploiting new ocean currents and new Atlantic winds never experienced until then. After just 17 days Columbus touched the land of Paria [coast of present-day Venezuela], traveling along it for a short distance and then immediately heading towards Hispaniola due to the deterioration of food supplies. Columbus writes in his report to the royals on the land of Paria:

"...I believe that in that place there is the Earthly Paradise [Columbus "finds" again what he was looking for] where no one can reach it except by divine will [Columbus has the habit of loading his every experience and every gesture of his. Even his signature, for example, is revealing of his religious fervor... also make a digression on the anagram of Columbus.] I believe that this land that your Highnesses have now ordered to be discovered is very vast and that there exist at the south [i.e. further south] many others of which there has never been news [ Brazil, or the land of Santa Cruz, will be discovered by the Portuguese three years later]. […] I am convinced that this water flows from that place [i.e. the earthly paradise] since I have never heard or read that a quantity of fresh water was found so far inside and so close to the salt water [in practice Columbus intuited the existence of a river so large and of such a flow that the fresh water flows into the open sea, for the record we are talking about the Rio Grande and various branches of the Orinoco delta. Since the major rivers of the earth flowed from the earthly Paradise, for Columbus, a medieval man, it was natural to imagine that this river flowed from its top. But if instead this water does not come from the earthly Paradise then it comes from an immense land located in the south, of which until now there has been no news [Columbus is unable to contain his amazement here and concludes by saying...] Now your highnesses they possess another world where we can give much increase to our faith and from which we can derive much income.

from the editorial staff of the third journey (reported in Col 92, p. 60)

Who discovered America?

It is possible that others, before Columbus, touched the American continent but since their exploits remained without historical consequences we focus our attention on the European voyages of the late 16th century.

The report of the third voyage was compiled in 1498 and sent to Spain while Columbus was still in Haiti. On the basis of the report, other navigators were sent by the Spanish crown to explore what had just been discovered so while Columbus returned to Europe in 1500, Amerigo Vespucci was exploring the coasts of northern Brazil in 1499. So who has the honor of being the first to set foot on the continent in the modern era? The "photo finish test" narrows the list to three candidates, all Italians: Columbus (1498), Vespucci (1499) and John Caboto who probably touched Labrador on behalf of the English crown in 1497. The relationships of Columbus and Caboto remained however hidden in the royal archives while Vespucci published the report Mondus Novus (title borrowed from Columbus...) in 1502.

Waldseemuller's planisphere from 1507
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Waldseemuller's planisphere from 1507

The report of Vespucci's voyages, which overall touched all the South American Atlantic coasts (from Venezuela to Patagonia) generated much amazement throughout Europe, much more than that following Columbus' first voyage. For this reason, the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller, when reprinted his universal planisphere in 1507, proposed the name America (from Amerigo) for the South American lands, a name later extended to the entire continent. After all, what do you want Waldseemüller to know about Columbus's report if it continued to languish in the Spanish royal archives? (5)


[Col 92, p. 113] The fact that Columbus thought he had found a continent south of Asia does not diminish the value of his achievement. In fact, two years later, Yanez Pinzon also believed he had passed the mouth of the Ganges, and Vespucci himself accepted Columbus's location of the Earthly Paradise on his first voyage, believing it to be a part of Asia. In conclusion, Columbus therefore remains the material and intellectual discoverer of the American continent. Not the only one however. Without the feasibility study, in 1474, of a Florentine mathematician who calculated the route and distance (wrong!) of the overseas crossing, there would have been no scientific basis to justify Columbus's "crazy flight": Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli is considered by many scholars to be the theoretical discoverer of America (Rom 93).

Thomas Porzano


  1. What a blunder! Franco M. noticed this and wrote to me "I would just like to point out that the Venetian conquest of Constantinople took place in 1204 (fourth Crusade) and not in 1207". I thank him and make amends by clarifying the events: Constantinople fell for the first time on 17 July 1203 by the crusaders and the Venetians who placed the puppet king Alexios IV on the throne. A terrible popular revolt against Alexios followed, which was a pretext to besiege the city again, no longer with the aim of installing a government compliant with Venetian politics but to get rid of the Byzantine empire once and for all. Constantinople thus capitulated on 13 April 1204 (Ost 93, p. 374).
  2. The thesis according to which the fall of the Eastern empire would be the accelerator for ocean voyages is very didactic but only partially true. It is based on the enormous impact that the Turkish threat had on the European imagination in the 15th and 16th centuries. Among the books printed in France between 1480 and 1609, those relating to the Turks and the Turkish Empire were more than double those relating to the Americas! New disasters of the Christian armies (Serbian, Albanian, Venetian, etc.) will in fact follow 1453. Rather,
    in that same period the technological explosion of artillery and navigation took place combined with the birth of the modern financial system (banks, development of international markets, etc.). The ships and weapons of the early 1400s would not have been able to allow the conquest of new worlds (for this reason it is difficult to give credence to the otherwise suggestive theory of the Vikings being the first to land on the American coasts).
    In this regard, read Mario Cipolla's brilliant thesis in Cip 99, pp. 9-10
  3. Since this page from Col 92 was requested to me by some Internet navigator I would like to add that despite being one of the most extraordinary pages of the Genoese navigator it is too long to be reported in full. However, it is entirely paraphrased in the lesson in its essential points:

    1) Columbus reports the customs of the natives on the basis of what the natives themselves (which he did not understand!) report to him
    2) Columbus makes use of technicalities which in their weak points he finds " indisputable" demonstration in the sacred texts ( Paul Simon would say : "proof is the bottom line for everyone ")
    3) Columbus has a very modern awareness of the value of his discovery ("the world is small").

  4. This is the passage to which I allude (p. 97, Col 92):
    "I did not make this journey to gain honors and goods: this is certain, because the hope of obtaining all this is already dead. I came to Your Highnesses with good intentions and great zeal, and I do not lie."
  5. The story of the attribution of the name "America" ​​to the New World is decidedly compelling and deserves clarification. It is true that Colombo's editorial "languished in the archives" but the news of the discovery had already been given in other forms.
    Columbus's first voyage is made known not through an edition of the ship's log, but through a letter addressed by Columbus to his protector, Luis de Santangel (chancellor of the crown of Aragon). This letter, containing a summary version of the discovery, was printed in Rome in May 1493, by direct will of the sovereigns of Spain in order to have their rights over the new lands recognized. The letter, under the title De insulis nuper inventus, was widespread in Italy, Spain and Portugal but did not arouse great interest, especially in northern Europe. How come? The expression "New World" until the 16th century was applied to all newly discovered lands, both eastward and westward. For example, it was already applied to China "discovered" by Marco Polo and then to the lands south of the equator discovered by the Portuguese (the shift of the center of gravity of the New World is strictly similar to the topology of the myth addressed in the lesson on Odysseus, see related note ). Somehow the lands discovered by Columbus were barely distinguishable from the "more illustrious" ones of the time or of the past. The effect of the surprise for the "islands" discovered by Columbus is therefore decidedly muted (Bro 96, p. 24).

But that's not all: the lack of disclosure of Colombo's editorials among contemporaries is the indirect cause of Amerigo Vespucci's fortune. For example, the logbook of the first voyage, which remained in manuscript, was used for the first time by a historian, Bartolome de Las Casas, only in 1552 in the Brief Report of the Destruction of the Indies. This is no coincidence, dear reader! Las Casas used the diary because Columbus himself, whom he met in person, had probably mentioned it to him:

"The coast of that kingdom was the first to which the old Admiral landed when he discovered the Indies [...]. I heard about all this through the mouth of the Admiral himself, who told me about it at the time� [Cas 52, p. 39]

Las Casas' terrible accusation against the "Christians" who caused or wanted the genocide of the Indians had to be as truthful and documented as possible. A corollary of Las Casas' tireless work is therefore the recognition of Colombo's exploits, for better or for worse.

But let's go back to the Colombo editorial offices. The logbooks of the second and third voyage (during which the coast of the continent was touched for the first time) were lost: for the last voyage we only have a letter to the sovereigns published in 1505, called Letterassima rari per its very limited diffusion. Only in the 19th century were the memorials written or dictated by Columbus relating to the second and third voyages exhumed (a modern edition that I recommend is Col 92 in the bibliography). These memoirs were written by Columbus when he had already fallen into disgrace with the Spanish crown which was beginning to grant various authorizations to others for navigation to the Indies.

But while the memorials gathered dust in the royal archives, Amerigo Vespucci's Mondus Novus, first printed in 1502, became one of the most widespread geographical texts of the Renaissance. In fact, there were eleven editions from 1503 to 1506 and no less than fifty in the first half of the 16th century (Bro 96, p. 17). In 1507 Martin Waldseemüller, preparing an updated edition of Ptolemy's geography, decided to attach Vespucci's accounts to it and wrote a sentence that would have a decisive weight: "A fourth part of the world was discovered by Amerigo Vespuccio. I see no reason not to call this part "Ameriga" or land of Amerigo, or "America" ​​after the sagacious man who discovered it. It is the birth certificate of America and at the same time proof that around 1507-8 the cultured circles of northern Europe knew Vespucci better than Columbus). In 1508 a work was published, compiled by Montalboddo from Vicenza, which summarized the state of discoveries at the beginning of the 16th century: Countries newly discovered by the Florentine Alberico Vespuzio. The Vicenza collection, ignoring the last voyages of Columbus, is at the origin of Vespucci's extraordinary reputation. A dilemma remains. If they had asked him to give a name to the new and immense land he had just discovered, what would Vespucci have replied?


  • Bro 96 : Numa Broc, Geography of the Renaissance (1989) - Franco Cosimo Panini - 2nd edition. 1996
  • Cas 52 : Bartolome' de Las Casas, Very brief report of the destruction of the Indies, 1552, ed. Mondadori 1987
  • Cip 99 : Carlo M. Cipolla, Vele e Cannoni (1965), il Mulino ed. 1999
  • Col 92 : C. Colombo, Letters to the royals of Spain, Sellerio editore, ed. 1992. The notes to the text by Vittoria Martinetto are very interesting.
  • Des 82 : A. Desideri, History and historiography vol. 1, Home ed. G. d'Anna, ed. 1982
  • Dre 92 : Jean-Pierre Dre'ge, Marco Polo and the Silk Road, Universale Electa/Gallimard ed. 1992
  • Leq 92 : Christopher Columbus - Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Michel Lequenne, Universal Electa 1992
  • Ost 93 : Georg Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine Empire, (1963) ed. 1993 Einaudi. Bizarre but very welcome graduation gift from Gabriella, Leo and Stefania in 1996. I once had in mind to draw inspiration from it for a lesson - never completed - on the crusades suffered by the Byzantine Christians.
  • Rom 93 : (ed.) Leonardo Rombai, The world of Vespucci and Verazzano: geography and travel from the Holy Land to America, Olschki editore 1993.
  • SST 2001 : Signs and dreams of the Earth (catalogue of the Milanese exhibition), De Agostini 2001
  • Tod 92 : T. Todorov, The conquest of America, Einaudi ed. 92. A masterpiece. However, stay away from Todorov's other semiotic studies: they are very dull and even irritating!
  • Val 55 : History of Spanish literature, Jose' M. Valverde, Italian Radio Editions 1955
  • Vaz 92 : Letter on the discovery of Brazil, Pero Vaz de Caminha, Sellerio Editore 1992

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DrWatson's profile picture

The highlights of this historical version would be the following:

- Columbus knew perfectly well that he would discover a new continent, and that he was not going to the Indies at all

- the version of Columbus desperately knocking at all the European courts to get his trip financed is not true and denied by all the historical documents;

- Columbus was probably a nobleman and had important relatives and friends, at the Court of the King of England and in Rome at Pope Innocent VIII of whom it is suspected he could be his son;

- Columbus was most likely in possession of geographical and nautical maps that already depicted the American continent and the discovery of America should be backdated, as would also appear in the famous maps of the Turkish admiral Piri Reis;

- a correspondence between Columbus and the papacy would demonstrate that the Pope was not only aware of the mission, but there had been prior agreements with the aim of procuring gold from the American continent, which was known to have great wealth of this resource, to use it to finance a new Crusade to liberate the Holy Sepulcher. The death of Pope Innocent VIII before the discovery of America and the succession to the papal throne of the Spanish pope Alexander VI, Roderic Llançol de Borja interrupts any hypothesis of being able to continue on these historical cultural strategies and recognitions and diverts all merit and wealth to Spain…

- all the financial resources received by Columbus did not come from the Spanish Kings, but from Genoese and Florentine bankers linked to Pope Innocent VIII and from Spanish funds that had been established at the behest of the papacy to support the war against the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula. Even in the following centuries it seems that Rome has always considered Columbus in its documents as its emissary and man of trust, to the point of carrying out some attempts at sanctification;

- probably the choice of the College of Cardinals to choose the Spaniard Rodrigo Borgia as Pope was part of a precise Iberian strategy to take possession of the rights on the new continent. The Borgia Pope subsequently assigned the new lands to the Kings of Spain Isabella and Ferdinand making Spain a power of the first magnitude, an empire so vast and spread over three continents that it will have no equal for centuries.

15 Dec 2023
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Let's summarize the story as we know it: Christopher Columbus was convinced that he could reach the Indies by traveling westward. What was known about the Indies? According to Marco Polo (The Travels of Marco Polo was the primary source of knowledge at that time), India was a great empire governed by Kublai Khan and inhabited by cultured people.

What did Columbus do? He sailed with three ships, traveling westward, and after a long and arduous journey reached new lands (which, according to the Official History, he believed to be the Indies). He landed and claimed the territory in the name of the Spanish monarchs: basically, after opening a new route, he declared war to what he thought was a Great Empire with just three little ships!

Then he met the natives and gave them the gifts he had brought with him: beads and small mirrors... actually gifts suitable for savages, not for the cultured people that the inhabitants of the Indies were supposed to be.

Moreover, the reward for Columbus, established even before he set sail, was the appointment as Viceroy of the discovered lands. But if the mission's objective was to open a trade route with an advanced country, it would not have been possible to appoint Christopher Columbus as Viceroy. If instead, the mission was to reach an unexplored land inhabited by savages (and therefore not the Indies), then everything makes sense: the conquest of new lands, the appointment of Columbus as Viceroy, and the gifts for the savages. Columbus must have already known where he was going and what he would find.

14 Jun 2024
lostcivilizations's profile picture
Lost Civilizations (@lostcivilizations)

This is indeed what many people say!

22 Jun 2024
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